Tom Donnelly of Haverford College is one of the winningest coaches in the world of running
By Erin Seglem
Tom Donnelly talks quickly, rattling off a long list of distances and times. “They’re gonna run the bus route first,” he says. Then stops, squinting a little bit, “Do you know what the bus route is?” Immediately, he grabs a pen and paper, laying the pad out on his desk. He starts to draw. As he explains the route his runners will be taking as part of the day’s interval work out, his crisp voice picks up speed. It’s easy for him to envision the familiar course. He has, after all, been coaching these kinds of workouts since 1975.
Donnelly, 60, has been the men’s track and cross-country coach at Haverford College, a 1200 student Division III liberal arts school in suburban Philadelphia, for the last 37 years.
He has coached his team to countess conference championships, and helped 132 men achieve All-American status between track and cross-country. Twenty-five of his runners have also taken home individual national championships. In 2011, the Haverford men, also called “The Goats,” took the Centennial Conference Championships by storm. Along the side of the course, a runner from Dickinson college, which is Haverford’s chief conference rival, held up a homemade sign: “This year, 12% of the Centennial Conference has 83% of the championships. OCCUPY HAVERFORD.” The timely sentiment was true. Every year, other Centennial conference teams work to bring down the small but mighty college but they rarely succeed. This year, the Goats defended their championship title with both the individual and team championship. Donnelly was also awarded coach of the year.
While Donnelly rattles off the times and short distance “pick ups” included in “the bus route,” a short, car-free loop that goes through parts of Haverford and Ardmore, he leans back in his chair. For a second, his head is framed by a dozen all-American certificates. In fact, the white walls of his office are heavily decorated by All-American and championship certificates. None of them, however, say, “Tom Donnelly.” Over the last several decades, Donnelly has collected multiple “Coach of the Year” awards too, from the conference, regional and national levels. None of those trophies are within view.
“You will never see one Coach of the year trophy,” said Brian Sokas, a sophomore Goat. “Yeah,” another, Jeff Duncan, class of 2015, adds, “he throws them away.”
Though Donnelly happily talks about his childhood, one would never realize all of the success the coach had as a runner at Villanova University in the mid to late 1960s. He is a local kid. He grew up in the Olney section of Philadelphia and his father was a roofer. He went to La Salle High School and before attending Villanova. Recruited to run, he was a multi-time all-American and ran on national championship teams. When his college career is mentioned he quickly brushes it off, “Nah,” he waves a hand, “I wasn’t that good. I just ran with good guys.” Donnelly has retained that sense of modesty. According to legend, in 2001, the same day that J.B. Haglund, Haverford, class of 2002, took 1st at the National Cross country championships, Donnelly took his coach of the year award and tossed it into the Mississippi River. Donnelly would always prefer to talk about his athletes’ successes, rather than his own. “A coach is only one person,” he says.
When it comes to his runners’ achievements, the present isn’t just what matters. How each individual developed themselves and became a champion runner is just as valuable. File cabinets and boxes are filled with old running logs. He has his runners turn one in every week. It helps them have a sense of what they’re doing right and sometimes, he adds laughing, what they are doing wrong. He pulls out a manila folder with a calendar on it, pointing to a specific day. That day, the guys that worked out were a little sick because it was so hot. That workout same though, had been done the year before by Anders Hulleberg, class of 2011, who went on to win the Division III National Cross Country Championships. Even through the heat, Donnelly reminded his runners that they had just done the same workout as a national champion.
When it comes to planning for an individual’s season, Donnelly has his runners write down their goals and then, at a meeting, discuss them with him. His goal is make sure that the athletes are not overselling or, as the case more often is, underselling themselves.
After a little sifting through a cardboard box, Donnelly retrieves an old marble notebook. As he flips through it, he stops on one yellowed page. Neat blue block letters say: We won nationals!!! He hesitates for a moment before skipping to another page, pointing at a workout, “30 400s,” he said, “at around 65.” A jaw-dropping workout for most, he and teammates would sprint a lap on the track, ¼ of a mile, in 65 seconds, rest for a minute, and do it again. Then, looking it over, he continues, “Everybody did twenty but I did an extra ten because I was mad. I did the 20th in 56 and got blown away by the other guys, so I did 10 more.” He did an extra 10 just because he was frustrated with himself for not keeping up.
In 1975, Donnelly started coaching at Haverford College. The job was part time at first, though Donnelly immediately poured in full-time hours. Two years later, the college created a full-time position and the coach has been there ever since. During his tenure, Donnelly has coached professionals, such as former worldclass runner and current Villanova head coach, Marcus O’Sullivan, and major Division III champions like J.B. Haglund and Karl Paranya (Paranya was the first man to break the four minute mile in division III.).
Between his years at Villanova and his coaching at Haverford, Donnelly taught history at Archbishop Wood and La Salle High school. He also spent a year at Villanova for graduate school. It was his time there that made him realize that the best way to learn is by doing. That, as well as his love of history and teaching, has followed him through his career. Junior Jordan Schilit says that on his first visit to Haverford, Donnelly spent three hours showing him the campus, which can be contained by a 2.25 mile nature trail, telling short histories about many of the buildings that most on Haverford’s campus pay little attention to. “He really just wants to teach you,” Schilit says. Donnelly wants to teach his runners how to become great. To him, putting in the time and effort is the necessary, but wanting to do that is the only way anyone can truly succeed. “All you can ask for is for them to run well…to do their best.” Donnelly says.
In 2011, the Goats took second at Nationals, losing their title to North Central of Illinois. “I feel like I was the only happy one there.” Donnelly smiled a little bit, his blue eyes twinkling. “I remember when it was a big deal that we got twelfth in the region.” In keeping with his previous philosophy, the Goats ran the best they could that day and that’s enough.
Donnelly checks his watch, with a double take though, he jumps to his feet. “We better get down there,” he says, grabbing a lint-covered black fleece jacket. “It’s going to be cold out there,” he says. At the fieldhouse, some of the early arrivals are milling around. Eventually, as all of the Goats gather, they form a clump, with Donnelly at the center. At first, he makes some jokes, taunting a few of the upperclassmen runners, he makes running references that only a few hardcore track nerds would understand, then mentions something about the last week’s workout. When Donnelly is with his runners he moves between awkward and silly, teasing some while trying to make genuine conversation with others. As he turns his attention to his clipboard, Donnelly adjusts his faded blue Phillies hat a little. Everyday, Donnelly wears a similar uniform: faded jeans, running sneakers, a polo or t shirt and his Phillies cap. When it gets cold, he wears fleece under a heavy down vest that swishes in time with the swing of his arms. His wardrobe is as consistent as his training methods.
Laughter erupts from the center of the circle. Donnelly has built a strong community within his team, one that is focused on enjoying running, through training and racing. The coach says that, “A coach is only one man.” One of his athletes, Soren Rasmussen recalls another interview with Donnelly in which he said, “as a coach you influence your athlete by 1%, maybe.” But so many of Donnelly’s athlete’s would disagree. Rasmussen says that Donnelly is a unique coach because, “He’s not going to try and micro-manage your life or order you around, instead he challenges you to discipline yourself to do the best you can both academically and athletically.” Many of his runners can only describe him as “indescribable.” Donnelly pours hours into his work, going over each runner’s logs and perfecting the workouts he prepares for his team.
Junior Jordan Schilit says, “He cares so much about each runner, so much about the program.” Donnelly doesn’t race his guys for points, he races them because he wants to see them improve their times. This December, he got the all-American certificates for several of his runners and he acted as if it was the first time he had a runner do so well at the national level. In the fieldhouse, he’s bouncing on his toes a little bit, looking at Andrew Sturner, a senior, who had just come back from a run. “Hey,” Donnelly says, grinning, “your certificate,” he stumbles over his words a bit, “your all-American thing came through today.” Sturner smiles, responding with a quiet nod,
“Cool.” He says. For the Goats, seeing another All-American certificate in Donnelly’s office is like seeing another tree take root within the Haverford’s arboretum. For Donnelly though, every individual’s achievement is just as thrilling as the last.