Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Charmed Life of Thomas Donnelly

For young people Tom Donnelly is famous for his unparalleled success as track and cross country coach at Haverford College, located a short jog away from Villanova's campus on the Main Line. For those of us a bit older, Donnelly is remembered as one of the best distance runners ever produced by a Philadelphia high school, a multiple NCAA champion while at Villanova, and the coach of world class runners such as Marcus O'Sullivan and Sydney Maree.

Donnelly entered LaSalle College High School in 1961 and proceeded to win three Philadelphia Catholic League cross country individual championships.  After his freshman year, Donnelly never lost a high school race. After winning his third Catholic League title in 1964, we went to Van Cortlandt Park and won the Eastern States championship as well, setting a course record in the effort. 

He crossed the Schuylkill River to attend Villanova and promptly contributed to three consecutive NCAA championship cross country squads. Donnelly was Villanova's top finisher on both the 1966 and 1968 teams, finishing 7th and 8th, respectively. These top ten finishes sandwiched a 27th place finish for the 1967 NCAA champs. 

The 1966 team is pictured here, with Donnelly wearing bib 286.  Tom was also successful on the track, highlighted by an NCAA team championship, three All-American awards in the 3000 steeplechase (his PR was a gaudy 8:45) and three Penn Relays Championship of America 4 x Mile relay titles (his baton-mates in those races were Frank Murphy, Charlie Messenger, Dave Patrick, Dick Buerkle, and Marty Liquori).

After his Villanova career, Donnelly entered coaching and likewise found early success. He spent one year at Archbishop Wood high school in Philadelphia and the team promptly won the Philadelphia Catholic League cross country title. Tom left Wood in 1970 to coach at his alma mater LaSalle High. He coached the Explorers four years, won two more Philadelphia Catholic League cross country team championships in 1971 and 1972, and helped develop a future Villanova All-American in John Burns. I myself had the good fortune to have been coached for a year by Donnelly during his stint at LaSalle (and to have had him as my American history teacher as a frosh).

Donnelly left LaSalle in 1974 to attend graduate school at Villanova and to concentrate on his own running. He also was a part-time volunteer coach at Haverford (see photo above). When the full-time coaching slot at Haverford opened up, Donnelly was in the right place at the right time. He's been there now 35 years (notwithstanding Villanova's muffed attempt to hire Donnelly as its coach in the mid-1990s). At Haverford, he developed the first NCAA Division III sub-4:00 miler in 1997 (Karl Paranya, 3:57.6) and his Haverford teams have won so many conference titles (64 at last count) that he has run out of wall space in his office and cannot hang any more.  He led Haverford to the NCAA cross country national title in 2010.  How many Division III track coaches have found themselves the focus of a laudatory article in the New York Times? If anyone can claim to have lived a charmed life in the pursuit of running excellence, Tom Donnelly can.

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