Remembering John McDonnell

I am deeply saddened to have learned of the death of Coach John McDonnell, who won more NCAA championships with the University of Arkansas track and field program than any coach in any sport in history.

Indirectly, he had a great deal to do with me becoming a sportswriter.

Nearly 40 years ago, my first feature assignment in News Reporting I at Arkansas was on high jumper Bill Jasinski, who lived in my dorm. From that, my professor, Bob Carey, suggested I become a sportswriter. So I joined the Arkansas Traveler student newspaper and did just that, eventually rising in the ranks to become co-sports editor with my friend Guy Desonie. 

As an editor, I determined that so-called minor sports deserved more coverage. Razorback track and field was just about to take off, and during my senior year in 1984-85, the Hogs won the first of their record six NCAA Triple Crowns — a sweep of the cross country, indoor and outdoor national titles in the same school year. The facilities were only so-so in Fayetteville then, so there were no big meets there. That spring, John called me into his office and told me, in his deep Irish brogue, “Donna, we appreciate all your coverage with the Traveler, and to show you our appreciation, we want to take you with us to the Texas Relays.” 

After clearing the ethical dilemma with Professor Bob Douglas, I traveled with Coach McDonnell and the team to Austin. It was my first plane ride. And I was exposed to big-time track and field — and loved every minute.

After graduation, I went on to the late Arkansas Gazette, and although I paid my dues with plenty of entry-level assignments, I retained cachet with my connections to Coach McDonnell and the Razorbacks and was able to cover them in a number of national championships long before those were routinely held in Fayetteville — off the top of my head I recall trips to Des Moines, Iowa; Knoxville, Tenn.; Durham, N.C.; Indianapolis, Ind.; and Eugene, Ore. — many of which ended with rousing Hog calls after another title. John always led the celebration. 

After the Gazette died in 1991, John and some of his coaches were among those who gathered with us at my house in Fayetteville for a bonfire to mark the death.

His numbers were staggering — 40 national championships, including 12 consecutive NCAA Indoor titles, and 83 conference titles in the Southwest and Southeastern conferences.

His family’s statement covered his career but also 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.”

I’m so thankful to have been one of those people whose life has been touched by this extraordinary man.

Three years ago, I saw him at the Arkansas Track & Field Hall of Fame induction banquet, and I told him how much I appreciated his support all those years ago of a new young sportswriter— and of his long-time friendship in the years following.

Rest well, my friend. You’ve earned it.

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