HIGH PROFILE: CHRISTOPHER ERIC BUCKNAM:

Making Strides

Following a legendary track coach at the UA would be a daunting leap for most coaches. This one takes it in stride.

By: RICH POLIKOFF SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Published: Sunday, September 1, 2013
University of Arkansas men's cross country and track and field Head coach Chris Bucknam stands outside his office at the outdoor track facility in Fayetteville where he will begins his sixth season with the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Photo by David Gottschalk
University of Arkansas men's cross country and track and field Head coach Chris Bucknam stands outside his office at the outdoor track facility in Fayetteville where he will begins his sixth season with the Arkansas Razorbacks.

FAYETTEVILLE - It takes maybe half a sentence to figure out where Chris Bucknam is from.

The head coach of the men’s cross-country and track and field teams at University of Arkansas has an accent that’s pure Massachusetts, all “ahs” and no “Rs.” It’s the voice of someone who grew up in Beverly, just north of Boston, dreaming of becoming the next Yaz, the next Bobby Orr, the next Dave Cowens.

“I grew up playing hockey on the ponds,” Bucknam recalls. “Track was probably the furthest thing from my mind when I was growing up.”

Bucknam moved away from Massachusetts after graduating high school, going to Vermont for college and then spending more than half a lifetime in Cedar Falls, Iowa - with a brief but fortuitous stop in Michigan along the way - before coming to Arkansas in 2008.

It has been close to 40 years since Bucknam left Boston, but he hasn’t shed all traces of the city. He still has an all-consuming love of track, as strong as it was when he was a middle-distance runner on a state-championship-winning team at Beverly High School.

Self Portrait: Chris Bucknam

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: July 20, 1956, in Beverly, Mass.

FAMILY: Wife Cindy, son Eric, daughter Kate

THE BEST ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED was from my dad, “Money is replaceable, but time isn’t. So do what you love doing, because you never get the time back.”

SOMETHING YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT ME is I was a ski instructor in college.

FAVORITE MOVIE: Cinderella Man.

MY TIP FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE TO RUN, don’t run in broken-down running shoes. Replace them often.

MY SECOND BEST TIP, be coachable.

MY ASSISTANTS TEASE ME about almost everything, but their favorite is my bland New England diet. We didn’t even have pepper on our kitchen table growing up.

WHEN I’M ON A PLANE, I like to sleep.

I’D LIKE TO KNOW MORE ABOUT how the most successful racehorse trainers train their racehorses when the horses can’t provide feedback.

IF I HAD AN EXTRA HOUR A DAY, I would spend it at home.

FAVORITE MEMORY AS A SPORTS FAN: Watching Dave Wottle win the gold medal in the 800 meters at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He had a funny name, came from a school with a funny name (Bowling Green). He wore a golf hat during the race, and he passed two or three athletes in the final 100 meters to win! The famous Curt Gowdy from Wide World of Sports fame was announcing the race.

A WORD OR TWO TO SUM ME UP: Resolute, undeterred

It’s a passion that doesn’t wane despite a seemingly never-ending schedule. With cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track, no college sport has a longer competitive season. This academic year, the first cross-country meet is Friday, and the last outdoor meet, the NCAA Championships, concludes on June 14.

“How we approach everything is about pace,” he says. “From an athlete’s standpoint, you can only go to the well so many times. I can’t be cracking the whip all year long.”

That sense of pace, and the toughness he got from those hockey games on frozen Massachusetts ponds, helped Bucknam get through a trying time not long ago, when every bit of news seemed to be bad.

In May 2009, less than a year after Bucknam got the job at Arkansas, his wife, Cindy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next year, she would battle the disease while the Razorbacks struggled mightily, finishing an unheard-of seventh at the SEC Indoor Championships in 2010. Meanwhile, Bucknam knew his son was going to be deployed to Afghanistan, where he wound up stationed on the dangerous border with Pakistan from the fall of 2010 until July 2011.

“When you find out you have cancer, [and] your son’s going to Afghanistan, that puts everything in perspective,” Cynthia Bucknam says. “The thing that got us through it was our faith, our trust in each other, and our friends.

“He was by my side every step of the way. As much as he loves the job he’s doing, I never felt like I was second.”

Today, things are great for Bucknam. His wife’s cancer is in remission; his son has returned safely from Afghanistan; his daughter is a Big Ten All-Academic selection. And he is the coach of the reigning NCAA Indoor Track national championship team. In March, Arkansas captured its 20th national title - its first under Bucknam.

The Razorbacks won their first 19 indoor titles - and a staggering 40 indoor, outdoor and cross-country national championships in all - under former coach John McDonnell, the man whose unrivaled success scared off potential successors and caused people in the sport to advise Bucknam to steer clear of Arkansas.

“To say [the championship] wasn’t a relief, it was,” says assistant coach Travis Geopfert, who ran for and coached with Bucknam since they were both at Northern Iowa. “Coach Buck said afterward that we’d done the impossible; we’d won while following a legend.”

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

If Bucknam needed help with his school work, he never needed to look far.

Bucknam’s dad was the chief executive officer of an engineering firm. Chris was the middle of three boys, and both brothers wound up becoming engineers.

“When I was a senior in high school, my little brother would tutor me in algebra class,” he recalls with a laugh. “I grew up around engineers, and I was the black sheep. I was a PE major. But my parents were always very supportive.”

Bucknam may not have had the engineering aptitude of his father and brothers, but he has always had a different sort of intelligence, the kind that has allowed him to consistently get the best from people in their teens and early 20s.

Not all college athletes are gung-ho, busting their butts day in and day out. A coach has to know when to pat them on the back, when to shout at them to work harder, when to insist they ease up.

“Pretty much everyone loved how relaxed he could be, and yet so serious at the same time,” says Dorian Ulrey, who followed Bucknam from the University of Northern Iowa to Arkansas, where he was a two-time SEC Athlete of the Year. “He sets the tempo for the team on a day to-day basis. He made me the athlete I became; I wouldn’t have achieved what I have without him.”

Chris played just about every sport but track when he was a kid. He loved to go boating on weekends, and if he had the time these days, he would be out on Beaver Lake a lot more.

Track didn’t enter the picture until the ninth grade. Bucknam wasn’t a great runner by any means, but he enjoyed it, and he liked being part of a winning program.

He continued his running career at Norwich University in Vermont. It was America’s first private military college,and Bucknam considered a career in the service.

He was a physical education major, though, and the more he hung around the athletic department, the more he decided he wanted to coach.

“It was a small athletic department where I got to know all the coaches, and that’s where I picked up my love for coaching,” he says. “The examples they set, their lifestyles - I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a high school coach; I went right into college coaching.”

Bucknam graduated from Norwich in 1978, and left the East Coast for the only job he was offered, a graduate-assistant position at Northern Michigan University.

Northern Michigan didn’t have a track team, so he spent a year teaching in the school’s physical-education department, hoping to coach track one day.

SEIZING OPPORTUNITIES

In March, Bucknam will be inducted into the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame.

A few months before that takes place, he’ll be inducted into the University of Northern Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame.

Bucknam was wildly successful at Northern Iowa, where he was the men’s head coach from 1984-2008 and the women’s head coach from 1997-2008. He was named conference coach of the year 33 different times, and his teams won a total of 35 conference championships. (The majority came in the Missouri Valley Conference, which Northern Iowa joined in 1991.)

Yet it took a stroke of good fortune for Bucknam to get on Northern Iowa’s radar. He landed there after a yearat Northern Michigan, when its wrestling coach called a friend, who happened to coach the men’s track team at Northern Iowa, and said he should take on Bucknam for a graduate assistantship.

“The guy took him at his word, and said, ‘OK, I’ll hire him,’ sight unseen,” Bucknam says.

Shortly after Bucknam arrived at Northern Iowa in 1979, he was informed that he should not get too comfortable in his role. The track coach wanted to hire an assistant.

But the school year had already begun, leaving the pool of applicants less than inspiring. So Bucknam was told that he would be the new assistant track coach - going from graduate assistant at a college without a track team to assistant track coach in about a month

“He was well-liked and well-respected,” says Bob Bowlsby of Dallas, then Northern Iowa’s athletic director. “He learned from every new situation.

“I think that may be his best quality. He’s always in constant improvement mode.”

Bucknam spent five seasons as an assistant at Northern Iowa. When the head coach gave up the position to move into administration, Bucknam was hired as the head coach.

Just 27 at the time, Bucknam was barely older than some of his athletes. He put on a brave face during the interview process and in front of his team, but the truth is,he admits, he was scared and hardly qualified to be the head coach at a Division I college.

His enthusiasm made the difference, Bowlsby says. “He just had an enthusiasm about life that was infectious. If the truth is said, he probably wasn’t qualified to be the head coach, but his energy and enthusiasm and ability to relate to kids really carried the day.”

Bucknam led Northern Iowa to two top-10 and six top-20 finishes at the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships. His success there was noticed, as he interviewed multiple times for head coaching jobs at larger universities.

An offer never arose, until the biggest program of all came calling.

No track program can claim as many national titles as Arkansas, and no coach cast a bigger shadow than McDonnell.

FOLLOWING A LEGEND

“Many of the great track names across the country that one might have expected to be interested shied away from it,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long says. “They simply did not want to take over the program that John McDonnell had built.

“One of the things that impressed me about Chris was that he was not afraid of that challenge. He wanted that challenge, to take over for that legend.”

Bucknam says he never wished during his 25 years at Northern Iowa that he was coaching somewhere bigger, with more resources. His dad taught him that it was important to focus on the job he had, and to do it to the best of his abilities.

Yet when the position opened at Arkansas, Bucknam jumped at it, ignoring those who suggested that following McDonnell was a fool’s errand.

“It was a tough move,” he admits. “You go from the safe haven of Northern Iowa, with the tremendous success we’d had, and you wake up in a strange place with all these expectations.

“I was scared. I doubted myself. I couldn’t have gotten through it without my wife and coaches.”

The Razorbacks got off to a good start under Bucknam, winning SEC Indoor and Outdoor titles in 2009. He wasn’t fully comfortable in the position, however.

“In his first year, he was uptight,” Ulrey says. “He didn’t want to seem too in your face with athletes who had been with Coach Mac. He wanted people to come to him. He wasn’t like ‘I’m the new Coach Mac,’ which guys really appreciated.

“Now, though, he’s very much the same coach he was at Northern Iowa.”

The past five seasons have been a blur, Bucknam says. The program may not be where he wants it to be, but it’s headed in the right direction, as the Razorbacks have won the SEC Triple Crown (cross country, indoor and outdoor titles) in each of the past two seasons.

And there was that national indoor championship in the spring. It may have been a relief, Geopfert says, but it hardly means the pressure’s off.

“With Coach Buck, that pressure doesn’t come from outside; it comes internally, and it’s a constant,” Geopfert says. “Once you win one [title], you want to win another. The expectations for this program are insanely high.”

No one fuels those expectations like the coaches themselves, but to have enduring success, Bucknam knows, a head coach has to build a team atmosphere. That starts at the top, in the way the coaches interact with each other, and around the young men they lead into competitions.

“I struggle with taking all the credit,” he says. “That’s why I don’t like to wear rings [from championship-winning teams]. I don’t display any of that stuff, because I feel like more than one guy was doing it. I didn’t win a national championship; my guys won it, my coaches won it, the school won it. It was a collaborative effort.”

High Profile, Pages 37 on 09/01/2013

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