If you entered Fayetteville from the north via 71B five or six years ago, you would have passed a “Welcome to Fayetteville” sign before passing the Northwest Arkansas Mall.
Most city welcome signs tell visitors the city’s population. This sign, however, declared Fayetteville as the “Track Capital of the World” and gave visitors an up-to-date count of National Championships won by the Arkansas track and field program.
Fayetteville did not just wake up and give itself this nickname one morning. Instead, it was earned under legendary head coach John McDonnell.
McDonnell became the Razorbacks’ cross country head coach in 1972 and the track and field head coach four years later.
During his 36-year reign at Arkansas, McDonnell built the program into one of the most dominant programs in the history of the NCAA, across all sports.
The Arkansas men’s track and field program won 42 National Championships under McDonnell, including the two that were later vacated by the NCAA.
Only two schools have completed the “National Triple Crown,” winning the cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field championships in the same year, in NCAA history. UTEP has done it three times, while Arkansas has done it five times.
McDonnell’s national championships include streaks of 12 consecutive indoor titles from 1984-1995, eight consecutive outdoor titles from 1992-1999, four consecutive cross country titles from 1990-1993 and four consecutive indoor titles from 1997-2000.
From the fall of 1991 to the spring of 1994, Arkansas’ men’s program was literally unbeatable, winning every cross country, indoor track and outdoor track national title. That is nine straight titles in three seasons.
When McDonnell’s teams did not win the national title, they were still in the mix. From the 1982-83 season to the 2005-06 season, the Razorbacks won 42 of the 72 National Championships they competed in. Of the other 30, Arkansas finished in the top five 22 times and no lower than 10th in any of them.
This type of dominance is rare. The 12 straight indoor titles are the most consecutive championships won by any team in any sport in Division I history.
One of the most notable dynasties of all-time, John Wooden’s UCLA men’s basketball teams, won only seven consecutive National Championships. Nick Saban’s Alabama football teams have created a modern dynasty, but won just two straight BCS titles.
McDonnell also led the Razorbacks to 84 conference titles: 38 in the Southwest Conference and 46 in the Southeastern Conference.
Since McDonnell left, the Arkansas men’s track program has continued to be successful, but has only one National Championship to show for it. It has won 12 out of a possible 16 SEC Championships, though.
While the men’s team has enjoyed a lot of success at the national level, the women’s program is still searching for its first National Championship.
In Lance Harter’s 23 years as head coach of Arkansas’s women’s program, the Razorbacks have never finished higher than second at the Cross Country National Championships, third at the Indoor National Championships and fifth at the Outdoor National Championships, but they have won 21 SEC titles.
Because of the zero in the National Championship column, the women’s team isn’t usually given the same appreciation as the men’s team. However, the 21 SEC titles are the second most in conference history and the most since the 1991-92 season, when Arkansas joined the SEC.
The men’s and women’s teams will each go for another SEC title Mar. 1 in College Station, Texas. National titles No. 44 (No. 42 if you exclude the two vacated titles) and No. 1 will be on the line Mar. 15 for the men and women, respectively.