The late John McDonnell pictured at the 2003 Woodie's DIY National Senior Track and Field Championships at Morton Stadium, Santry, Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Mayo's John McDonnell had a coaching record that may never be equalled

Mayo native John McDonnell, legendary coach of the University of Arkansas track and field team for 36 years, has passed away. He was 82 years old.

The McDonnell family released the following statement on his death: “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 p.m. 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.”

Coach McDonnell grew up in Woodville, Crossmolina, on the family farm. He milked cows by hand before and after school. “Knowing what hard work was didn't do me any harm,” he once said.

He took to running and competed successfully after moving to Dublin, winning six Irish national championships at various distances. He qualified for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome as a 5,000m runner but Ireland could only afford to send one runner at the time and someone else was selected.

As with many of that era, emigration became his chosen route. He worked as a cameraman for a time in New York before moving to Lafayette, where he secured a bachelor's degree in education and won more honours on the track.

Graduating in 1969, the same year he was granted US citizenship, McDonnell coached at New Providence High School in New Jersey in 1969/70 and at Lafayette High School, Louisiana, in 1971 before being hired at Arkansas.

From 1972 until his retirement in 2008, first as head cross country coach before assuming head coach duties of the entire men's track and field programme, the man from north Mayo led the 'Razorbacks' to 40 NCAA championships and 83 conference titles. He coached 23 Olympians, 105 NCAA individual event champions and 331 individual event conference champions. From 1984 to 2000, at least one of his three teams (cross country, indoor, outdoor) brought home a national championship.

He was awarded membership in the halls of fame for National Track and Field, United States Track and Field and Cross-Country Coaches Association, USA Track and Field, Arkansas Sports and Louisiana-Lafayette as well as the University of Arkansas Hall of Honour.

Legend

“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,” said University of Arkansas vice chancellor and director of athletics, Hunter Yurachek, at news of McDonnell's death, adding that he made 'an indelible impact on the hundreds of young men who had the privilege to compete for him'.

Mr. Yurachek stated: “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.”

John and Ellen were married for 54 years and as well as parents to son Sean and daughter Heather, they were grandparents to Noah and Christopher Hastings. He is also survived by son-in-law Jeffery Hastings, sisters Philomena (Pena), Barcelona, Spain, Mary and Margaret (Carr), Ballina, brother Michael, and sisters-in-law Una and Jane. He was predeceased by his parents, brothers Patrick and Leo, and sisters Catherine and Annie (Griffin).

Astounding

“What McDonnell did was absolutely astounding,” said Ballina-based journalist and historian Terry Reilly on Midwest Radio this morning. “He took the University of Arkansas track and field team, which were bottom of the rung in America, and they rose under his stewardship and coaching to the very top.”

And according to Mr. Reilly, John never lost his love of the home place. “He would come home every summer,” he explained. “He had a great interest in the Mayo team and I had the great privilege in 1984 or '85 of introducing him to Liam O'Neill, the Mayo senior team manager at the time, and they got on very well together – and I'm sure they shared lots of secrets on how to do things properly!”

The coach of the University of Arkansas women's cross country and track and field teams, Lance Harter, described McDonnell as 'an international celebrity' when it came to the sport. Yet it all started for John on a small plot of land not far from Crossmolina in rural north Mayo.

This writer has a small personal connection here. My late father and John's brother Paddy (Patrick), the eldest in the family, also deceased, attended school together in Eskeragh before the McDonnell family moved to Woodville, on the other side of Crossmolina. Later my father married and moved to the that side of Crossmolina too, and the McDonnell and Gillespie family farms had fields that shared a border.

By that time John McDonnell had established himself in the US. Farms and fields remained a big part of his life, however; he enjoyed spending time on his 2,500-acre cattle ranch in Pryor, Oklahoma, following retirement in 2008 and in recognition of his genius as a coach, Arkansas’ 7,000-seat outdoor facility is named in his honour, bearing the title John McDonnell Field.

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