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Arkansas track coach John McDonnell also runs beef cattle on a 1,500-acre spread beside Grand Lake o' the Cherokees in Oklahoma, about 80 miles from Fayetteville through the Ozarks. He is adamant that ranching is escape not metaphor, because on the ranch he sells his yearlings. On campus he redshirts them.
"I let freshmen doodle around for a year with no pressure," McDonnell says, the rhythm of his speech evoking the stony pastures of County Mayo, Ireland, which he left at 25,30 years ago. "It gives them a chance to find out about themselves, and me about them. You cannot expect too much too soon in this profession, but in our case, things have kind of...snowballed."
Into an avalanche. Should McDonnell's Razorbacks win the NCAA Indoor Championship next week in Indianapolis, they will have their 10th straight indoor title under him and will break the Division I record for consecutive national championships. Throw in a few cross-country and outdoor track crowns, and McDonnell will have won more NCAA championships—18—than any coach in any sport.
He was a distance runner, so when lie came to Arkansas in 1972, after a few years of having coached high school track, he began by assembling a nucleus of similar athletes. " Arkansas, faithfully, is a very pretty place, with hills and trails," he says. "The problem was to get talented kids to look at it. In 1973 I was offering them full scholarships, and they were walking on at Oregon."
McDonnell admired two coaches, Oregon's Bill Bowerman and Villanova's Jumbo Elliott. "I loved the way they could bring their runners to peaks," he says. "We don't overrace, only four a year in cross-country, for example, but we will be ready for that one big race a season. The longer I'm in this, the more I realize keeping athletes healthy is the key. You have to trust them to listen to themselves and to be honest with you. If you tell a man to run six 800s, and he's not feeling strong on, say, the third or fourth, the right thing for him to do is stop the workout. You'd be surprised how much dictator coaching still goes on, driving athletes until they have to crawl off the track."
While splendid milers like Frank O'Mara and Paul Donovan lifted Arkansas running, McDonnell eventually brought his jumpers and sprinters to an even higher standard, embodied by 1992 Olympic triple-jump champion Mike Conley, who remains a Razorback volunteer coach. "I've been strictly a college coach," says McDonnell. "A lot of my best never won in high school. They were just dedicated young men who learned how to work for a goal. It always amazes me to hear people pointing out this talent and that talent when they're simply talking about a boy's physical gifts. The physical is almost minor, compared with the heart and desire. I like the character of a man who will suffer to improve."
Thus absorbed, McDonnell now looks up to find an 18th NCAA title looming. "It's not the milestone of my life," he says, with a tinge of embarrassment. "It's just here. Years ago, starting out, I couldn't imagine winning at all, ever. But like a lot of other things, winning can be a habit. Once your athletes get used to it, if you keep them focused, they won't settle for anything less."