A track meet was in progress, indoors at Haverford College on Saturday, Feb. 22, just before noon. The races had drawn a little crowd. Men of varying ages, standing around the track, remembering races where one of them came in 25th and another guy 26th, how they’d forgotten they’d even run in the race, except Tom Donnelly had it down, and if the details got hazy, Haverford’s coach could reach into a drawer in his office and find the exact 25th and 26th he was talking about.
That weekend, a couple of hundred of Donnelly runners came back for a reunion, most of all honoring a man who was a hero to virtually all of them, regardless of finish.
“How old are your kids?’’
“Thirteen and 14.”
There was plenty of that, in between yelling “Go Goats!” at the Haverford runners at the track. Moving around, keeping track of the real action, while seeing his guys roll in, Donnelly looked like Donnelly, wearing jeans, a blue Phillies cap, mentioning to a visitor how he recruited this guy Lederer right here out of his father’s bar on Girard Avenue, or how that great sprinter standing with them had actually gone to preschool with another great Haverford distance runner.
Donnelly, as always, remembers far more than just race splits, although standing with Robard Williams, three decades out of Haverford, Donnelly mentioned, “46.6, the anchor down at Western Maryland.”
If there’s a list of great pound-for-pound coaches in this area, all sports, Donnelly would be way high on that list, working with some of the great milers in the history of the sport while at the same time turning guys who could barely walk a straight line into contributing members of a small-college dynasty.
Talk to any of his guys, and the stories would be both specific and of a like manner. So let’s talk to a man who didn’t run for Donnelly, who showed up for the reunion because he had spent a few years as a Donnelly assistant while going to law school.
“Today took me back to a life I usually do not think about much,’’ Mike McGrath mentioned later, “probably because it is painful to confront how much I miss it.”
McGrath has stories of Donnelly not giving up on anybody, including him. But he makes it clear that establishing a team culture at Haverford involved some heavy lifting back in the 1980s, when McGrath observed Donnelly at close range.
“This is not a track club. This is a track team,’’ McGrath remembers Donnelly telling his runners. “You’ve got to compete.”
The reunion was honoring Donnelly’s 45th year at Haverford, and also to celebrate an early milestone, a 1980 Middle Atlantic Conference indoor title. McGrath ran in that meet, but for Franklin & Marshall, and notes that if the distance medley relay team he anchored had not beaten Widener in a race that Haverford won, Widener would have won the meet. Instead, F&M finished third, Widener placed fifth, and Haverford won the league by a half-point.
So McGrath, in a sense, was a Donnelly guy even before he became one of Donnelly’s guys.
“Everyone knew Tom when they were running for other schools in our league,'' McGrath said, "because in a meet, you would run by him and he would say something to you, ‘Relax your arms ... loosen your neck ... you look great,’ even when you were running right with a Haverford guy. Tom would say something to them, too.”
When McGrath started law school at Villanova, he asked Donnelly for a suggestion for a running club he could join, and Donnelly suggested one.
“But he also said, ‘Why don’t you just come run with us every afternoon?’ ”
McGrath ended up doing that and eventually helped out in a formal role — which really meant helping drive a van to meets — while also working as the school’s sports information director.
Having an F&M grad running with them was probably not a big deal to anyone at Haverford. At the time, Donnelly also coached Marcus O’Sullivan and Sydney Maree, two of the greats in the history of the sport.
“He was probably writing workouts for close to 50-60 other people — could be your Uncle Ned that asked for a running program, and Tom would actually write it up,’’ McGrath said. “He also timed workouts for other guys that were great runners, but not world-class, besides Sydney and Marcus, after the Haverford team workouts were over.”
It’s been a long time since those days, McGrath made clear, but he’s never wavered on this opinion:
“There are not Tom Donnellys walking down every street corner,’’ McGrath said.
After the meet, there were speeches, including from O’Sullivan, now Villanova’s coach, who noted, as he has before, how Donnelly emphasized when he agreed to coach O’Sullivan in 1984 that his own first priority would always be Haverford’s team. This is only noteworthy when you realize O’Sullivan set an indoor world record for 1,500 meters and won three indoor world championships while working under Donnelly.
“I’m not afraid to make mistakes,’’ Donnelly said in a recent video put out by Haverford, talking about training plans, how he tries to tailor them to individuals, not mentioning the 172 All-Americans he’s coached at Haverford.
“I’m not a great believer in so-called natural talent,’’ Donnelly noted. Every Haverford runner new to the team can expect to hear three things when they ask what Donnelly is looking for: a nice kid, who really loves the sport, and wants to be part of a close-knit team.
“If you have a kid who is like that, even if he’s the absolute slowest kid on the team, or has no jumping ability at all — a kid like that, with those three qualities, is going to contribute a huge amount to the team,’’ Donnelly said.
Donnelly added, “If the kid is fast, that’s a bonus. We’re not going to throw him away.”
McGrath was up to speed enough to be able to point out that the runner sitting and talking to a few other guys was the last Haverford runner to break a four-minute mile. Watching another race go by, as the man in the Phillies cap engaged with runners in the infield, McGrath noted that the only bad runner for Donnelly is a selfish runner.