Lewis left mark on UA women’s sports

By: Nate Allen
Published: Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Fomer University of Arkansas chancellor John A.White talks with then-women's athletics director Bev Lewis on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007 in Fayetteville.
Photo by Bob Coleman
Fomer University of Arkansas chancellor John A.White talks with then-women's athletics director Bev Lewis on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007 in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE - Upon becoming athletic director in 1989 of the University of Arkansas’ Lady Razorbacks, Bev Lewis publicly vowed she would hire a better track coach than the previous one.

That’s a tribute both to her acumen and her humility. The track coach that Lewis replaced was herself.

Lance Harter, the coach Lewis replaced herself with, has coached Arkansas to 21 SEC women’s championships and counting in cross country, indoor and outdoor track and 10 top-10 NCAA finishes, including four runner-up finishes in the NCAA Cross Country Championships.

It wouldn’t have happened without Lewis persuading Harter to leave Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where his women’s teams dominated Division II (14 NCAA championships, eight consecutively) almost like retired Razorbacks Coach John McDonnell (40 national championships) dominated Division I men’s track and cross country.

Harter was interviewed Tuesday following Monday’s announcement that Lewis, hired as track coach by former Lady Razorbacks Athletic Director Ruth Cohoon in 1981, will retire effective June 30. She retires as executive associate athletic director, her title since the Arkansas women’s program was absorbed by the men’s program in 2008 under Athletic Director Jeff Long.

“I had already turned down multiple jobs at some of the big Division I powers, so it took a lot of convincing to come to Arkansas,” Harter said. “One of the keys was Bev. She was a great recruiter. She said she wanted to be sure whoever takes her place can take it to the next level.”

Harter said having Lewis at the AD level helped raise Lady Razorbacks track and cross country to the next level.

“I was blessed,” Harter said. “A lot of people in my business kind of felt I had an unfair advantage because of having a women’s-only program and your boss is an ex-track coach that obviously understands our sport and the intricacies of how our sport works.”

Lewis hired the UA’s most renowned coaches in women’s sports in Harter, a Razorbacks Hall of Honor inductee, and former Lady Razorbacks basketball coach Gary Blair, who is awaiting his Feb. 28induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame after leading the Razorbacks to the Final Four and Texas A&M to a national championship.

It wasn’t all perfect. Nothing is for 33 years. Susie Gardner, media shy and inexperienced though extolled by then-Chancellor John White, was the disastrous hire on Lewis’ watch following Blair, who personally recruited Lady ’Backs fans from Bella Vista to Hot Springs and anywhere else Blair chanced to be.

Arkansas women’s basketball, without its Lady ’Backs identity since the 2008 merger, still hasn’t recovered all the public it lost.

Nevertheless, for the bulk of her UA career Lewis served as an admirably effective administrator whose common sense was nationally appreciated by her peers as she formerly served on the NCAA track committees.

It is missed sorely now by Harter.

“She was on the committee for a long time when track and field really seemed to make sense and they made good decisions about what was best for the athletes’ experience,” Harter said. “Unfortunately, I think there are a few examples since of how we have gotten away from that.”

Sports, Pages 16 on 02/05/2014