Wed, April 01

Editorial: Coaching track without a track all in day’s work for John O’Donnell

For the Mingus Union High School track and field program, the issue always has been “the track.”

For years, that was the repeated rallying cry for an all-weather surface track at Mingus.

John O’Donnell died July 22. A celebration of this life well lived will take place Thursday at 5 p.m. in the cafeteria of Mingus High.

The high school administration and school board delayed and dodged that one for years. Instead, someone came up with the grand idea to overlay the old dirt track with pulverized granite.

At least once a year, usually with a donation of labor and materials, one of the Mulcaire brothers would lay out a new load of crushed granite on the track. Once the job was finished, the track looked pretty good.

“Looked” being the emphasis word here. The track looked a lot better than the purpose it served as a running surface. It was murder on the kids’ legs at Mingus. Shin splints are always part and parcel to track and field. The combination of stressing a teen’s body at the same time they are growing and developing is a sure recipe for the painful malady otherwise known as shin splints. Add a crushed granite running surface to the equation and Mingus kids seemed to be worse afflicted with shin splits than any other school in Arizona.

During the Tim Foist administration, the community at long last got a state-of-the-art all-weather track at Mingus.

We were satisfied.

For a while anyway.

Nearly 10 years later, local track enthusiasts are back to whining about the track surface at Mingus Union High School. The issue now is age. All-weather running surfaces age much in the same manner that dogs do. In the first few years of a track’s life, one year of time equals about one year of surface deterioration. Beginning in about year four or five, at least by Arizona torrid heat standards, the surface wear and tear accelerates. By year seven or eight, you begin to see black foundational material interspersed with the red top surface. That’s a sure sign that it’s time for a new surface.

Ironically, all this talk about having a decent track surface probably always brought a smile to the face of the greatest track coach in Mingus history, John J. O’Donnell, who died July 22.

That’s because during the years Coach O’Donnell developed the Mingus team into one of the most formidable programs in Northern Arizona, Mingus didn’t have a track.

When Mingus still held classes up on the mountain in Jerome, year-in and year-out Coach O’Donnell put together teams that were as good as any small school in the state. That despite the fact that Mingus athletes never had their own track to practice on.

One of the best during that era was distance ace Mike McFadden. The 1974 state champion at two miles, McFadden regularly ran against two of the best, yet dramatically diverse, distance runners in Arizona history. In two-mile showdowns with Snowflake’s legendary Art Redhair, McFadden had to deal with Redhair’s nightmarish front-running tactics. Stepping down to the mile, he had to contend with Dysart speed merchant Danny Moreno, who was content to let other runners do all the work and then make it a footrace over the last 200 meters.

Despite not being able to do timed repeat work on a track, McFadden still was able to contend with the different pacing tactics he was confronted with. He held Mingus’ school record at 3200 meters (in his day it was two miles) for 35 years.

Another great runner from Mingus’ no-track era was Duane Badger, who years later would follow in O’Donnell’s shoes and serve as the Mingus head track coach. He was one of the best in the state over 400 meters (440 yards) in his era. He held the Mingus school record in the event for nearly four decades.

Robert Melton, Kim Tabeling and Al Pender were among many other Mingus runners who were among the best in Arizona during the years Mingus did not have a track.

Coach O’Donnell was also on the forefront of the introduction of girls track and field in Arizona in the mid-1970s. As the reality of federal Title IX requirements began to trickle down to high schools across the nation, the boys-only stranglehold on track and field was broken and girls were allowed to compete.

Not without some grinding of teeth from a lot of old-guard coaches. In fact, many of them insisted on having a separate women’s coach and separate practices. A boys team. A girls team. Segregation at its finest.

It wasn’t that way at Mingus. Coach O’Donnell embraced the opportunity to launch a girls program at Mingus. Further, he treated the boys and girls squads as one team. They were all athletes. They trained together. They traveled together. They were one team. One of the athletes from those earliest girls teams at Mingus, Jennifer Graham, is still regarded as one of the finest track and field athletes in Mingus history. She still owns school records that have been on the books for four decades in both the long jump and discus.

Years after he retired as the Mingus track and field and cross country coach, O’Donnell was still a familiar face on the Mingus track. When the various evolving coaching staffs at Mingus would discover a gap in collective coaching acumen, someone invariably would suggest calling John O’Donnell. One day later, he would show up for practice teaching the intricacies of high jump and triple jump technique or the high-wire act otherwise known as sprint relay handoffs. Not only would O’Donnell accelerate the learning curve of these disciplines with Mingus athletes, he would also serve as a teacher to young coaches and share the knowledge, and wisdom, that can only be gained by passionately giving yourself to the sport for several decades.

John O’Donnell died July 22. A celebration of this life well lived will take place Thursday at 5 p.m. in the cafeteria of Mingus High.

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