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John McDonnell: Track and field coach of exceptional ability

‘The winning will go away for the athletes but I hope I made a difference in people’s lives’

Arkansas coach John McDonnell celebrates with team after the Razorbacks won their third title in a row in the NCAA Track & Field Championships at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium in Sacramento, California in 2005. File photograph: Kirby Lee/WireImage

Born: July 2nd, 1938
Died: June 7th, 2021

Mayo-born, US- based track and field coach John McDonnell who was considered by many to be the most successful coach in the history of collegiate athletics has died.

McDonnell, who was head coach for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks track team for over 30 years, trained some of the most successful Irish distance runners including Frank O’Mara, Niall Bruton, Niall O’Shaughnessy and Alistair Cragg.

During his career, he won many accolades including national coach of the year 30 times. In 1984, he led the Razorbacks track team to their first national championships at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Indoor Championships. Since then, the University of Arkansas (UA) has won 40 NCAA championships, including 11 cross-country, 19 indoor track and 10 outdoor track. During his time at UA, McDonnell turned down offers from numerous colleges including Texas-El Paso, Arizona State, Florida and Oregan.

He brought teams to 40 national championships, which is more than any coach in any sport in the history of college athletics. He trained 23 Olympians, attended Olympic Games as a coach six times and witnessed his athletics proteges win gold, silver and bronze medals. He received an American presidential commendation for being the most successful coach in intercollegiate athletics from then US president Bill Clinton at an event in the White House in 1993.

O’Mara was McDonnell’s first individual NCAA champion and the Limerick athlete later went on to win two world indoor titles with McDonnell as his coach. In 2020, O’Mara described McDonnell’s award-winning record as a coach as “the most amazing unknown Irish sporting achievement ever”. He said McDonnell had “an uncanny ability to connect with people . . . he was a great manager and he knew how to set expectations. People just loved him.”

Boston College coach Matt Kerr (who was the NCAA steeplechase champion for the Razorbacks in 1998 and 1999) said in 2008 that McDonnell “could spot talent in guys that nobody else could and he could develop that talent”.

Daniel Lincoln, the former American record holder in the 3,000m steeplechase and a four-time NCAA champion at Arkansas said McDonnell excelled as a coach because of his combination of attention to detail, common sense and gut instincts. Hard working and dedicated to his coaching career, McDonnell himself said that it was important to keep athletes motivated and to be a good listener. “You can learn a lot more from listening than talking,” he said.

A generous man with strong Christian values, McDonnell began his coaching career in New Providence High School New Jersey where he trained the school’s athletics team. In 1971, he coached at Lafayette High School, Louisiana for a year before becoming cross-country and track head coach for the University of Arkansas in 1972. He was made head track coach in 1978. He said he loved Arkansas because it had green hills and lots of trees which reminded him of Ireland. He regularly returned to Ireland, meeting local sporting heroes in his native Mayo.

McDonnell was born into a family of nine children on a farm in Woodville, Crossmolina in Co Mayo. Football was his first love and he only got into running when one of his brothers spotted his talent. He then joined the local running club and continued running when he moved to Dublin to attend technical school where he learned to be TV cameraman. He won six titles at the Irish championships in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the 1,500m , 3,000m and 5,000m races.

McDonnell qualified to run for Ireland at the 1960 Olympics when he was 22 but for financial reasons, a full team wasn’t sent to Rome. McDonnell was among the athletes left at home. “It’s something I’ve gotten over, but it’s not something that I’ll ever forget,” said McDonnell in 1998. An Achilles tendon injury prevented him competing in the 1964 Olympics Games.

Retired from coaching

McDonnell moved to the United States in January 1965, expecting to be on a track and field scholarship at Emporia State University in Kansas but when he got there no scholarship was available. He worked to pay his fees and helped Emporia State win an NCAA Division II outdoor track championship in 1965 but then decided he couldn’t afford to stay in school without a scholarship. He moved to New York and got a job as a cameraman at TV station WOR. He continued to run and represented the New York Athletic Club. He then accepted a sports scholarship at Southwestern University (now Lafayette Louisiana) and became a six-time-All American for the Ragin’ Cajuns in cross-country and track and field competitions while there. He also became the 1966-1967 Amateur Athletic Union 3,000m champion and won the mile at the 1966 British Selection Games. He graduated with a degree in education in 1969. That same year, he was granted citizenship of the United States.

McDonnell retired from coaching after the 2008 NCAA Outdoor Championships. At that time, he spoke modestly of his achievements: “The winning will go away [for the athletes] but I hope I made a difference in people’s lives.” Following his retirement, he spent much of his time on his 2,500-acre cattle ranch in Pryor, Oklahoma where he owned more than 650 head of cattle.

He was also involved with several non-profit organisations including the American Heart Association and the Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute. He worked closely with the Medical Sciences Department at University of Arkansas to promote prostate cancer awareness. He was married to Ellen Elias from Bayonne, New Jersey for 54 years. The couple had two children, Heather and Sean.

The Razorback 7,000-seat outdoor facility on the campus of the University of Arkansas is named John McDonnell Field in his honour. His name is also recorded in the United States Track Coaches Hall of Fame.

John McDonnell is survived by his wife, Ellen, their two children, Heather and Sean, his two grandchildren, Noah and Christopher, his sisters, Philomena, Mary and Margaret and brother, Michael. He was pre-deceased by his two brothers, Patrick and Leo and two sisters, Catherine and Annie.