Legendary Arkansas Track Coach John McDonnell dies at 82

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His teams dominated collegiate track and field for 30 years.

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September 20 2021 05:00 am

John McDonnell, popularly known as Johnny Mac to his athletes, coaching associates and friends, has passed away in Fayetteville from complications related to Alzheimer’s. He was 82.

The most successful coach in NCAA history, McDonnell brought 40 national championships to the University of Arkansas in a coaching career that stretched from 1978 until his retirement in 2008.

The following statement was released via the University of Arkansas from the McDonnell family.

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. 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

John McDonnell family

Arrangements for Coach McDonnell will be announced when they are finalized.

“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. “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.”

Born on July 2, 1938 in County Mayo Ireland, McDonnell began running at an early age in and around his family’s farm. “When I was a kid, that’s what we did. We ran,” McDonnell said of his early life.

He eventually earned a scholarship to Southwestern Louisiana University where he was a six-time all-American in track and cross country. McDonnell was the 1966-67 AAU 3,000-meter champion and won the mile at the 1966 British Selection Games.

Throughout his coaching career McDonnell had great success bringing Irish athletes to the University of Arkansas.

He coached 54 individual national champions at the school. Twenty three of his athletes competed in the Olympic Games. Former Razorbacks under McDonnell brought home bronze, silver and gold Olympic medals. His first NCAA champion was Irish distance runner Frank O’Mara in 1983. O’Mara had great talent and a drive to win but he and McDonnell didn’t exactly see eye to eye on a number of issues. Explaining the brand of tough love he sometimes had to employ, McDonnell said of O’Mara, “I was glad that one guy didn’t take my advice. I was going to send him back to Ireland in a rowboat but he stayed around.”

McDonnell later credited the leadership O’Mara provided as an upperclassman for the dizzying string of national titles earned during his time coaching Razorback Track and Field.

“Once we started to win the older guys like O’Mara would let the newcomers know what was expected,” McDonnell explained. “If they believed somebody wasn’t cutting it they would come to me but mostly they didn’t need to. Guys who’ve won the big trophy, the rookies tend to listen to them. So every time a group of seniors moved on others stepped up to provide the same leadership. The process sustained itself.”

In addition to national titles, McDonnell’s Arkansas teams brought home 38 Southwest Conference championships and 46 Southeastern Conference titles. Arkansas also won an unprecedented five NCAA triple crowns, indicating a national championship in cross country, indoor and outdoor track in the same academic year.

In the three divisions of the sport McDonnell was named national coach of the year 30 times, conference coach of the year 49 times and an NCAA regional coach of the year 60 times.

At his retirement announcement McDonnell paid tribute to the man who gave him his shot at coaching track and field at the collegiate level. Frank Broyles hired McDonnell to coach cross country at Arkansas with just three years experience at the high school level.

“He took a chance on a guy that hadn’t really proved himself,” McDonnell recalled. “I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t think I had myself.”

McDonnell had several opportunities to use his success at Arkansas to secure higher paying jobs at other schools but he turned them down. He said many times over the years that Northwest Arkansas reminded him of his native Ireland.

“Money’s not everything. I got off of food stamps so I could live,” McDonnell joked. “Coach Broyles took care of me and my family liked it here. I’ve always believed that family comes first. If they had wanted to move I would have but they wanted to stay.”

Coach McDonnell was preceded in death by his parents, one brother, Patrick McDonnell, and two sisters, Catherine McDonnell and Annie Griffith.

He is survived by his wife of 54 years Ellen (Elias) McDonnell, one son Sean McDonnell of Fayetteville, Ark, one daughter, Heather Hastings and husband Jeffery of Fayetteville, Ark, three sisters, Philomena Pena of Barcelona, Spain, Mary McDonnell and Margaret Carr both of Ballina, Ireland, and two grandchildren, Noah and Christopher Hastings.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

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