Thursday, June 30, 2022

Legendary athletics coach John McDonnell will be remembered in his native Mayo on Saturday

A plaque is to be unveiled in Ballina at noon on Saturday next, July 2, in memory of one of the greatest coaches in US collegiate athletic history, John McDonnell, a native of Woodville, Ardagh, near Ballina.

John died in June 2021, aged 82, and since then, a small group of friends, led by Bernie Finan and Terry Reilly, have been working to have his remarkable achievements — he became the most successful coach in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history — recognised in his homeplace.

A superb athlete while living in Ireland, he qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome but his hopes were dashed when the Irish Olympic Council, short of funds, did not send him.

Moving to Dublin in the 1950s, he joined Clonliffe Harriers, got to train with his idol Ronnie Delany, 1,500m Olympic champion of 1956, and went on to win the Irish junior cross-country championship and six national championships in the mile, three-mile, and steeplechase between 1960 and 1963. He represented his country twice in international cross-country championships.

He anchored a star-studded relay team in 1961 in Dublin against a New Zealand team headed by Olympic champion Peter Snell and including Garry Philpott, Murray Halberg and Barry Magee: that quartet had already broken the world record for the 4×1 mile relay.

Emigrating to the US in 1963, he competed for the University of Louisiana and became a six-time all-American in track and cross country; he won the 1966-67 AAU 3,000-metre title, and the mile at the 1966 British Selection Games, and beat American world mile record holder Jim Ryun over two miles in Louisiana in July 1966.

In 1972, John joined Arkansas University as an assistant coach, a position that attracted little interest for the Razorbacks were languishing near the bottom rung in track and field. He became head coach in 1978 and brought about an astonishing turn-around, between 1978 and 2008 pulling the Razorbacks from obscurity to the pinnacle.

By the time he retired he had become the most successful coach in NCAA history, winning 40 championships and 83 Conference championships. He coached 185 All-Americans, 54 individual national champions and 23 Olympians who won gold, silver and bronze medals. Another of his records was leading his Razorback athletes to 12 consecutive NCAA titles, the most by any school in any sport in NCAA history, ranging across cross-country, indoor and outdoor events.

Ever modest, ever the gentleman, McDonnell was a friend of US President Bill Clinton who had been governor of Arkansas. He knew and was admired by leading coaches around the world. In 2008, he was on the US Olympic Track and Field team as a middle distance coach, was inducted into the US Track Coaches Hall of Fame, and in 2003 had joined the pantheon of greats in the Western People’s Mayo Sports Stars Hall of Fame.

Today, a magnificent 7,000-seater stadium in Arkansas is named the John McDonnell Field. McDonnell was given $3m by a local businessman to ensure it had all the facilities required. After retirement, John spent much of his life as it had begun, farming, though this time on a large ranch.

The John McDonnell Field at the University of Arkansas. Photo: arkansasrazorbacks.com

The plaque, sculpted by Ginty Monumental Works, Ballina, will be unveiled at a prominent space kindly provided by Arthur Moran of Mister A’s, O’Rahilly St., and the attendance will include John’s widow, Ellen and son, Sean, a large circle of family members, and John’s many friends in sport and life. Present will be some of Ireland’s great athletes, Paul Donovan, and Dave Taylor, both of whom attended Arkansas University, and represented Ireland. Also present will be members of Clan McDonnell who are holding a reunion in Ireland.

All are welcome.

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