McDonnell Not Sweating Penn Struggles

FAYETTEVILLE -- As far as John McDonnell is concerned, Michigan can have its Penn Relay titles from last weekend.

McDonnell loves to win, he loves winning at the prestigious Penn Relays and nobody took the three runner-up finishes to the Wolverines and the dropped baton in the 4x200-meter relay harder than him.

McDonnell has such a distaste for getting second that when Arkansas fumbled away its indoor title in 2004 and tied Florida for runner-up honors, the Razorbacks coach with 40 national championships told the NCAA to give the silver trophy to the Gators and not bother sending one back to Fayetteville.

But while he's picked up 41 of the Wagon Wheel trophies since 1983, McDonnell has never picked up one of his 75 conference titles in Philadelphia and the NCAA doesn't hand out the gold trophies you can find sitting on the couch in the Arkansas track office at Franklin Field.

The two-time defending NCAA outdoor champion, Arkansas is still No. 1 in the latest poll and a heavy favorite to three-peat five weeks from now in Sacramento, Calif., and to win the Southeastern Conference title this week in Nashville.

The 4x200 loss was the toughest pill to swallow as Arkansas won't get a chance to run it again with seniors Tyson Gay and Omar Brown and sophomore Wallace Spearmon Jr. on the same team.

Brown is a two-time All-American, Gay is the defending NCAA 100 champ and Spearmon is a two-time NCAA champ at 200 meters, the American indoor record holder at the distance (20.1) and the current world leader with a 19.97 on his resume.

Arkansas was gunning for the win and a shot at the collegiate record, but school indoor 400 meters record-holder Terry Gatson's back cramped up at the worst time on the exchange with Brown and the two missed the pass with two legs to go.

"It wasn't that bad, but we get kind of greedy around here if we don't get those big wheels," McDonnell said. "We're a good team."

Last weekend was the first time since 1982 Arkansas has failed to earn at least one Penn Relays title and McDonnell readily conceded he doesn't have the middle distance aces he once did to match up with Michigan's Nate Brannen and Nick Willis.

"I don't mind losing to those people," McDonnell said of Michigan's wins in the distance medley, 4x800 and 4x mile relays. "When you have to win, you win.

"Like Michigan, they're not in our conference and we'll handle them at nationals. The bottom line is that ... I get a kick out of that sign (Razorback) Matt Gunn was holding up in the paper saying 39-0. Now it's 40-0.

"That's what's important."

Michigan, winners of the last three NCAA indoor distance medley titles -- including one awarded by the disqualification of Arkansas this March -- and the new owners of the collegiate record in the 4x mile after beating the Razorbacks' six-year-old time, took a great deal of pleasure in knocking off the Razorbacks at Penn.

There were comments by Brannen that it really wasn't a rivalry since Michigan had won so many recent relay matchups against Arkansas and Wolverines coach Ron Warhurst said his team had "settled" who really had the best DMR team after the controversy at the NCAA Indoor Championships.

That's fine with McDonnell, who knows Michigan doesn't have sprinters like Brown, Gay and Spearmon Jr., long distance stars like Josphat Boit and Peter Kosgei or field event threats like the Razorbacks' Eric Brown and Jaanus Uudmae.

"They're all winners," McDonnell said. "The main thing we're after, the thing we've always been after, is the conference and national meets."

While Warhurst was publicly peeved that his hometown Ann Arbor News -- he called it "the Snooze" -- didn't have an article on Michigan's DMR win at Penn, McDonnell knows winning or losing at Franklin Field is small potatoes in his world.

The city limit signs for Fayetteville don't list the number of Penn Relay titles his team has won.

Only the 40 NCAA titles.

"The board that they're (Michigan) keeping score on after Penn, we cannot put that up on the way into town," McDonnell said. "That's the board I'm interested in."

Though it certainly lacks the emotional quotient of Arkansas losing to Texas in football, losing to Michigan at Penn has the same effect on Arkansas' chances of winning a conference title as a nonconference loss to the Longhorns or Southern California does for the football team.


"I always tell our guys, every meet up until conference and nationals are for you to go have fun," McDonnell said. "If you can build some confidence, then when you get in the big meets, you'll be ready."

Arkansas certainly plans to be.

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