Athlete Feature 26 - Niall Bruton - USA Athletics Scholarships

Athlete Feature 26 – Niall Bruton

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We spoke to one of Ireland’s most successful NCAA track exports – Niall Bruton

Niall Bruton was born and bred within a mile of Dublin’s Santry Stadium. In his formative years at St Aidan’s CBS, football, both gaelic and association, were his sports of choice. But it was the nearby Santry Stadium, and its tenants Clonliffe Harriers, that went on to showcase his athletic abilities best. He went on to cover that metric mile distance in 3:35, and along the way accumulate a wealth of accolades including a World Universities title, 11 NCAA team titles, 2 individual NCAA crowns, a 4th place finish in the World Indoors, World Championship finalist outdoors and an Olympic semi-final. He stands beside a legacy of great milers to have won the Wannamaker mile, doing so at Madison Square Gardens in 1994 against the then Irish World Indoor Champion Marcus O’Sullivan. He also became the youngest Irish athlete to break the 4:00 mile, aged just 19, but it is his time as an Arkansas Razorback that we met up with him to discuss.

Niall emerged into the NCAA recruiting sphere a 3:47 1500m man. Providence College, with its rich Irish tradition, was an attractive proposition to any aspiring Irish middle distance athlete. Located on the eastern seaboard and with an enshrined Irish tradition, the Friars had expressed interest in the Dubliner. But it was John McDonnell, the charismatic Mayo man at the helm of the Arkansas Razorbacks, who got their man, albeit with the help of former Irish Razorback Frank O’Mara. Just as Niall O’Shaughnessy had sold Arkansas some years previously to O’Mara, now it was O’Mara’s turn to sell it to Bruton. “John was a huge factor. My coach Peter McDermott thought it was a good fit and believed Arkansas was the right decision. The tradition of Arkansas, and the Irish legends that had gone before, was hugely appealing and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Athletes now have a much easier decision process. With no internet in the early 90s, it was up to word-of-mouth and personal recommendations to sell that vision. “Frank O’Mara really helped.” It was the words of the 3:53 miler, who 11 years previously, had been in the same shoes that resonated most. “It sounds clichéd, but you have to go with your gut instinct on these things. I had no recruiting visit but speaking to John and Frank, I knew it was the right decision.”

Moving from Dublin to the Ozark Mountains seems a daunting proposition, especially on gut instinct. Bruton’s was spot on though. Through his next 4 years in Fayetteville under the tutelage of McDonnell he won 11 out of the 12 available national team titles (only being evaded by the ’91 Outdoor Championships in Eugene), such was the Arkansas dominance in the 1990s. While he admits to home sickness in his first year, his results didn’t show it. “There was a great team ethic which helped me to settle in. John was always there too in case you needed to talk. He was more than a coach.”

In his Irish Schools days, Niall Bruton traded blows with Nigel Brunton, their names providing ample scope for confusion. “We had loads of great races. We’ve both been credited with each other’s wins at times, with journalists and commentators both getting it wrong.” It was perhaps in the script that they would both end up in the same freshman class at Arkansas. Brunton had just clocked 3:45 at the end of that summer at Santry Stadium, making him a couple of seconds quicker of Bruton. “We travelled out to Fayetteville together, and were roommates for the first year. That really helped. Unfortunately, Nigel got really homesick and returned home after his first year and enrolled at UCD (University College Dublin).” But any suggestion that homesickness would compromise Bruton’s athletic development was quashed when he qualified for the NCAA Indoor mile in his freshman year.

When quizzed about certain training at Arkansas, including the fabled sub-50 minute 10 mile steady state runs, Bruton was keen to clarify. “I only ever got up to 75/80 mile a week during my time there”. Despite bettering the 4:01 automatic qualifying time for the Indoor Nationals in his freshman year, McDonnell opted to not enter his protégé. “Arkansas does have a reputation for hard work. You’ve just got to look how John decided to hold me back by not entering me in the mile though. We trained hard. It was controlled and intense, relentless at times, but we never crossed that line. We did some big sessions, such as 16x400m off 50secs in 61s. When you’re training with the likes of Graham Hood, Ruban Reina, Joe Falcon, Jason Bunston, we pushed each other on. When you went through 200m in 29.2 feeling relaxed, you’d move out and let someone else through like cyclists drafting. It was metronomic, and you could tell that it was 29.4, and too quick, without looking at your watch. It was all automatic and instinctive. It was a very disciplined lifestyle and the key to the success was first and foremost John McDonnell. In addition there was a great team and we worked for each other day in, day out.”

Renowned as a miler with indoor NCAA titles in ’93 and ’94, Bruton cites cross country as his favourite season despite incredibly never winning a race. “It was the camaraderie. I loved it. My favourite race would probably have to be NCAA XC in my sophomore year.” Despite the 10km distance, he finished 2nd in his sophomore year in Arizona, in a field containing Iowa State’s Jon Brown. “It was firm and I had 5mm spikes on it. It was made for a miler” he joked. In his senior year he collected the bronze medal, and sandwiched between both was a 25th place as a junior in Indiana.”

Despite John McDonnell masterminding the Arkansas dominance during these years, Bruton was keen recognise his fellow athletes’ and coaches’ contribution to the success. “Doug Clark, John’s assistant, was brilliant and really an unsung hero of that Arkansas program. Dick Booth and Stanley Redwine really were excellent too.”

Despite the success that Arkansas enjoyed during his collegiate career, winning never became a burden or a weight. “I wouldn’t say a burden. I’d call it a privilege. It was a special time and every guy felt there was something great going on. We had a responsibility to uphold that tradition of excellence.” In his current role as Nike Club Business Manager for Manchester United, he draws parallels between McDonnell and Alex Ferguson. “I asked Sir Alex what makes a great player. He said, ‘Hard work. Working hard all of your life is a talent.’ Having been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Manchester United during the both pre-season and the normal season, there’s a winning feel that pervades the club. That’s like John McDonnell. He was tough and disciplined. We were privileged custodians of a great tradition. Arkansas once went on a 34 year SEC cross country winning streak and being part of it was special, and of course there was a lot of expectation, but it never became a burden.”

As if remaining competitive over the three NCAA seasons wasn’t tough enough for Bruton, he also competed back in Europe in the summer. Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium hosted the 1991 World Universities and it was Bruton who took 1500m gold with a 50 last lap. “I think the last 300m was 37, and the last 200m was 23.3. It was off a slow pace, 2:12 at 800, but I think if you put me in blocks over 200m I’d only run you a 23.2.” His performances outside of the NCAA didn’t end there. The 1995 World Indoor Championships saw the greatest miler of all-time, Hicham El Guerrouj, take the win, but Bruton placed an excellent fourth. “That’s actually the biggest regret of my career. I was in fourth and my hero Fermin Cacho was coming back to me on the home straight. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I went by him with about 15 metres to go. But, I was so amazed and thrilled with beating Cacho that I lost concentration and Erik Nedeau out-dipped me for third. Erik’s a great friend and I was pleased for him, but I still regret that moment.”

Of his four-year NCAA career, he remains reluctant to label anyone as an “Ali-Frazier” rival. “There were loads of top guys around then, as well as teams like Providence, Iona, Villanova and Tennessee. Louis Quintana, Andy Keith (Hereford) and even Mark Carroll were great competitors, but I’d say my teammates were as tough as all the others. Joe Falcon, Graham Hood, Ruban Reina to name only three. We had 6/7 Olympians in our group at a time. We all fed off each other in training.”

Bruton’s athletic resume is massively impressive, but tragically short. Osteo-arthritis in his right hip forced him to hang up the spikes prematurely at the age of 29. “It was my job, my livelihood and I loved being an athlete. I really struggled to come to terms with it.” He went underground, and distanced himself from the sport as a coping mechanism. While many of his contemporaries have continued in the sport in a coaching capacity, his self-exile took him on a different career path. “I’d like to have coached. I think I’d have done a decent job from everything I picked up from John at Arkansas. Putting something back into the sport would have been great but I dealt with my injury a different way. However, I have worked for Nike for ten years now and love the everyday challenge. Working for the Nike brand and being the Nike club business manager for Manchester United is something that I am proud of.”

McDonnell remains the most successful NCAA coach in cross country/track and field with a staggering 42 NCAA team titles and 5 NCAA triples crowns during his 30 reign. Somewhat fittingly, he has averaged 1.4 team titles per year, a statistic shared by Sir Alex Ferguson during his 26 year tenure at Old Trafford. “There’s no fluke in being that successful. John was disciplined. He had that knack of knowing how and when to deal with you. He gave us all a lecture at some point but there was massive mutual respect. He was like a father figure to us. He had a long-term plan for us all, both on and off the track. He prepared us for life in general and we all owe him a lot.”

When pressed on advice for prospective NCAA student-athletes, Bruton was apologetic about the triteness of his answer. “Do your research. Find a good team, as you need to be an exceptionally strong-minded individual to train alone. Hindsight is great but looking back it was the right choice to go to the University of Arkansas and run for John McDonnell. It was also a massive honour to be part of a tradition and to run with some outstanding team mates. I hope that I helped in some small way with that tradition.”

“But most of all use your gut instinct. It’s usually right. It helps too if you can find a great coach like John McDonnell.”

It was that very intuition that he employed back as a Dublin schoolboy for his NCAA decision; advice that’s hard to argue with.

Above: Interview and race footage from Wannamaker Mile victory complete with stereotypical Irish music accompaniment

Below: Footage from second successive NCAA mile title in 1994

Huge thanks to Niall for giving his time up for this interview.

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