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State of the Hogs:As always, Arkansas is the favorite to win the SEC track and field indoor championships this weekend in Kentucky. As usual, there are several teams that have a chance to knock off the Razorbacks. Florida will present a formidable challenge.
It may be that the Gators have a better chance to beat the No. 1 Razorbacks this weekend than they do in a few weeks when the national indoor meet returns to the Tyson Indoor Facility.
No doubt, the Hogs will be favored next month to win their 13th straight NCAA indoor title, and 39th NCAA title overall in track and cross country.
It all amazes me. I think back to last weekend when John McDonnell was honored at the Arkansas Press Association's winter awards banquet as the state's Headliner of the Year. The award goes to someone who has produced good headlines for the state. That doesn't just mean they produced something of a winning nature. It means they did it the right way.
If ever an award fits what McDonnell is for the Razorbacks, that is it. He's always done everything with class, dignity and style. And, for sure, he's won at a level that will never be approached again at any school anywhere.
Many a coach has tried to figure out the McDonnell magic. Some have given up and have switched to trying to legislate the Hogs back to their level.
Coaches at other schools have studied the Arkansas formula and decided that McDonnell went above the NCAA maximums for track scholarships. There was nothing to that.
Some have worked behind the scenes to change the order of events to make it tougher for McDonnell's men to double and triple in the distances where the Hogs are always potent. Lately, the NCAA added regional meets before the nationals to make it tougher on McDonnell's distance men. No doubt, that was just more mean spirited legislation thought up by his rivals.
McDonnell, during his talk at the APA banquet, was asked about his motivational tactics. He downplayed his role, to no one's surprise, but in the process provided a glimpse of just how he does it. He doesn't dodge his reputation as a taskmaster, but he gives a lot of credit to his skills as a good listener.
"I think one of the big keys is to listen to your guys," McDonnell said. "I think what I've done through the years is take a Mike Conley or an Alistair Cragg and so many other great ones and just listen. They tell you how they feel. They can tell you about their body and what they can take. You have to be able to listen. Yes, I'm tough and I work ‘em and ask them to toe the line and compete. But you better be able to listen to the great ones. And then you can push them to their limits without risking serious injury."
No doubt, McDonnell works his athletes hard. He knows no other way. He told us at the APA that his distance men run 85 miles a week on average in their training routine. But he is not afraid to pull back a star to a lesser workout when he sees something breaking down.
One of his old rivals, a cross country coach at a nearby school, told me he could never figure out why his top recruits broke down and McDonnell's didn't. He said that is the trick in training top distance runners. You must know when to back off in training and McDonnell is the master.
"I picked John's mind on his training methods every time I've been around him and I was always stunned at how he could recognize just at the time one of his runners needed time off," the coach said. "He'd know when to push one and when to rest another, always just right. There was a time when I was convinced that I had recruited athletes of equal talent to John's and he could always get more out of his than me. I finally got out of coaching."
McDonnell noted that it's different for every athlete.
"There are times when an Achilles' tendon might be sore, and a tough training schedule is wrong," McDonnell said. "You push them that day and they are done. Maybe you need to send them to the Agri Park course and let them run on soft grass for a few days to let the muscles or the tendons heal. The only way you know is if you listen to them. You run ‘em that day on a road course and they might be out for the year."
McDonnell had some great stories for the APA meeting, including the time one of his not-so-great runners came up with a novel excuse for not winning.
"I had a guy, well, I won't name him, who fell in the last few steps of a race that he held the lead," McDonnell said. "He comes up to me in the stands and said, ‘Coach, I had a 10-yard lead and the guy behind me stepped on my heel and tripped me.' I asked him if the guy had really long legs to get him from that far back?"
McDonnell does have a sense of humor. He gigged his boss, athletic director Frank Broyles, when his team beat Broyles' foursome in a Razorback Club scramble in Harrison a few years back.
"I'm not a golfer, but I'll play in those events some," McDonnell said. "Frank was pacing like a panther waiting for the start. I asked him if he was nervous, and he said, ‘I'm going to compete as hard as I can. I aim to win.' I thought, ‘My gosh, this is something to pass the time. Take it easy.'
"Well, we come in and I see Frank at the scoreboard, and his team had posted a 62. I asked him if 59 would beat him. He got mad. We had the women's golf coach on our team and she could really play. It wasn't me, but I liked that we won it. I had fun with that."
Relaxation for McDonnell is climbing onto a horse and supervising at his working ranch. He estimates he has 600 cows, 25 bulls.
"You can have a bad day out there, too, and it can get to you, like when lighting kills 20 cows and four bulls," McDonnell said. "But it all takes my mind off of my job when I'm out there and that's good."
I'd bet John McDonnell does a lot of listening out there, too.