Don't worry, this is not about me. But I will admit a connection. I am a proud graduate of Haverford College, a very small and very elite college on the main line of Philadelphia. And thus I was surprised and delighted when I turned this morning to the NY Times Website and on the front page encountered At Haverford, Tossing It All in Name of Teaching, which begins as follows:
HAVERFORD, Pa. — Holding his award in his hands, Tom Donnelly, Haverford College’s longtime men’s cross-country and track coach, walked to the banks of the Mississippi River and tossed the trophy in the water. This was 2001, but it could have been any of several years that Donnelly has won an N.C.A.A. Division III Coach of the Year award.
He throws them all away.
"Usually in the garbage," Donnelly said, explaining that the 2001 season happened to come to an end next to the Mississippi. "We ran terrible that day, so I wasn’t waiting. I blamed myself."
Please keep reading.
Haverford has had its share of legendary coaches. In soccer, the sport I played, Jimmy Mills was in the soccer hall of fame as both player and coach, and was picked to lead the 1956 US Olympic soccer team. He was able to turn people with little experience into quality players, and in a time when there were no divisions in soccer we played teams that won national championships, turned out scads of All-Americans (as of the beginning of this decade we still had produced more than any other college or university). Jimmy passed before one of his players, Joe Taylor (now retired from Princeton), won a Nobel prize in Physics.
But Tom Donnolly is in a class by himself, as you will learn by reading this article. Consider this:
62 regional and conference championships
24 individual N.C.A.A. champions
all that in the thirty-four years since Tom came down Lancaster Pike from Villanova where he had studied and run to coach at the much smaller Haverford, after a few years coaching at a local high school.
When I began at Haverford in 1963, we had less than 500 men. The college has a bit over 1100 students now, the majority of whom are female, so the pool from which Donnolly draws his athletes is only a bit more than 500. Kvein Foley was Tom's first national champion when he won the 1,500 in 1981 (and also the first Division III runner to break 4 minutes in the mile). He notes
"For a team to place high at the N.C.A.A. cross-country championships, you have to get five guys to be among the top 50 finishers. So with about 500 men at Haverford, Tom has to get 1 percent of the male student body to be among the country’s best 50 runners. That’s insane."
And Haverford is Division III, which means there are no athletic scholarships.
Tom is so well-regarded that he could easily go to a major university, for more money and prestige. Consider this:
"Dunking that trophy is typical Tom and maybe explains his unbelievable success at such a small college," said Marcus O’Sullivan, the four-time Olympian who is now the head coach at Villanova University, a Division I track powerhouse. "Any time in the last 20 years Tom could have gone anywhere he wanted in college coaching. He’s that good. But Haverford has been his team and he could never get himself to look past any new class of kids coming in. He wanted to help them, so he has stayed. And look what he’s done."
O'Sullivan, then the three-time indoor world champion in the 1,500, used to come down the pike to get individual coaching from Donnolly, as did the world record holder in the 1,500 meters Sydney Maree.
One of Tom Donnolly's greatest successes, J. B. Haglund, who won an NCAA Post-Graduate fellowship, scored a triple victory as a senior, winning the cross-country title, the indoor 5,000 and the outdoor 10,000. Let me share what J. B. has to say:
"I was one of those far from exceptional high school runners who arrived at Haverford and was swept along by the program and Tom’s teachings," said J. B. Haglund, who as a senior in 2001-2 won the Division III championship in cross-country, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. "I remember one day seeing Marcus O’Sullivan on the track doing a Tom workout, and I remember that Tom spent as much time working with the slowest kid on our team that day as he did with Marcus.
"Whoever you are, if you want to come and work hard, Tom has time for you. He says this over and over: ‘The team is only as strong as the commitment of the least-accomplished person on the team.’ "
This year Tom's team had the highest GPA of any Division III team, 3.43. At Haverford, academics still come first.
The coaching as teaching model is one that influenced my own days as a coach. This year was the first in my 10 years in my high school that I have not been involved with coaching soccer. For most of those years I coached JV, one year girls and six years boys. The satisfaction was not so much all the games we won as it was seeing the players develop their potential, and learn to work together as a team. And I was quite proud of my insistence on their maintaining their academic performance. That came first. I believe that proper coaching leads the student athlete to a self-discipline that transcends the boundaries of the individual sport and positively affects other areas of life, including academics. And as I had to learn as a coach to modify my approach to the needs of my athletes, I found my own teaching also positively affected in a similar fashion. And like good coaching, good teaching requires a great deal of preparation,and the ability to make modifications on the fly to meet the needs of the moment.
Even if you are not normally interested in athletics and coaching, I think you will find this article about Tom Donnolly interesting. The occasion of this article is interesting: the team finished 2nd in the conference Cross-country championship, ending
a streak of 15 consecutive Haverford titles. One of Haverford’s top performers broke his leg earlier this season, and several of the team’s runners have been slowed by sickness.
"It’s not what we expected, but we acknowledge the other team’s accomplishment and we recover," Donnelly said. "It goes back to the essence of the educational experience. What can be learned from it? Probably a lot."
I did not overlap with Tom Donnolly, but as an alumnus have always been proud of what he has accomplished. It is with delight that I encountered the piece in this morning's New York Times, and it is with pleasure that I have taken the time to share it with you.
The article ends with Tom working in his office handwriting letters to possible recruits. It goes on
Looming above him on the walls, crammed from floor to ceiling, are more than 100 framed all-American certificates. One entire wall is just for Haverford track or cross-country national champions.
Why, he was asked, was it acceptable to keep and display those awards?
"Those recognize the achievements of some people who worked extremely hard and had great teammates," Donnelly answered. "I didn’t have anything to do with those."
Oh yes he did.
I hope you enjoyed it.