FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A season after winning its 11th NCAA cross country national championship in the freezing temperatures of Ames, Iowa, last November, UA head coach John McDonnell is now focusing his attention on making it a dozen. Despite losing six of his top seven runners from the 2000 squad, McDonnell is more than ready to get things underway. Here’s a Q&A with the legendary coach previewing the 2001 season.
Talk about this year’s team and who you expect to lead the squad. Address the problem of losing many of your top runners from last season’s national title winning team and how you expect to fill the void.
“We’re definitely young. When you think about last year’s team that won the national championship, we have only one guy back out of the top seven. To look at it that way you would think we are in a heap of trouble, but I don’t think so. Daniel Lincoln is the guy who is back and then Dirk Heinze who came in January who is a very accomplished athlete. Alistair Cragg transferred from SMU and is a good 5,000-meter runner. There are three top-notch guys that possibly could have been on the team last year. Add to that Fernando Cabada, who made the World Junior Cross Country National team last year, but couldn’t make our team. Also, Chris Mulvaney, who ran well last year and was our eighth man most of the time, should step it up a bit. Westley Alkin is also a very capable individual. After that, we go down to the new guys coming in. Jason Sandfort has come from a program like ours where he ran good mileage for high school, so he could be a factor.”
Breaking your team down into three groups (returning upperclassmen, newcomers, and freshmen) what do you expect from each classification?
“The upperclassmen are going to be the guys that make the difference. As always we have some talented freshmen and transfers. Hopefully there will be one of them who steps up and becomes a leader, too. Last year at this time when I was thinking about whether or not we could win a national championship, I thought we lacked depth. We only had five guys last year and you can do it like that if everything hits like we did. In reality, this season we have more depth, but we have some unproven talent up front. My bet though is those guys will do it.”
What do you see as the weakness on your team right now that may stand in your way of winning a 12th national title?
“Our fifth and sixth man are not proven right now. If you want to be a good team you need to have those guys on paper and if they stay healthy you’ll be great. You’re always hoping to have a backup. We have one or two that will step up.”
That being said, there are other teams around the country that return more in terms of experience. What are the strengths of this young team?
“I look at Colorado and teams like that and they probably have better talent coming back then we do. We have tradition on our side and I think we have leadership on this team and I think that’s more important. We’ve got guys that really believe that they are going to win it. We’ve never been a team that tried for second, we’ve always got the talent to win, and I don’t think this team will be any different. I like all the freshmen that are in here and I know they will be the future of this team. They are excited to be a part of a program that has won so many national championships.”
Talk about your schedule, which is one that features two home events with the season starting in Fayetteville on September 7th and running through the NCAA national championship, which returns to Furman, S.C., for the first time since 1997. That season you finished second to Stanford, but how does the knowledge of the course factor into the equation this year?
“Up at Springfield (Mo.) where we run every year we are given a chance to see how close we can pack five guys together. That’s where we start to get an idea of how the team will be. We’ve gone to the OSU Jamboree in Stillwater year after year because it is a tough demanding course. It’s up and down and you’re not going to get away from it. I call it a man’s course because you have to attack it or it will take you to your knees. After that we have the Chili Pepper in Fayetteville. Our course is not as tough, but they run it at a fast pace so it serves its purpose. From there we go to the SEC Championship at Auburn. I’ve been told it is flat and furious and that will suit a lot of our guys because we have quite a bit of speed. The district championship is at Texas A&M and that is flat, too. The only problem you’ll have down there is heat, which I don’t like. I’d rather have hills than heat. Then we go to the national championships at Furman where we were in 1997. We know that course to be a demanding one as well, but it is a fair course.”
For the fans following the teams this season, what do you expect them to see? How do you think the team will perform and what should supporters be looking for?
“I think the fans that follow us are going to be surprised with some of the talent we’ve got. You lose six of your top seven and people start to think the cupboard is empty. It’s not, and I think we’re going to have some very impressive performances.”
Combining a demanding practice schedule with five away meets, what resources are in place to insure the Razorbacks get a quality education, and what emphasis do you place on academics?
“Cross country has been outstanding as far as academics go. In 1998, we were the top academic team in the country along with winning the national championship. In 1999, we were fourth in academics and also won the national title. It was nice in 1998 to come out on top in both. Every year we beat Stanford, which is nice, because you have to compare apples with apples. During the past three years we’ve maintained above a 3.0 grade point average by 15 athletes. It’s even going to be better this year, because we open up our new academic support facility (the Bob and Marilyn Bogle Academic Center), which is absolutely fantastic. Everything is there, they just have to take advantage of it.”