At Haverford, Tom Donnelly has built a legendary coaching career

Tom Donnelly walks to practice with members of his team. "As a coach, you influence [athletes] by 1 percent - maybe," he said.
Tom Donnelly walks to practice with members of his team. "As a coach, you influence [athletes] by 1 percent - maybe," he said. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 15, 2011

For years, Tom Donnelly has had this fantasy. He presents it as a novel he'd like to write: The Olympics are in Philadelphia, the track and field competition at Franklin Field. The top 1,500-meter runner in the world, a Philly kid, has a coach, but he's never met the guy. This anonymous mentor delivers instructions through a series of cryptic messages.

"I guess now you'd go through e-mail," Donnelly said.

The Philly kid wins a gold medal.

"He comes back on the [Market Street] El," Donnelly said, and here Donnelly assumed the role of the shadowy coach. "I see him on the El. I know who he is. He doesn't know who I am. Like around 56th Street, something like that, I just go by. I sort of whisper something like, 'You should have started kicking with 200 to go.' I walk out. The guy looks at me. That's the end of the thing. I go walking out with the crowd."

The head track and field and cross-country coach at Haverford College conjured up this tale more than a decade ago, but it remains in his head. Donnelly said the fantasy doesn't match up to the way he actually coaches. His whole approach is to be present and observant, to be available. But the point of the tale seems obvious: The perfect coaching job would be invisible even to the participant. Removing a coach's ego can only help the athlete.

In reality, Donnelly did once coach the best 1,500-meter runner in the world. He refused to take a dime for his years mentoring Marcus O'Sullivan, once ranked No. 1 in the world, now head track coach at Villanova. The same for Donnelly's close work with another miler legend, Sydney Maree. That was a quarter century ago. At that time, and ever since, for 31/2 decades now, Donnelly has been Haverford's coach, turning an academic oasis into a distance runner's enclave, home to more than 120 all-Americans and 25 individual national champions.

All this culminated last fall when the Goats, as Haverford runners have long called themselves, won a Division III national cross-country championship, the school's first, led by the national individual champion and five all-Americans.

How much credit does Donnelly claim for such achievements?

"As a coach, you influence them by 1 percent - maybe," Donnelly said.

On a certain technical level, there may (or may not) be some merit to his claim. His runners, some going to the Division III track and field national championships later this month, say Donnelly's approach has them taking real ownership of their own performances, the successes and struggles. One of his seniors said they drastically underperformed as a group a couple of years back partly because too many of them believed "if you just do what Tom says" would be enough to achieve success.

However, nearly all of his runners, at every level, have stories about Donnelly telling them what he thinks they can achieve long before they realize it themselves. Generations of Haverford runners will tell you that Donnelly's actual influence can't be measured with a stopwatch. The only Division III runner to break the four-minute mile, Haverford's Karl Paranya, who ran 3 minutes, 57.6 seconds in 1997, once put it like this: "Every Haverford runner wants to be Tom."

Or at least be "as tough as Tom," as one of his current all-Americans put it.

Feeling the pain

After returning to his office from a seven-mile run with some of his guys by the Wissahickon Creek, Donnelly extended a perspiring right hand for a shake.

At age 64, the former three-time Villanova all-American still tries to run twice a day - just 30 or 40 minutes in the morning, maybe an hour in the afternoon - partly because that's what he does, staying within range of his Villanova weight, but also because Donnelly admits he doesn't want to lose contact with what his guys are feeling. He knows every running path within a marathon of his Ardmore house. He long ago dubbed the route that takes in the hills of Manayunk the Loop of Pain. Tack on more miles coming back through Gladwyne, it becomes the Extended Loop of Pain and Almost Certain Death.

The man didn't even learn to drive until he was past 40, until after his first son was born. Just don't try to call him a running guru. Donnelly will smirk. He calls the 1970s running boom "a bunch of bull."

"Oh, man. It was like another big fad," he said. "There were so many positives that came from it. But for so many people, it was something to do before Rollerblades were invented."

The life Donnelly constructed was built on a solid foundation. He grew up in the Olney section of Philadelphia. There is a light Philly cadence in his voice. His great-great-grandfather founded a roofing company in 1878. Tom helped out a couple of summers in college as a kind of gofer, he said. Two of his uncles died in falls while roofing.

"My father had one finger that got cut off. It got infected," Donnelly said. "Plus, he died of lung cancer, which . . . all that hot roofing, breathing in all that stuff. He was 63. He certainly wasn't old."

Donnelly played baseball in the summer on a team that practiced at Hunting Park, on a field surrounded by a dirt running track. By the spring of his seventh-grade year, Donnelly sometimes found himself bored practicing baseball. He would start to run around the dirt track during the practices. "I'd jog for miles," he said. "Every once in a while, I'd scoop one up, throw it to first."

Playing baseball, "I was like a Pete Rose-type guy. . . . A different side of my personality. Like Ty Cobb. Get in my way, man, you're going down. I was like that."

Another side of his personality: In high school, Donnelly used to jump on the Broad Street subway to get to the Academy of Music. "I had noticed people would come out at intermission and mingle around." He'd join the minglers and walk back in with them to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra, "to go into the amphitheater and hear some of the greatest stuff created in our human experience."

Donnelly related that story when Haverford's cross-country team was honored by the school's board of managers for the national championship, noting that even as a teenager, he saw the Philadelphia Orchestra as a perfect team, "these brilliant, highly trained, dedicated, selfless musicians, coming together, not sacrificing their individuality, but blending it with the individual skills and the genius of the others."

Donnelly was himself a three-time Catholic League cross-country champion at La Salle High and a two-time all-American at Villanova in cross-country and in the toughest of tests, the steeplechase. He also ran a leg of a national championship distance-medley relay team, and came in 14th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 1968 U.S. Olympic trials. Out of Villanova, Donnelly coached at Archbishop Wood and La Salle High Schools. He was having a beer one day with a Haverford graduate who mentioned that the college was looking for a track coach.

Keeping track of it all

This has never changed over the years: Stop by the fence at Haverford's track as practice winds down and you'll find Donnelly fully engaged with his guys as they warm down. He might be answering a question about a specific workout or looking for input after a workout ("How'd that feel? Easy?") or, just as likely, shooting the breeze: "Towns in Connecticut that start with W? . . . That's like the weakest Irish name in the history of Irish running. . . . Love that haircut. It looks like a June 1 job haircut."

Back in his office, Donnelly has every training log for all his Haverford teams, plus his own training logs from his days at Villanova running for the legendary Jumbo Elliott, in addition to the logs he kept when he was training O'Sullivan, who broke the four-minute mile over 100 times, and several other world-class runners. Donnelly's notation for Feb. 13, 1988, when O'Sullivan ran 3:50.9 indoors at the Meadowlands, the second-fastest time in history:  

"Looked easy. Said he could go 2 or 3 seconds faster."

There was another notation for an 800-meter race O'Sullivan ran the very next night at George Mason University:

"Ran dumb. Was just not into it mentally."

Donnelly could have continued coaching elite runners. Plenty had approached him. But having a team of committed runners, whatever their speed, appealed to him most.

"They don't know what they're capable of, and I certainly don't know, either," Donnelly said of his Haverford guys. "It usually takes me about a year to sort of get a sense of how much a kid can take and how much he can't. I think in general, from almost any track and field athlete, you're going to get better results by slightly under-doing what they can do. I always say, just because somebody can do something, they can literally do a workout, doesn't mean that's the best thing for them."

He gave an example from one day last October, late in the cross-country season, how he had slightly adjusted the six 1,600-meter workouts he wanted, changing the progression of the third-through-sixth runs from six seconds faster than the previous to four seconds faster, and changing the rest between the runs from two minutes to four minutes.

"That might seem like a little, but I think it made a difference," Donnelly said.

Of course, a day without a workout doesn't mean a day without running. Donnelly tells his guys, "You don't go a day without eating."

Donnelly's choice of coffee is studied by his guys.

"There's always an equal ratio between the hardness of the workout and size of the coffee cup," said Haverford senior Joe Carpenter. "If you see a really huge cup of coffee, you're like: 'Oh, man.' "

If his runners fall short, Donnelly is not one of these coaches who says: "Boy, I coached great, but you guys were lousy." Here's another scene: Donnelly down at the banks of the Mississippi River, alone, at night. He takes a plaque, "Regional Coach of the Year" it says on it. He flings it into the river.

That was the fall of 2001. That same day, one of his great runners, J.B. Haglund, had won the NCAA Division III cross-country title. Most coaches would have let an individual national championship be more than enough to stamp the day a success. Donnelly was thrilled for Haglund. But as a team, Haverford, ranked fourth in the country going in, finished 12th at the meet. No Haverford runner other than Haglund finished the race in the top 50.

"What kind of coach am I?" Donnelly asked himself.

After he flew home, he tossed out five or six other coach of the year plaques that were in his office closet.

And he is willing to let runners know it is OK to quit if their heart isn't in it, if their true passion lies elsewhere. He won't stop talking to them, he said, and they don't have to stop hanging out with the team. Most choose to stay and push themselves.

"I've had success during the cross-country season," said Anders Hulleberg, who won the 2010 national Division III cross-country title. "But I've had some really frustrating races, too - at big meets, at national meets. I had a really frustrating, disappointing performance at the indoor national meet this year in the 5K.

"After we got back from the meet, the first time I talked to Tom at length after that race, one day after practice, he wasn't negative at all. He was really, really encouraging. He encouraged me to be open and be honest about why I thought I had run poorly. He was open to hearing what I was thinking, where I was at, in terms of my own confidence. Whereas a lot of other coaches might be more prone to analyzing, criticizing, 'Here's what you did wrong, here's what you needed to do better.' Instead, he wanted to know what happened out there, what was I feeling?"

"Your results are right there, so you're forced to confront all the small things, all your shortcomings, and through that - competing with yourself, with other people - because it's so black and white, you grow a lot as a person," said Lucas Fuentes, who made cross-country all-American as a senior after finishing 39th in the Centennial Conference as a junior.

Chris Hood, a former Haverford captain, put it like this in an interview in 2002: "I feel like as a culture where it is so obsessed with winning - even in Little League, parents are beating each other up. It's crazy. The amazing thing is Tom has more desire to win than anybody. At times, you just see the fire in his eyes. It actually is fire. It's not just a cliche. You say, holy - . But at the same time . . . he understands that winning and running is as foolish and meaningless as anything else in life. Of course, if it's as meaningless as all those things, it's as meaningful. He wants his runners to commit with their whole mind and spirit, and that commitment is what they're going to learn from. He really lives by that."

This year's team enjoyed how Donnelly implored it not to be mediocre at anything.

"If you're going to be a miler, be the best miler you can be," Donnelly told them. "If you're going to be a small-time Philadelphia crook, be a big-time Philadelphia crook."

Buffet time

Donnelly is great at pointing out the absurdities of life. (He's also great at pointing; he usually points at friends in lieu of waving). A runner once showed up in his office when a reporter was there. The runner had a conflict between practice that afternoon and a wellness class. Donnelly told him to go to the class and gave him a workout to do afterward. Donnelly also related his own wellness experience.

"We took a quiz," Donnelly said. "I was running 100 miles a week at the time. I failed. The woman sitting next to me was smoking during the quiz. She got close to the highest grade possible."

There's nothing fancy about Donnelly. His standard attire: cap (most often a Phillies hat), polo shirt, jeans or khaki shorts, long athletic socks, sneakers.

He rarely watches television, didn't have one for years. Married with two sons (both fine runners) now out of the house, the former Villanova history major remains a voracious reader. Asked last week what he was reading, Donnelly said he had just finished Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda, and had started Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Mentioning the books, Donnelly also mentioned the authors. He's a detail guy.

His runners will tell you that Donnelly isn't usually in a hurry but doesn't like to wait. "So he always eats at buffets," Fuentes said.

A group of runners remembered how at nationals, they had agreed on a Mexican place for dinner. They took off in two vans. Donnelly was driving the first one.

"All of a sudden, we drive by this Chinese buffet," Hulleberg said.

The guys in the second van said, "Oh, no." Sure enough, Donnelly pulled in, and got out of his van beaming. His guys described the place as "greasy."

"He'll drive half an hour just to go to a buffet," Fuentes said.

Fuentes also will tell you that as much as Donnelly's workouts are followed to the fractions, that isn't his secret.

"Any coach can give you workouts," Fuentes said. "That's not what makes Tom special. Most coaches have four one-year plans. Tom has one four-year plan. He doesn't care about squeezing points out of you. It really gives you freedom. He believes, and I agree with him, that you can learn a lot by competing."

In a spot nestled between Lancaster and Haverford Avenues, that pursuit has been going on for 31/2 decades. It's possible that Donnelly's influence is just 1 percent. It's also possible that no coach in Philadelphia has worked so hard for so long, asking a group of people, most talented to least, to search for the hidden last percent.

Just back from his run, Donnelly said he'd purposefully run up the trail alone, away from his Haverford guys.

"I've always done that," Donnelly said. "When I was in college, I always ran through the trail. I don't want people to see me until there's something worth being seen."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

 

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