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Frank O’Mara: Hall of Famer

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

Growing up in the Irish city of Limerick, Frank O’Mara enjoyed sports. Gaelic football, hurling, cricket, soccer, basketball, golf, tennis and thoroughbred racing all were popular in the city of 57,000 people, which is on the River Shannon in the western part of the country.

It was rugby that most interested O’Mara when he was young.

Limerick often is referred to as the home of Irish rugby. The All-Ireland League has been dominated by teams from there in recent decades, and the secondary schools are rugby powers.

“Rugby and soccer are sports that benefit people who are really fit, so you usually are able to run if you play those sports,” says O’Mara, now the chief executive officer of Allied Wireless Communications, a Little Rock-based telecommunications company. “At about age 11, I entered a 400-meter race and finished third nationally. By age 16, I had determined that I was never going to be big enough to play rugby in college.”

O’Mara concentrated instead on running. In the process, he became one of the greatest track athletes in the storied history of the University of Arkansas track program. On the evening of Friday, March 8, O’Mara will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Competing for legendary Coach John McDonnell at Arkansas, O’Mara was an All-American and Southwest Conference champion his sophomore, junior and senior years before becoming McDonnell’s first outdoor NCAA champion runner in 1983 when he won the 1,500-meter run at Houston.

O’Mara later spent three years as a coach for the Razorbacks and was a member of the coaching staff in 1985 when the school won its first NCAA triple crown. He also continued to compete in track events around the world. O’Mara was the world indoor champion twice in the 3,000-meter run and competed for the Irish national team in three Olympic Games — 1984 at Los Angeles, 1988 at Seoul and 1992 at Barcelona.

At age 11, O’Mara went to a boarding school, St. Munchin’s College, an institution in the nearby town of Corbally that was founded in 1796. During O’Mara’s first year at the school, there was a senior named Niall O’Shaughnessy who was a track star. O’Mara kept up with O’Shaughnessy’s career as O’Shaughnessy headed to Arkansas and became the star athlete for the school’s track and cross country programs.

O’Shaughnessy became McDonnell’s first Southwest Conference individual champion by winning the 1974 indoor 880. In fact, he was the first Arkansas track athlete to win any event at a conference meet since 1967. When O’Shaughnessy placed sixth at the 1974 NCAA indoor championships in Detroit as a true freshman, he became the first Arkansas track athlete in two decades to earn All-American honors.

McDonnell, who had been born in 1938 in County Mayo in Ireland, became a U.S. citizen in 1969. He coached at New Providence High School in New Jersey in 1969-70 and at Lafayette High School in Louisiana in 1971 before being hired at Arkansas.

McDonnell, whose 42 national titles at Arkansas are more than any coach in any sport in the history of collegiate athletics, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1987.

McDonnell was hired as Arkansas’ cross country and assistant track coach in 1972. He took over as head track coach in 1978 when Ed Renfrow left coaching. The early foundation of McDonnell’s teams was built with Irish distance runners such as O’Shaughnessy and Tom Aspel.

O’Shaughnessy’s parents had been reluctant to allow their son to go to college in the United States, but McDonnell convinced them that he would take care of young Niall.

In a new book titled simply “John McDonnell” from the University of Arkansas Press, O’Shaughnessy tells author Andrew Maloney: “You have to put that in the perspective of 1973. Travel and communication weren’t as easy, and they really wanted me to wait another year. John actually came to my house. My father was a veterinary surgeon and had dealt with farmers all his life. With John being an old farm boy, I think my parents saw the character John had, and he actually changed their mind. … They just saw he was a person of character, and his word was valid and they would trust him to take care of me.”

“I probably would not have known about Arkansas if it weren’t for the fact that Niall had gone to my school in Ireland,” O’Mara says. “He had the second fastest time in the world for the mile in 1977, and that got a lot of attention at home.”

When O’Mara was 15, his father died. O’Mara had decided after his junior year of high school that he wanted to run for McDonnell at Arkansas, but O’Mara’s mother insisted on meeting the coach. McDonnell made the same positive impression on her that he had made on O’Shaughnessy’s parents several years before.

“She thought she was putting her son in safe hands,” O’Mara said of his mother, who recently died in Ireland.

O’Mara had won the Irish junior national championship with a personal-best time of 3:53 for 1,500 meters. Maloney writes in his book: “Whether he was at the ranch or on the track, John would always understand the importance of having a bell cow. The bell cow led the others and set the standard for others to follow. For years, Niall O’Shaughnessy had been the bell cow of the Razorback track and cross country program. While Niall remained in Fayetteville training professionally under John as he pursued his master’s degree, he could no longer play that role for the collegiate team.

“In the spring of 1978, John recruited two young men from opposite sides of the world with the expectation they each could potentially become the new bell cows of the Arkansas track and field and cross country program: Frank O’Mara from Limerick, Ireland, and Randy Stephens from Birmingham, Ala. While the bells would ring louder for Stephens than O’Mara for a few years, eventually each of them took the standard of excellence O’Shaughnessy had set and raised it to an entirely new level.

“Given the initial difficulties he had faced in attracting American talent to Arkansas, McDonnell certainly never shied away from providing opportunities for aspiring Irishmen as a means not only of helping his program but also jump-starting the careers of young men.”

McDonnell said: “Most of the athletes who did well on the junior level came to the United States. The weather was against them in Ireland, and they didn’t support them financially enough. The kid was getting a free education, and it bridged the gap between junior and international levels so by the time they finish college they are ready to run in an international field.”

O’Mara also had been recruited by Providence, St. John’s and Manhattan College.

“Those are all cold places,” he says. “Arkansas sounded warm to me. I signed with Arkansas without ever having seen the campus. I had never even been to the United States. I can tell you that I immediately liked the place. And I loved the people.”

O’Mara was not as homesick as one might expect since he had been at a boarding school for six years.

“Everything was highly regimented at St. Munchin’s,” he says. “So I had that part of it figured out. At Arkansas, we would travel in vans to places like Houston and Des Moines. With all of that time on the road, you had to be extremely disciplined to get your studies done, especially if you were an engineering major as I was.”

McDonnell had recruited two other athletes from Ireland the same year he recruited O’Mara, but the coach decided to room O’Mara with Stephens, his prize recruit from Alabama.

“He was the first non-American I had ever met,” Stephens told Maloney. “He had come over with a little suitcase, whereas I brought a U-Haul with everything: televisions, stereo and golf clubs, which for some strange reason I thought I would have time to play but never did my whole time.”

Being from Alabama, Stephens was most impressed by the fact that one of the albums O’Mara brought with him was by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

O’Mara remembers well the day he won the 1,500-meter run at the 1983 NCAA outdoor championships at Houston.

 “I had run poorly at the NCAA indoor championships at Syracuse that year, and I was determined not to let my coach down at the outdoor meet,” he says. “I was boxed in on the last lap but used sharp elbows and got free. I just had to win for him. Coach McDonnell had a way of making you want to make him proud. You saw that he had invested everything in that team. He was all in for us, and it motivated those on the team to be all in for him.”

Maloney describes it this way: “After O’Mara’s impressive 1,500-meter (3:42.81) and 5,000-meter (14:12.38) victories at the Southwest Conference meet led Arkansas to its second consecutive outdoor championship and triple crown, there would be no emotional letdown this time for any of the Razorbacks. Frank entered the 1,500-meter final at the outdoor championships in Houston both physically and mentally prepared to win.

“It was a loaded field — including the likes of Marcus O’Sullivan of Villanova, as well as Joaquim Cruz of Oregon and Early Jones of Eastern Michigan. The latter two would win medals at the Los Angeles Olympics the following year. Jones entered the race as the favorite. … Boxed in heading into the last lap, O’Mara had no doubts in his mind about what he needed to do.”

While assisting McDonnell with the program and running internationally, O’Mara earned his master’s degree from the university in 1986 and a law degree in 1993. He ran until 1995, winning world indoor championships in the 3,000-meter run in 1987 and 1991.

“I continued to train with the Razorback team that entire time,” O’Mara says.

O’Mara moved to Little Rock in 1996 to work as part of the legal team for Alltel, later becoming the telecommunications giant’s vice president of product management, head of human resources, head of customer service and finally chief marketing officer. He had been offered a job with Nike in Oregon in 1996 but wanted to stay in Arkansas. Alltel sold to Verizon, and O’Mara moved to Allied, which recently announced that it’s being bought by AT&T.

O’Mara and his wife Patty have three sons. O’Mara keeps his hand in the sport by serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the cross country and track teams at Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys.

He also worked as a commentator on Irish television at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

“I have visited 56 countries through running,” he says. “I loved it. I missed it for a time when I first quit competing, but I don’t any longer. It was time to grow up.”

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