Growing up in County Mayo, on the rainy west coast of Ireland,
in the 1950s, John McDonnell was a reluctant helper on his
parents' dairy farm. He loathed cows and the selfish demands
they made. "I hated getting up early in the morning to milk
them," he says. "You've got to milk those cows twice a day,
seven days a week. There's no getting away from them."
Cows he despised, but cowboys fascinated him. He became an
ardent student of the Old West, devouring movie westerns and
Zane Grey novels. Like many ambitious young Irishmen of his
generation, McDonnell set his sights on America, hoping to find
his fortune and perhaps a few cowboys, too. In 1964, after
taking a few television courses at a technical college in
Ireland, he moved to New York City and took a job as a cameraman
for WOR-TV, shooting Mets games and comedies like the Soupy
Sales Show. Too many graveyard shifts persuaded him to go back
to school in 1965. Having won the Irish Olympic trial at three
miles in 1960--an injury kept him from the Games--he had no
trouble getting a track scholarship to Southwestern Louisiana
State, where he majored in education and became a coach.
McDonnell went to Arkansas in 1972 as an assistant coach
specializing in the distances. He was paid $2,500 a year, which
he supplemented by teaching shop at Greenland High, in
Fayetteville. He became the Razorbacks' head coach in 1977 and
soon turned the program around. "My first year  we
finished seventh in the Southwest Conference, with something
like 12 points," recalls former Arkansas distance runner Frank
O'Mara, whom McDonnell recruited from the old sod. "By the time
I graduated, we were second in the NCAAs." McDonnell won his
first national title at the 1984 indoor championships and since
then has added an amazing 32 titles in cross-country and indoor
and outdoor track--more in that span than the rest of the
nation's track coaches combined. Indeed, Arkansas's 33 titles
under McDonnell are more than all but four schools have ever won
in all sports combined.
"He motivates you in such a way that you will not let him down,"
says former Razorbacks jumper Mike Conley. "You compete more for
him than you do for yourself. When you leave Arkansas, you
really understand that track is a team sport."
June 13, 1999
McDonnell must have felt right at home last weekend in Boise's
Bronco Stadium, into which the foothills of the Boise Front
Mountains seem to spill. His Razorbacks were favored to win
their eighth straight outdoor title, but it was clear from the
start that it would not come easily. For the second year in a
row Stanford jumped out to a lead on the first day of
competition by going 1-2-3 in the 10,000 meters for 24 points.
The Cardinal added 13 in the 5,000, but McDonnell, cool as any
gunslinger, dismissed the idea that he felt nervous. "I used to
put a lot of emphasis on this meet," he said. "We talked about
how many points we needed here, how many there. It put too much
pressure on guys. It tied them up in knots. So I don't worry
anymore. What will happen, will happen."
That is what the Irish call blarney. The Razorbacks were
counting on racking up points in the jumps, in which assistant
coach Dick Booth has built a dynasty within a dynasty. Who says
pigs can't fly? Starting with Conley, who won the long and
triple jumps at the 1984 NCAA meet before going on to win the
triple jump at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Razorbacks jumpers
have won that double six times at this meet and have claimed 16
of 30 possible titles. It doesn't hurt Booth's recruiting that
three of those world-class Arkansas jumpers--Robert Howard,
Erick Walder and Brian Wellman--still train in Fayetteville.
The latest in this line of jumping Hogs is Melvin Lister, a
junior college transfer who arrived at Arkansas six months ago
with tremendous, unpolished talent. "He came to us with as
little formal training as anybody ever," says Booth. "We spent
January trying to cram in a semester's worth of learning."
Lister grew up in Leavenworth, Kans., just two blocks from the
famous prison, where both his parents work as corrections
officers. The somber lesson in that stark cluster of buildings
was not lost on Lister, a soft-spoken straight arrow who claims
never to have had a beer or a cigarette. It's on the runway that
he needs more discipline. He is so raw and impetuous that he has
had trouble hitting the takeoff board all year. "This year he
has never had better than his second-best jump measured [due to
fouls]," says Booth. "Usually it's his third or fourth."
After four jumps in blustery, cold conditions last Thursday
night, Lister stood third with a mark of 26'3", behind Frankie
Young of Indiana State and the wonderfully named Savante
Stringfellow of Ole Miss. With the boisterous encouragement of
some 30 Razorbacks fans, who stood each time he went to the top
of the runway and gave him a rousing whoooo, pig, sooey cheer,
Lister flew 26'10" on his fifth jump to match Young's
first-place mark. Ties are broken using jumpers' next-best
efforts, and Young had the better second jump, 26'3 1/2" to
26'3". On his final leap Lister went 26'9" to give Arkansas its
first 10 points. "I'm a Razorback," he said. "That's what we
expect: You've got to win."
Though it sometimes seems as if Arkansas has hogged all the best
talent, it isn't so. Male Athlete of the Meet honors went
deservedly to Florida freshman John Capel, who is attending
school on a football scholarship. Returning kickoffs for the
Gators last fall, Capel averaged just under 30 yards.
Astonishingly, with the blessing of Steve Spurrier he was
excused from spring football to run track. Less than an hour
after finishing second to Leonard Myles-Mills of BYU in the 100
(10.03 seconds), Capel blistered the turn in the 200 and,
despite easing up at the end, finished in 19.87, tied for
fastest in the world this year. "That's pretty scary," said
former 100 world-record holder Leroy Burrell, now the coach at
Houston. Track fans can only hope that Spurrier will continue
his largesse and allow this great talent to develop.
With eight events remaining, the Razorbacks stood fifth and
seemed in danger of falling apart. Their 23 points placed them
far behind Stanford's 50. Even worse, both Lister and Lavar
Miller injured themselves in the triple jump. Miller hobbled over
to the high jump, but he was shut out there, too. Lister, whom
many expected to win the triple jump, finished fifth (53'9 1/4").
Counting on 12 points, Arkansas got four.
Another Razorback expected to win was two-time defending 1,500
champion Seneca Lassiter, who is perhaps America's best young
hope in the mile. He grabbed the lead with two laps to go but
lost it in the homestretch and could not quite catch Clyde
Colenso of South Africa and Southern Methodist, who beat him by
.13 in 3:47.54.
Over the years Arkansas has shown an amazing knack for conjuring
up points when it has needed them most. "We have a saying," says
McDonnell. "If someone falls down, somebody else has to stand
up." An example of the Razorbacks' gift for improvisation is
senior Matt Kerr, the defending champ in the steeplechase. Kerr
came to Arkansas as a hotshot high school miler, with a superb
1,500 best of 3:43. But he failed to improve and was
contemplating quitting the sport when, as he puts it, he
"stumbled on the steeple" while messing around in practice one
day. In his first steeplechase Kerr won the Southeastern
Conference title. In Boise his commanding 8:44.29 win brought
the Razorbacks to within three points of Stanford.
Standing all the way up to his massive 6'8", 345-pound size was
junior shot-putter Marcus Clavelle, from whom no points were
expected. Just competing was a miracle for Clavelle, who during
football practice last summer took a hit on the back of his neck
that left him paralyzed from the neck down for 9 1/2 hours. In
Boise he shrugged off the pressure and tossed the shot 63' 2
3/4", a personal best, earning the very four points Arkansas
needed to pass the Cardinal for good.
"I was a little nervous, yes," allowed McDonnell when the final
score had been tallied: Arkansas 59, Stanford 52.
McDonnell can now look forward to a summer vacation of a kind,
splitting his time between the Razorbacks' track office and the
2,200-acre cattle ranch he owns in Colcord, Okla., about 33
miles from Fayetteville. "We use actual cowboys, who tell great
stories," says McDonnell. "I love seeing kids who can throw a
lasso around a calf at full speed. It's an art, though perhaps a
dying art in this country."
So, too, it seems, is the art of taming McDonnell's Razorbacks.
Who can recall how it's done?
Arkansas has long shown a knack for conjuring up points when it
has needed them most.