FAYETTEVILLE -- Former Arkansas distance runner Alistair Cragg stood in the back of the room and admitted he never thought the day would come.
Arkansas sprinter J-Mee Samuels had no idea it was happening when he woke up Monday, but was jarred by the reality of it during an afternoon news conference.
Longtime Arkansas assistant Dick Booth knew the decision would happen this spring, but said it was still stunning to sit and listen to it all take place.
All three summed up the emotion that filled the Raymond Miller room in the Broyles Center on Monday afternoon, when John McDonnell, Arkansas' legendary track and field coach, walked up to the lectern.
"I'm not going to tell you why I'm up here," he said with a smile. "You've all figured it out."
McDonnell is retiring at the end of the 2008 season, wrapping up his illustrious 36-year career with the program. The 69-year-old told the assembled audience -- which included scores of former Arkansas athletes -- there never would be a good time to step down, but decided to announce his plans two days after the John McDonnell Invitational was at John McDonnell Field.
"We're looking at history in the making," said former Razorback and Olympic gold medalist Mike Conley, who was in attendance Monday. "In my mind, he's the most successful coach in the history of any sport at any level. I don't think the amount of winning he's done is really appreciated around the country the way it should be."
McDonnell built Arkansas track into a power and Fayetteville into a place referred to as the "track capital of the world." Arkansas has won 42 national titles during McDonnell's tenure, two of which could be stripped because of violations pending an NCAA appeals hearing this summer.
The remarkable total includes five years in which the school won national championships in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track in the same season. It also includes 12-straight NCAA indoor championships (1984-95), which is the longest streak for any school in any sport in the history of college athletics.
In addition, McDonnell has coached 182 of the school's 185 all-Americans in the three sports. Those athletes are responsible for 648 of the school's 652 All-America honors. He also coached 23 of the school's 25 athletes who have competed in the Olympics in track and field.
"I was a very lucky person," said McDonnell, who is from Ireland. "I carried a four-leaf clover in my pocket all the time. In the other corner, I had an Irish leprechaun. I had the luck of the Irish."
But those who worked with McDonnell, coached alongside him and competed for him disagreed Monday.
Former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, who hired McDonnell as the Razorbacks' full-time track coach in 1978, credited McDonnell for turning what was regarded as an individual sport into a team one. He also credited McDonnell for doing it the right way.
"He's done it with integrity, he's done it with dignity and he's always kept his humility," Broyles said. "When you analyze a coach, that's exactly what you want."
Cragg, who won five national titles under McDonnell's guidance, said his impact is unmatched.
"He's a great man and a great representative of the sport," said Cragg. "But we haven't lost him. He's still there. He lives in all the athletes and all the coaches that he's helped through the years."
McDonnell didn't give many reasons for his decision to announce his retirement Monday. It was simply time. The Razorbacks have three big meets remaining in the outdoor season, beginning with the Penn Relays in Philadelphia this weekend. The SEC championships will be in May and the NCAA championships in June.
McDonnell said he wanted to devote more time to his family, which includes his wife, Ellen, and children Heather and Sean. McDonnell was moved to tears when he spoke about them during Monday's news conference. "While they're still around, while I'm still around, I want to spend a little bit more time with them," he said.
McDonnell revealed Monday that he would've stepped down two years ago if not for scars from the NCAA.
Last October, Arkansas was stripped of two national championships and received three years' probation because of violations involving sprinter Tyson Gay and former sprints coach Lance Brauman. The decision, which has been appealed by the school, hurt McDonnell.
"I always thought I was a man of integrity, ran a clean program," McDonnell said. "When that happened I said, 'God, at the end of my career?' But that's life."
McDonnell said he didn't walk away because he wanted to see the track program through the tough times.
The NCAA is scheduled to rule on Arkansas' appeal this summer. In the meantime, athletic director Jeff Long said McDonnell's decision to put off his retirement to see the program through the situation shows his character.
"I think that means a great deal to the university, and it says a lot about the kind of man he is," Long said.
McDonnell said the hardest part of retiring is walking away from his athletes. The Hogs have struggled the past couple of years at the NCAA level, but he believes there is enough talent to win the outdoor meet.
And his retirement won't stop Arkansas from trying to achieve that feat the final weeks of his coaching career.
"It's like the biggest motivational speech he's ever given, without even speaking a word," Samuels said. "I know this team is going to give it all we've got. We always have, but we're going to give it that extra boost. I'm going to dedicate these next few races to him. He deserves it."
The Morning News' Ryan Malashock and Nathan Allen contributed to this report.
McDonnell To Retire
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