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John McDonnell

The Most Successful Coach in NCAA History

Andrew Maloney

Publication Year: 2013

When John McDonnell began his coaching career in 1972 at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville—choosing it over Norman, Oklahoma, because Fayetteville reminded him of his native Ireland—he could hardly have imagined that he would become the most successful coach in the history of American collegiate athletics. But, in thirty-six years at the university, he amassed a staggering resume of accomplishments, including forty national championships (eleven cross country, nineteen indoor track, and ten outdoor track), the most by any coach in any sport in NCAA history. His teams at Arkansas won the triple crown (a championship in cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track in a single school year) five times. The Razorbacks also won eighty-four conference championships (thirty-eight in the Southwest Conference and forty-six in the Southeastern Conference), including thirty-four consecutive conference championships in cross country from 1974 to 2008. McDonnell coached 185 All Americans, fifty-four individual national champions, and twenty-three Olympians. And from 1984 to 1995, his Razorback teams won twelve consecutive NCAA Indoor Track Championships, the longest streak of national titles by any school in any sport in NCAA history. This new biography tells the story of the great coach’s life and legacy, from his childhood growing up on a farm in 1940s County Mayo, Ireland, to his own running career, to the beginnings of his life as a coach, to all the great athletes he mentored along the way.

Published by: University of Arkansas Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Author’s Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

My first encounter with John McDonnell occurred in my first few weeks as a collegiate coach at a cross-country meet on a hot September day in Joplin, Missouri, in 2005. It was still early in the season, but Arkansas had put ten runners in the top fifteen at the first mile of the race at a pace that simply seemed unsustainable, yet they didn’t seem to be slowing down. ...

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pp. xi-xii

One of the great joys that I had as president of the University of Arkansas System was the opportunity to become friends with arguably the most outstanding coach in the history of collegiate athletics. The winning record of John McDonnell as the track coach of the University of Arkansas is phenomenal. ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

John McDonnell epitomises the Irish abroad at their very best. Having emigrated to the United States in the 1960s, he achieved extraordinary success both on and off the running track, winning numerous national honours, firstly as an athlete and later as a coach. ...

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1. Growing Up in Ireland (1938–1963)

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pp. 1-14

It is one of life’s ironies that the greatest of men often originate from the humblest of beginnings. Their later triumphs are rooted in their early struggles, their prodigious success a product of the environment in which they were born and raised. It was thus from a nation struggling in every way imaginable that a man who would become the most successful coach in American collegiate sports history would emerge. ...

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2. Early Experiences in America (1963–1972)

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pp. 15-24

America had emerged from World War II as the preeminent economic and military superpower of the world. Twice it had saved Europe from itself and assisted its western European allies in beating back the forces of autocracy and fascism that threatened the world order through the first five decades of the twentieth century. ...

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3. Starting Out at Arkansas (1972–1978)

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pp. 25-57

Arkansas was swept into the 1970s by the winds of change and progress making their way across the country. Civil disobedience and antiwar protests had erupted in cities as the young began challenging the assumptions of the established order. Winthrop Rockefeller, who had only recently been elected as the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, ...

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4. Climbing the Mountain (1978–1981)

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pp. 58-78

The latter part of the 1970s was a heady time for the University of Arkansas and for the state in general. Somber though the national mood may have been in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage crisis, the prospects for the state were looking up. Local retailer Walmart had become a national colossus ...


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pp. 79-86

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5. Reaching the Pinnacle (1981–1984)

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pp. 87-110

When Doug Williamson was dispatched to watch a high-school track meet in Chicago during the spring of 1981, he could hardly have expected what he was about to find. The Razorbacks were already heavily recruiting one of the hottest high-school sprinters in the country, Wallace Spearmon, who was competing that day. ...

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6. John McDonnell on Physiological and Psychological Preparation

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pp. 111-123

My philosophy has always been that strength is speed. If you do not develop the body physically, it will never develop mentally. I learned that from the early stages of my own running career. A lot of things I did as a coach were things I did myself. I always thought more was better, but I learned that more was not necessarily better. ...

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7. On Top of the World (1984–1986)

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pp. 124-151

It is a peculiarity known only to collegiate track and field that the rest and relaxation following most seasons lasts less than the time one takes to exhale. Cross country begets indoors, indoors begets outdoors; and only those who choose to forego a summer season of competition can truly call any part of the year an off season. ...

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8. Fayettenam (1986–1988)

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pp. 152-172

It was not often that the head coach of a college track and field program personally knew the governor of the state and had the head basketball coach of the same college picking his brain for advice, but after five national championships that was the sort of relationship John McDonnell had with Bill Clinton, and Nolan Richardson. ...


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pp. 173-188

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9. Closing Out the Decade (1988–1991)

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pp. 189-210

As the decade drew to a close, the ultracompetitive Southwest Conference suddenly found itself in a state of self-immolation. Several of the major football programs were on some form of NCAA probation, most notably Southern Methodist, which faced the ignominy of its football program being shut down completely for two years through the NCAA’s Death Penalty. ...

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10. The Triple Crown of Triple Crowns (1991–1994)

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pp. 211-241

Doug Brown can certainly be forgiven for wishing that neither John McDonnell nor the Arkansas Razorbacks had ever stepped foot in the Southeastern Conference. Entering his seventh season as the head track and field/cross country coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers, Brown was king of the roost. ...

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11. A New Generation (1994–1997)

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pp. 242-270

One of the consequences of prodigious success is that it is frequently followed by turnover. Important cogs in the machine are lured elsewhere by the opportunity to lead programs looking for someone to replicate that success at their institution. Arkansas faced that exact issue during the summer of 1994. ...


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pp. 271-282

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12. A Pain in the Neck (1997–2000)

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pp. 283-309

When John McDonnell magnanimously congratulated Vin Lananna in a hotel lobby in 1992 on accepting the Stanford job and commented that he was going to be a “pain in my neck,” perhaps even John might not have realized how true his words would be less than five years later. ...

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13. A New Lease on Life (2001–2003)

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pp. 310-330

It was a cold morning on January 14, 2001 when John and Ellen McDonnell awoke at 6:00 a.m. to get ready for Sunday mass. As he began preparing himself, John immediately felt something awry. ...

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14. John McDonnell on Leadership

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pp. 331-337

It seemed like my philosophy on leadership was shaped by the people I encountered throughout my life. In coaching, there were three people that really helped me, and one was my coach, Don Appleby, and the others were Larry O’Byrne and Bob Cole, who was my college coach and motivator. ...

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15. Rising to the Occasion (2003–2006)

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pp. 337-364

There were certainly plenty of thoroughbreds coming to town for that fall cross-country season. McDonnell had signed a group of distance athletes, who on the surface appeared to be as talented a group that had ever come into Fayetteville at one time. It included a 4:03 miler from Florida, Sam Vazquez; a 4:07 miler from Missouri, Adam Perkins; ...


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pp. 365-376

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16. The Final Years (2006–2008)

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pp. 377-392

The first hint of serious trouble at Barton County Community College started on a relatively small scale in 2003 as the NCAA began investigating allegations of falsified transcripts involving basketball players at the junior college in Great Bend, Kansas. When the school’s own internal investigation subsequently uncovered widespread improprieties ...

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17. Retirement

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pp. 393-402

Throughout his career, McDonnell had offered suggestions for the betterment of the sport on various committees and implemented some of those ideas at events such as the Tyson Invitational, which had been televised every February since 2000. He was approached about a coaching position for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, ...

Appendix I

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pp. 403-424

Appendix II

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pp. 425-426


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pp. 427-434


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pp. 435-442

About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 458-459

E-ISBN-13: 9781610755207
Print-ISBN-13: 9781557289926

Page Count: 560
Publication Year: 2013