WholeHogSports Coach of the Year:

Bucknam wins all year long

By: Matt Jones
Published: Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Arkansas coach Chris Bucknam holds up the 2013 NCAA Indoor Championship trophy on April 5, 2013 during a celebration in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas coach Chris Bucknam holds up the 2013 NCAA Indoor Championship trophy on April 5, 2013 during a celebration in Fayetteville.

— It's not hard for Chris Bucknam to pinpoint his crowning achievement professionally in 2013.

It came March 9 when Arkansas broke a 7-year national title drought by winning the NCAA Indoor Championship in front of its home crowd at the Randal Tyson Track Center. After clinching the title one even earlier, the Razorbacks capped off the championship night by running the fastest 4x400 relay time in collegiate history.

"We have a picture with the trophy and the best part about it is seeing all those guys as happy as they are," said Bucknam, who was voted the WholeHogSports Coach of the Year for 2013 by a panel of reporters. "They put a lot of hard work, a lot of suffering went into it, emotionally and certainly physically. It isn’t an easy sport to compete in. You’ve got to put your body through quite a bit from a conditioning and training standpoint. To see it culminate with a championship and the way we did it, too, was special."

It was a joyous occasion for Bucknam, who assumed the task five years ago of replacing legendary coach John McDonnell and his scores of championship trophies - 42 national championships (two were later vacated) and 89 conference crowns.

Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long executed the coaching search shortly after arriving in Fayetteville. He said several big name coaches shied away from the job, but was intrigued by Bucknam's enthusiasm for replacing an icon.

"I saw a guy who was extremely successful with no support, with very little resources," Long said. "So when you started looking back at him, he was consistently in the top 20, top 15 at Northern Iowa and really, when you looked at the list of schools, they were the odd team in there. When you see that, it tells you there is something special about this guy because he is able to compete against the big boys without the resources that we certainly have here at Arkansas.

"Secondly, he wanted the challenge. I talked to a lot of coaches during that search and they were hesitant and reluctant to take over for a legend. Chris didn't have that reluctancy. He was confident in how he coached and how he would build the program to be successful here."

The national championship was the first for Bucknam in a head coaching career dating to 1984. He had won a half-dozen conference championships to that point, but finally had it all go right at a NCAA meet that weekend in March.

Arkansas was the preseason No. 1 indoors and didn't relinquish the spot the entire year. The Razorbacks won three separate events at the indoor meet and finished second in another.

"When you have a target on your back like that, managing the team becomes very important," Bucknam said. "It’s not just the workouts but how you manage them emotionally from start to finish be on top. You see a lot of races where the person in the race that’s leading doesn’t lead at the end, but that’s what we did - led from start to finish. That happening is based on the fact that we managed the team pretty well, kept them grounded, but yet we enjoyed it and we didn’t shy away from it. We might not have talked about it every single practice, but everybody knew what was up and they handled it great."

The national championship was far from Bucknam's only feat in 2013. He was named national indoor coach of the year and SEC coach of the year three times as his indoor, outdoor and cross country teams ran their SEC championship win streak to eight combined after winning the cross country meet convincingly in November. Arkansas finished third at the NCAA outdoor meet and for the first time won the John McDonnell Award as the nation's best team in cross country, indoors and outdoors.

In addition to his success with the Razorbacks, Bucknam was also inducted into the athletics hall of fame at Northern Iowa University, where he spent 24 years and won 35 conference team championships as men's and women's coach prior to taking the Arkansas job in 2008.

"It’s been a good year, professionally, no question about that," Bucknam said. "I’m just really proud of our team this year; we competed. I’m proud of my coaching staff. It’s a team effort with Coach (Doug) Case and Coach (Travis) Geopfert. We operate the program. We don’t operate in separate silos. We’re all in as a unit, and I hope that reflects back to the team."

It might have taken longer than some expected or would have liked, but Bucknam has put his stamp on Arkansas' legendary track & field program after suffering through some lean years following McDonnell's retirement and NCAA sanctions levied upon the Razorbacks prior to that.

Arkansas' streak of 34 straight conference cross country championships was snapped less than five months after Bucknam took the job. In the spring of 2010 Arkansas finished seventh at the SEC Outdoor meet and failed to qualify any athletes for the NCAA meet.

The sometimes fiery Massachusetts native felt the pressure of the job mounting, calling the four days spent at the 2010 SEC outdoor championship the worst of his professional life.

"He has a great spirit about him and I could tell at that time that that spirit was wavering a bit and I saw it as an opportunity to pick him and say, 'Look, I have great confidence with you. I see how you work with these young men. We're going to be successful, just keep working your plan,'" Long said.

"We have great respect for Coach McDonnell, but I said, 'You're not going to be able to do it the same way.' And he knew that because that was part of what he had shared with me when I was visiting with him about (taking) the job. And I simply used that as an opportunity to remind him, 'You're building this thing back the way you, Chris Bucknam, can help Arkansas be successful at the high level. So, it's going to take a little a time.' I could tell he was putting a tremendous amount of pressure on himself. I did not need to put any pressure on him."

Bucknam knew he had something special on the horizon, but needed time. His 30-man roster in 2010 was comprised of 22 freshmen and sophomores.

Long's good faith began to pay dividends in 2011 when the Razorbacks made a different kind of history at the SEC outdoor meet. Made up of several athletes who finished seventh the year before, Arkansas tied its own record for margin of victory, opting to skip a relay at the end of the meet.

The Razorbacks haven't lost a SEC meet since.

"That accomplishment right there, because it all starts with a conference meet in the culture of winning, from seventh to first to tying the largest margin of victory ever by a SEC team in two years, I don't know if anyone really noticed that, but that's what we did," Bucknam said. "That led to last year with more championships in the SEC and then we were in the mix for the national title and got it done."

Sitting in an office overlooking John McDonnell Field that is littered with trophies won before and after his own time at Arkansas, Bucknam acknowledges he will likely always coach in McDonnell's shadow.

But he has also made a name for himself and some history at the school. He joined McDonnell, Frank Broyles and Nolan Richardson in 2013 as the only coaches to win a national championship in the history of the Razorbacks.

"Winning a national championship, it doesn't get any better than that in our profession," Bucknam said.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Dave Jorn, Baseball

Arkansas' pitching coach oversaw the greatest season on the mound ever for the program.

The Razorbacks recorded a school-record team earned run average of 1.89. It was the lowest in college baseball since 1976.

With its pitching staff considered the team's strength all year, Arkansas became the first program since Lemoyne in 1992 to finish with a ERA of less than 2.00. The Razorbacks held their opponents to three or fewer runs in 38 of their 61 games and recorded eight shutouts. Their opponents had a .211 season batting average.

Arkansas' pitchers were well-represented in the MLB Draft following the season. Ryne Stanek was a first round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays, while Colby Suggs and Barrett Astin went in the second and third rounds of the draft.

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