by: Andrew Maloney and John McDonnell
April 24, 2013
Excerpt from Chapter 9: Closing Out the Decade (1988-1991) of the new biography John McDonnell: The Most Successful Coach in NCAA History, on the most successful NCAA track coach in history, John McDonnell. Authored by Andrew Maloney and John McDonnell, University of Arkansas Press.
LetsRun had two people review the book: Review #1 by former Hog 800 runner Marlon Boykins and Review #2 by D2 coach Torry Olson who has an MFA in creative writing.
The greatest challenge Arkansas would face that spring was still to come. After a month of lower intensity training on the grass, the Razorbacks opened up at Texas Relays and their home meet at Hot Springs before flying up to Philadelphia for Penn Relays. McDonnell often planned his training in such a way that the Razorbacks were ready to begin competing at their best at Penn Relays in late April. In 1989, their best did not look like it was going to be good enough. They needed to do the impossible.
Mount St. Mary’s College, which was tucked away in the hills of Emmitsburg, Maryland, had assembled what many observers of the sport considered to be the greatest collection of talent ever on one team in the distance medley relay. They planned to run all of them at Penn Relays.
The twin brothers from Kenya—Charles and
Sammy Kikpoech Cheruiyot—had both made the Kenyan Olympic team—Charles placed sixth in the 5,000 meter run at the 1984 Olympics while Sammy Kipkoech had finished seventh in the 1,500 meter finals at the 1988 Olympics. The quarter-miler, Dave Lishebo, was hardly a slouch either, having represented Zambia in the 400 meter at the 1984 Olympics. Such a team would have been hard to beat under any circumstances, but the mere idea that they could even be challenged became almost unimaginable once the 1988 Olympic 1,500 meter champion, Peter Rono, was added to the mix. For just about every informed member of the media covering the event, the result was a foregone conclusion.
With the talk in Philadelphia centering on how Mount St. Mary’s was going to crush the entire field, at six o’clock in the morning on Friday April 28, 1989, John McDonnell picked up a copy of the Philadelphia Daily News and read something that made his blood pressure rise through the roof.
“Mount St. Mary’s could break 9:20 and cruise to a world’s best in this event, even if conditions are poor,” said the Daily News. “Arkansas, with Falcon, should finish second in under 9:25.”
Returning to the hotel, John summoned the members of the relay to his room early that morning.
“I remember I got a phone call at 6:30 in the morning, and it was John and he said get to my hotel room,” said Falcon, who was joined by the other members of the team, Reuben Reina, Charles Williams, and Robert Bradley. “I said, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve been in bed so I can’t be in trouble.’ We got up there, and John gave us the finest motivational speech I have ever heard. He very calmly brought everyone in and said, ‘You guys are probably wondering why I brought you up here and I want to show you why.’”
McDonnell unraveled the Daily News article marginalizing Arkansas’s chances that afternoon.
“I said, ‘Guys, this is bullshit,’” remembered McDonnell. “We have won this thing many times, and this is the respect we are given? We are going to go out there and kick their g’damn ass from one end of the track to another. And if we hold Joe Falcon close, we are going to win because there isn’t a Kenyan ever born who is going to beat Joe Falcon today.”
It was an emotional appeal straight from John McDonnell’s heart, a speech that became so legendary it would be talked about by generations of Razorbacks. Like many legends, the story became exaggerated to such a degree that some versions had McDonnell ripping up the newspaper and smashing a chair against the wall. Nothing of the sort took place. For those in the room that morning, the reality was surreal enough. It was a compelling message from a man with the immense gravitas to deliver it.
“He unraveled this newspaper and his hands were shaking he was so mad,” said Falcon. “He said, ‘This is going to be a day that is going to go down in the history of Arkansas track and field as one of the greatest days ever and will be talked about for years and years. You guys are going to win today and let me tell you why. Those boys from Mount St. Mary’s are running for themselves. There is no tradition there. You wear the red and white of Arkansas and have been privileged to run for this university. A torch has been handed down to you by all of the great athletes before you, and you will hand this torch off to all of the great athletes that will come after you. This will go down as one of the greatest victories in Arkansas history.’ And he went through and told each and every one of us exactly what we needed to do to be successful. When he was finished, he said ‘Let’s go out there and win, and don’t you ever think about anything other than winning.’”
All four members of the relay immediately jumped up with a shot of adrenaline.
“When we were done, they were all fired up and said, ‘Let’s go get ’em!’” said McDonnell. “I tell you they ran inspired. That Williams kid couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw how many people were in the stands.”
As Falcon looked outside later, he was astonished to see that his new wife, Karen, and parents, Lou and Pat, had flown up from Kansas City to make a surprise appearance in Philadelphia.
Before the race had even begun, both McDonnell and the Mt. St. Mary’s coach, Jim Deegan, each made fateful decisions that may have affected the outcome. Rather than anchoring the reigning Olympic champion Peter Rono in the mile, Deegan led him off on the 1,200 meter leg. McDonnell subsequently opted to run an untested sophomore in the 800 meter from Crossett, Arkansas, named Robert Bradley, whose personal best entering that season had been 1:51.7. It was an audacious gamble.
In front of a frenzied throng of fifty thousand at Franklin Field, the gun was finally fired on Friday afternoon. Reina led off the 1,200 meter for Arkansas and handed off a half-second behind Rono in 2:53.9. With Leshebo putting another second on Charles Williams during his 46.4 split over 400 meters, the Razorbacks were falling behind and looked to be in trouble even before the inexperienced Bradley was asked to matchup against the Olympian, Charles Cheruiyot. If ever there was a moment Arkansas could have been buried this was it.
Not only did Bradley not give up any distance to the Kenyan, but gained over three seconds on him during a remarkable 1:46.0 split over 800 meters to hand the baton to Joe Falcon with a slight lead. Despite running aggressively, Falcon was soon caught by
Sammy Kipkoech Cheruiyot, who ran stride for stride with him over the next three laps. Neither man gave the other an inch as the crowd came to its feet.
“The crowd is going crazy and is so loud I can’t hear my split or anything,” remembered Falcon. “John told me before the race that when we get to the final 200-meter mark, ‘I’m going to tell you either to hit it or wait, and when I tell you to hit it, you have to hit it hard.’ So the next time I came around, John tells me to hit it, and I went by Cheruiyot as hard as I could and I looked at [Cheruiyot], and he looked back at me and smiled and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, this isn’t good.’”
Up in the stands, McDonnell watched the thrilling climax to one of the greatest races in Penn Relays history along with distance runners Danny Green and Chris Zinn, who had run the long-distance races the previous evening.
“They were both hammering down the backstretch” said McDonnell, “and when they entered the final straightaway, you could see how jacked both of them were coming up. Fair play to Joe, he had intestinal fortitude, and the moment he got by Cheruiyot, he pulled away from him.”
As his vision began to fade and his legs slowed due to the overwhelming buildup of lactic acid, Joe Falcon’s burning desire and fiery determination was not going to be denied.
“I’ll remember to the day I die, I came around the curve, and I looked up and saw my three Arkansas teammates holding hands behind the finish line,” said Falcon. “I remembered what Coach said, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about the great athletes that came before you and the great athletes that will come after you.’ I shut my eyes and sprinted as hard as I could and leaned at the tape.”
Arkansas had done the impossible—beating the seemingly invincible Mount St. Mary’s team by a step and shattering both the American and world record in a time of 9:20.10. Four kids from Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas had beaten some of the best that the world had to offer. Falcon was awarded the outstanding performance of the meet following his 3:53.8 mile split.
“I told them we should pull out our American flags,” said McDonnell. “It was a classic. What an upset. Four local kids put on a show. Those are the moments that are so great about this sport and you remember. It was awesome.”
(Editor’s note: We received word from Kip Evans of the runfaricadotcom.wordpress.com blog that the second Olympians name was Kiproech Cheruiyot not Sammy).
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