“Perhaps the most moving take-away from the book is the look it gives at how one man’s seeming refusal to settle for less than what he deemed possible was able to take root and spread out for 36 years.”
By Torrey Olson
April 13, 2013
LetsRun.com Note: We asked two LetsRun.com visitors to review the new biography, John McDonnell, about John McDonnell – the most successful NCAA coach in history with 40 NCAA titles (42 if you count two vacated by the NCAA) – written by Andrew Maloney with some help from John McDonnell himself. This review is done by NCAA DII coach Torrey Olson, who has a MFA in creative writing and is the Associate Head Coach for Cross-Country / Track and Field at Academy of Art University. We figured Olson, given his writing degree and coaching background, would be an ideal person to read the book. The second review is written by former Razorback runner Marlon Boykins, whom we figured would know if the book accurately described John McDonnell the man. We also have a great excerpt from the book, which can be read here.
Andrew Maloney and John McDonnell’s biography, John McDonnell, takes a look at the life, though primarily the career, of the decorated former Arkansas coach from Ireland.
Over its 401 pages and 17 chapters, two brief introductory chapters place McDonnell at Arkansas, and two other well-placed chapters, both gems, allow John McDonnell to muse directly on “Physiological and Psychological Preparation” and “Leadership.” The remaining chapters focus on John’s career, the trajectory of the Arkansas track and field and cross country programs, and to a lesser extent, the athletic department as a whole, in 3-4 year chronological increments. These chapters are the core of the book, and their structure and style give the book its defining assets and limitations.
A long chronology to cover (but hey McDonnell coached 108 seasons at Arkansas)
The chapters are cyclical and repetitive, the way a college coach’s grind is. Each chapter essentially runs the cycle of cross country—indoor track—outdoor track—recruiting several times over, punctuated by mentions of the McDonnell family or occasional staffing and administrative changes within the department. And while that might sound like it makes for a daunting and needlessly repetitive read, this isn’t necessarily negative criticism.
Yes, the reliance on strict chronology, along with the seeming lack of source material in some of the very early chapters, make for a rough opening with a look at Ireland somewhat disconnected from McDonnell himself, and the look at his early life lacks the focus of later chapters without the same abundance of sources and voices available to tell the story. And, once into the core of the book—the Razorback chapters—the repetitive nature of the content does seem to make the minor printing errors or repeated turns of phrase stand out as somewhat tedious.
But the all-inclusive chronology lets come to the fore the greatest asset the book has to offer: the incredible subject it takes in John McDonnell. Whereas a structure that picked and chose its storylines in a way more similar to Bowerman and the Men of Oregon (and there are plenty of remarkable storylines Maloney could have chosen) might have led to the exclusion of material, and perhaps even some of the down years, the grinding season-by-season account allows all the anecdotes, commentary, and raw facts to form a very vivid picture of what actually happened, and the subject easily sustains itself. Because among the many incredible facets of McDonnell’s life drawn out by the book, one is certainly his tirelessness. The book is driven largely by that same feeling he must have had when arriving in the office at dawn the morning after an NCAA championship to start recruiting calls to the east coast—the fickleness inherent in that one success does not guarantee another, and the tides could change at any moment if a resistance isn’t put up.
Also vital to the success of the format is the tireless research of Maloney in putting the book together. Maloney is joined in telling the story by nearly all of its characters. Seemingly everybody has their version told, and some quite extensively. And this book is cast with innumerable superstars in the sport who in some way tangled webs with McDonnell or Arkansas, most having quite a bit to say about the man in the book. But beyond the superstars, the details and anecdotes amassed texture the story in a way that makes it live, and which make the writing take on weight. At its best, Maloney is completely gone from the page for pages at a time, and the reader can weigh all sides of McDonnell, as if he were a bystander to his life, and make some decisions for himself about what it was probably really like.
Only accept the best
At its heart, perhaps the most moving take-away from the book is the look it gives at how one man’s seeming refusal to settle for less than what he deemed possible was able to take root and spread out for 36 years. It goes a long way in showing how a legacy like McDonnell’s gets created. McDonnell started by affecting just a couple guys. But through his sustained, focused effort to do relatively simple, though lofty thing, he completely changed a community in a way that spread outward to touch people across national lines, political lines, sporting lines, and more.
It’s not a perfect book, but it’s got a lot to offer anyone interested in an incredibly sustained passion for the both the sport and the profession of coaching, or the remarkable man himself.
*You can buy John McDonnell: The Most Successful Coach in NCAA History from Amazon.com and other book sellers.
(LetsRun.com receives a commission from Amazon.com when you buy books through our links. LetsRun.com did not receive compensation for this review or have any influence on the reviewer, Torrey Olson, who received a free book in return for the review.)