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Written by Rod O’Donnell on 09 December 2013.

If you are looking for a great Christmas gift for a high school, collegiate, or post-collegiate runner or a coach, the new book John McDonnell by McDonnell and Andrew Maloney is a “can’t miss” buy. I include it along with Jumbo Elliot: Maker of Milers, Maker of Men (Authors Elliot and Berry) and Bowerman and The Men of Oregon (Author Kenny Moore) as three of the best books that I have read about our sport and men who have had a tremendous impact on it. The former of the two is a biography of the great Villanova coach, Jumbo Elliot, while the latter chronicles the life of Oregon’s Bill Bowerman.

The McDonnell book tells the story of an Irish immigrant who grew up on a farm in County Mayo, located near the West Coast of Ireland. There he learned many of the life lessons that would lead to one of the most successful coaching careers of any sport in U. S. history. During his 36-year-tenure at the University of Arkansas, his cross-country, indoor and outdoor track teams won an astounding 40 NCAA championships and 83 conference titles, including 34 consecutive first-place conference finishes in cross-country in two highly competitive conferences, the SEC and the Southwest Conference (now the Big 12.)

McDonnell’s formula for success was built around smart recruiting, tough discipline, hard work, and complete focus on the team concept, not individual glory, although during his time in Fayetteville, he coached 185 All-Americans, 54 individual champions, and 23 Olympians. This concept was best summarized by his quote, “I’ve always maintained that if you become a good team man, it makes you a good individual because you are responsible for others.”

When athletes arrived on the Arkansas campus, they knew that their priorities were, in this order, academics, athletics, and social life that ranked a distance third. When it came to athletics, astounding work-outs were the hallmark of the program, and many of those are described throughout the book.

As in any successful program, the Razorbacks had tremendous support from the university administration and the community surrounding the institution. Legendary football coach and athletic director, Frank Broyles, was a major advocate, along with President Alan Sugg, a former collegiate pole vaulter. The Tyson food company was the primary supporter for building the indoor track complex that has hosted several NCAA Division I Indoor Track Championships.

The two chapters, however, on the physiological and psychological preparation and leadership told in McDonnell’s own words are worth the price of the book. The ideas that are found here are the keys to success in coaching or whatever endeavor that one undertakes.

Reading the 400-plus pages goes by quickly and reveals many concepts and experiences that any coach or athlete will relate to.  Even if readers do not fit into one of these categories, they will enjoy learning about an amazing individual who developed a program with a success rate that quite possibly will never by matched in any NCAA sport.

Yours in track,

Rod O’Donnell


Other Keeping Track articles:

KEEPING TRACK - From September-October 2013 print RUNOHIO -

Random Thoughts -

Another Division I institution has dropped its men’s track program -

 Ohio University Athletic Department's Worst Decision -

Life Lessons from Cross Country -

Ten Pledges for Cross Country Coaches -

London Olympics -

 Improving as a Coach –

You Only Go Around Once -

Dear Jesse Owens –

West Virginia State Cross Country Championship –

SPIRE Institute -

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