Legendary Razorback track coach John McDonnell dies at 82

A 7-foot, 6-inch bronze statue of John McDonnell stands outside John McDonnell Field in Fayetteville Tuesday. / Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

The adjective “great” is often used too loosely. It’s used so cavalierly that unfortunately, its impact is lost.

However, I can’t think of a better word that encapsulates the coaching career of John McDonnell.

In terms of track and field and cross country, the former Razorback coach was indeed The Great One.

McDonnell, 82, died Monday in his beloved Fayetteville as a true Razorback legend, whose accomplishments will never be repeated or matched, not just by any Razorback coach but by any collegiate coach anywhere.

“It is with profound sadness that the McDonnell family announces our beloved husband, father, and brother, John McDonnell, transitioned to Heaven with our Lord and Savior at 10:54 pm on Monday, June 7, 2021,” a release by the McDonnell family stated. “He passed away so peacefully, enveloped in the love of his family and friends. He could have settled anywhere in America after emigrating from Ireland, but chose to call Northwest Arkansas home because as he often stated, this was ‘God’s Country.’

“His career speaks for itself, but what truly spoke was his love for God, serving others, and his limitless generosity. We want everyone to know how thankful he was for the support, love, friendship, and depth of opportunities he received throughout the years. While the world has lost an extraordinary man, we not only mourn his loss, but wholeheartedly celebrate that God allowed people around the world to be touched and impacted by his gifts of faith, love, and inspiration. His legacy and spirit will forever live on through his family, friends, colleagues, and athletes.”

No coach has or ever will touch the hem of the accomplishments McDonnell obtained in his 36 years as the Arkansas Razorbacks’ head track, field and cross country coach. It was truly a Hall of Fame career by one of the best motivators to ever walk the earth.

His success is unrivaled in the annals of college athletics with 40 national championships, including a half dozen triple crowns and 12 consecutive indoor national titles from 1984-95.

On the conference level, McDonnell’s squads were absolutely dominant with 83 titles (37 SWC, 46 SEC), which included 34 consecutive championships in cross country, 27 from indoor and 22 outdoor.

When his Hogs were in the Southwest Conference, it was the preeminent league in track and field; however when Arkansas made the jump to the Southeastern Conference in 1991, it shifted the balance of power East.

The Razorbacks won 13 consecutive SEC titles and then increased it into 28 titles out of 29 from 1991 to 2001 in indoor, outdoor track, and his beloved cross country.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a true Razorback legend and quite simply the greatest collegiate coach in the history of intercollegiate athletics,” Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Hunter Yurachek said in a statement released by Arkansas Media Relations. “John McDonnell was the personification of success on and off the track, winning 40 NCAA Championships and 83 conference titles, while even more importantly making an indelible impact on the hundreds of young men who had the privilege to compete for him.

“Coach McDonnell believed in each of his student-athletes and they loved and trusted him. What resulted was a stretch of unprecedented championship success at the University of Arkansas and lifelong lessons that will carry his legacy forward. Our thoughts and prayers as well as those of the entire Razorback Nation are with his wife Ellen, their son Sean, daughter Heather, the entire McDonnell family and all of the student-athletes, coaches, staff members and fans who were a part of his remarkable story.”

When he first came to the United States from County Mayo, Ireland, he worked as a camera operator for the Soupy Sales TV show in New York.

McDonnell became a six-time All-American in cross country, and track and field at Southwestern Louisiana, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1969. Before becoming Arkansas’ head cross country coach In 1972, he coached and taught shop for the Greenland school system. He then became Arkansas’ head track and field coach in 1977-78.

McDonnell practically won every honor a coach could in the world of track and field, including membership in the halls of fame for National Track and Field, United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA), USA Track and Field, Arkansas Sports and Louisiana-Lafayette as well as the University of Arkansas Hall of Honor. Arkansas’ 7,000-seat outdoor facility, John McDonnell Field, is also named in his honor.

During the 1991-92 athletic year, I worked as an intern for Arkansas’ Sports Information Department — now referred to as Media Relations — and handled publicity for the Razorbacks’ track, field, and cross country programs.

I was lucky enough to get an inside view of McDonnell’s program. The man was a motivational genius, who not only specialized in training his athletes physically and mentally but also in guiding them to be at their best when it counted the most.

Why he excelled as a coach is that he brought a team spirit and cohesiveness to track and field that many largely saw and approached as an individual endeavor. His sprinters, distanced runners, and field athletes competed for the Hogs first and themselves second. That attitude of not letting their teammates down lifted so many of his athletes to a championship or elite level.

Certainly, McDonnell’s Hogs were running, jumping, and throwing for themselves like all track athletes, but McDonnell built it into his program that every athlete was competing for their team not only to find excellence in their particular discipline but to achieve the goal of winning team championships.

I saw athletes accomplish greatness over and over not just for themselves but for their teammates and anyone who would call themselves Razorbacks.

McDonnell’s athletes were so proud to wear that Arkansas singlet with a red Hog emblazoned across the chest because it meant so much to them.

I saw athletes from other schools be intimidated by the strength of the Hog logo, which embodied the pride and toughness McDonnell built into his athletes from the day they stepped into his program.

After every title his Razorbacks won, they would gather together and call the Hogs with gusto. It was their program’s war chant.

I’ll tell you this, neither the Razorback football nor basketball players of the time took that kind of pride in being a Razorback that McDonnell’s teams did.

John McDonnell was special, one of a kind.

That mental edge, that mental toughness is something McDonnell fostered in his athletes on a daily basis for decades.

I remember McDonnell telling me that perfection was unattainable, but excellence was what he, his coaches, and athletes expected from one another on a daily basis.

That expectation created a program unparalleled in the annals of college athletics.

Monday certainly was a sad day for those who loved and knew John McDonnell because of how he touched their lives. The day may be sad, but the memories are inspiring, and those with faith can trust that John has transitioned to a place where perfection is finally attained.

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