Gary Taylor, a former star runner for University of Arkansas track coach John McDonnell, had related moments before how the legendary coach had knack for inspiring and developing winners.
Then, he became a big winner.
In a drawing at the conclusion of the third Arkansas Sportcasters/Sportswriters Hall of Fame banquet Saturday night, Taylor won a 42-inch HD televison donated by Zellner’s. He had introduced McDonnell for the organization’s lifetime achievement award and walked into the University of Central Arkansas Student Center ballroom right behind his coach. That could have meant that McDonnell, who won 40 national track titles at the UA and is the most successful coach in college sports history, might have been one number away from winning the grand prize. But he gave a thumbs-up to one of his prize pupil as Taylor’s wife cheered loudly at the results.
Taylor told a story that when he was a freshman at Arkansas, the Hogs had to place high in the climactic 4x400 relay to beat Indiana and win the national title in 1984. The coach told Taylor, who was running the anchor leg, to go to the lead after three laps “then blow everybody away.”
He asked his coach if there was anyone to worry about. “Naw, nothing special,” he said McDonnell told him. He did as he was told, leading the Hogs to a second-place finish, clinching the national title. But he was overtaken down the stretch by a confident, fast runner who he later would win a bronze medal at the Olympics.
“And John knew about him,” Taylor said. “But he had a way of making you believe that anything could be done.”
McDonnell noted that he was working for $2,500 as an assistant track coach at the UA when Frank Broyles took over as athletic director and made him head track coach. He said Broyles told him he wanted to elevate the sport at the UA. McDonnell asked about expectations and national championships.
“Frank told me that if ‘we get one every 15 years, I’ll be happy.’” McDonnell said. He pointed to Broyles, retired at 83 and last year’s lifetime achievement winner who was in the audience of about 300, and said, ‘Coach, I hope you’re happy.”
He said jumper Mike Conley and Niall O’Shaughnessy, who was the top miler in the world for two years as an UA runner, put the UA program on the map. “Coach Broyles used to say that Niall was a running billboard for Arkansas, and Conley was as good a person as an athlete and that’s saying a lot.”
The late Jim Elder, longtime KARN broadcaster and voice of the Arkansas Travelers, went into the Hall as a sportscaster and his good friend Harry King, who has covered sports in Arkansas for 47 years for the Arkansas Gazette, the Associated Press and Stephens Media, was the third sportswriting inductee in the organization’s short history.
Longtime sportswriter Jim Bailey, who had previously entered the Hall as both a sportswriter and for lifetime achievement, presented both.
“Jim was always reasonable and kind,” said Bailey, who worked many a night covering the Arkansas Travelers for the Gazette as Elder did the play-by-play.
“It’s a treat to hear Jim Bailey talk about my dad,” said Susie Elder, his daughter, in accepting the award. “Jim Bailey’s dry sense of humor could put my dad in stitches like nobody’s business.”
She also noted that the press box at Ray Winder Field and now Dickey-Stephens Park is named the “Jim Box” in honor of Elder and Bailey.
Elder’s widow, the former Betty Gadberry, is from the Enola area, and he was an uncle to Conway attorney Frank Shaw.
“To my dad, stories were not just stories but were stories behind the score and beyond the game,” Suzie Elder said.
She also noted the special nature of Jim Elder being inducted along with King and following the late Paul Eells and the late Orville Henry, who were the charter sportscaster and sportswriter inductees.
“I look in one of dad’s cigar boxes of old pictures and those are the people in there a lot,” she said.
King, who had a 36-year career at the AP covering almost every Razorback event during that period and who has been a sports columnist for Stephens Media since 2002, said it was a high honor following Henry and Jim Bailey into the sportswriting division of the Hall.
“But Orville Henry and Jim Bailey are in a class by themselves and always will be,” he said. “All the rest of us will always be in a fruitless game of catchup.”
Bailey recalled the day that King was hired by Henry as a part-timer with the Arkansas Gazette. He said King and another prospect were interviewed the same day. King paid attention while the other prospect spent part of his time thumbing through a Cary Middlecoff golf instruction book and constantly moved his hands in a phantom golf swing. As the two newcomers began part-time work together, Bailey said King went right to work while the other staffer spent much of his first day reading the Middlecoff book and going through a series of phantom golf swings.
“Soon, the other staffer was not there anymore,” Bailey said. “Both he and Harry came in the same day. Harry is now in his 47th year of sportswriting. I don’t know what happened to the other kid but maybe his swing improved.”
King, who graduated from North Little Rock High School and began his sportswriting career at the Arkansas Gazette under Henry and Bailey, saluted his family that included his wife, Ellen, his son Petey (a former Arkansas State Golf Association champion), his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, ages 9 and 6.
He pointed to the grandchildren and said, “I promise you they put all the sports results in perspective by just being around.”
Also honored at the banquet was the late Bob Ralston, who was presented with a service award, and former UCA basketball coach Don Dyer, who was honored by the Arkansas Sports Club as Member of the Year.
Previous inductees into the Hall were: Eells, 2007 sportscaster; the late Bud Campbell, 2008 sportscaster; Henry, 2007, sportswriter; Bailey, 2008 sportswriter and 2007 lifetime achievement; and Broyles, 2008 lifetime achievement.