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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 John McDonnell obtained in his 36 years as the Arkansas Razorback’s head track, field and cross country coach. It was 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 from 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’s head track and field coach in 1977-78.
John 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’s 7,000-seat outdoor facility, John McDonnell Field, is also named in his honor.
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