Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR: LANCE HARTER:
Not slowing down: As he approaches 70, UA women’s track and cross country coach sets standards in multiple sports
Arkansas coach Lance Harter watches Saturday, April 27, 2019, during the National Relay Championships at John McDonnell Field on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Lance Harter is approaching his 70th birthday and is five years removed from being inducted into the national hall of fame for his sport.
At a time when many coaches his age are retiring or trailing off from past success, Harter is at the peak of his career. His University of Arkansas women's indoor and outdoor track and field teams and cross country team were the best in the nation in 2019, winners of the NCAA and SEC championships in all three sports.
• Past 10 Sportsman of the Year winners:
2018 Dave Van Horn, UA baseball
2017 Blaise Taylor, ASU football
2016 Jeff Henderson, Olympic gold medalist
2015 Brandon Allen, UA football
2014 Fifth-year senior ASU football players
2013 Ken Duke, professional golfer
2012 Jeff Long, UA athletic director
2011 Louis Lee, amateur golfer
2010 Bobby Petrino, UA football coach
2009 Mark Martin, NASCAR driver
The Razorbacks are the third women's program to hold all three NCAA titles simultaneously. Oregon won the NCAA triple crown during the 2016-17 academic year, and Texas won all three championships during the 1986 calendar year.
It is an increasingly difficult feat as most programs move toward specialization in one or two sports, and do not try to field competitive teams in all three sports like Arkansas strives to do. The Razorbacks have 18 scholarships to fill a three-sport roster of around 65 athletes.
For his teams' success and the longevity of his own career, Harter is the 2019 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sportsman of the Year -- the third college head coach to earn the honor, and first coach of women's sports.
"One of the things that people talk about is that, 'You're always in the conversation,' " Harter said of his teams. "I take that as kind of a bragging point. We're always a contender of one type or another."
Arkansas became much more of a contender this year with the help of several upperclassmen. Pole vaulters Lexi Jacobus, Tori Hoggard and Desiree Freier; hurdler Payton Chadwick; and distance runners Taylor Werner, Carina Viljoen, Devin Clark and Lauren Gregory gave the Razorbacks a strong core to build around.
Then there were pleasant surprises such as the emergence of sophomore sprinter/hurdler Janeek Brown, who won the 100 hurdles at the NCAA outdoor meet with the second-fastest time ever in the event. Brown was one of three finalists for the Bowerman Trophy, which is given each year to the best college track and field athlete in the nation.
In cross country, the Razorbacks received a boost when Katie Izzo transferred from Cal Poly and made drastic strides. She finished third at the NCAA meet this year, 79 places higher than a year ago.
Harter takes pride in how he and his staff assemble a roster that meshes well-known athletes with lesser-known ones from the region, such as Jacobus and Hoggard, twin sisters from Cabot who both won conference championships during their four-year careers. Jacobus, a 2016 Olympian, won four NCAA individual titles.
"We had a girl from Memphis named Meghan Underwood [part of Arkansas' SEC champion distance medley relay indoors] who people say, 'Holy crap, who is that? What country is she from?' " Harter said. "Having Arkansas kids, a lot of times it's the same thing. There aren't a lot of [programs] coming in from other states to try to raid Arkansas. We're really blessed to have [good athletes], and they're so hungry to develop. We've taken advantage of that."
The seniors at Arkansas this year were some of the most decorated in program history -- not only individually, but with team titles at the conference and national level that added to a dynasty that began with the 2013 indoor season. The Razorbacks have won 18 of the past 21 SEC meets in the three sports coached by Harter, and five of the past 15 NCAA championship meets.
Harter, who won 14 NCAA Division II championships at Cal Poly in the 1980s, spent 25 years at Arkansas before he won his first Division I national championship indoors in 2015. The Razorbacks won a second national championship outdoors in 2016.
For many years, Harter would see upticks in his programs every few years as his roster grew older, but then a downturn of sorts once larger classes cycled out because of eligibility.
He credits the sustained success to his hiring of Chris Johnson as an assistant coach in 2012. Johnson replaced Lonnie Greene as the Razorbacks' sprints coach after Greene, a longtime Harter assistant, was hired as head coach at Kentucky. Johnson studied under Greene as a graduate assistant at Arkansas for two years in the early 2000s.
Johnson was named national assistant coach of the year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association during the outdoor season. Harter's other assistant, jumps coach Bryan Compton, was named national assistant of the year by the USTFCCCA during the indoor season.
"Nothing against Lonnie Greene -- he did a great job -- but Chris has kind of taken that foundation and taken it to another level," Harter said. "He is much more businesslike with his athletes. His expectations are pretty demanding. 'If you do what I tell you to do, you're going to rise to another level.'
"In the last five years, Chris is the wild card that has kind of shown up and he's done a great job. I think he has elevated our recruiting to another level, too."
Harter said recruiting is key because they can't afford as many misses as other programs that focus almost exclusively on signing distance runners or sprinters.
"To ride that middle rail is really, really difficult," Harter said. "We have very limited room for error."
Because of several seniors who had scored well on the national stage previously, Arkansas was expected to be a competitor nationally during the track and field seasons this year.
Indoors, the Razorbacks won the SEC championship convincingly on their home track with 151 points -- 81 more points than second-place Texas A&M.
Bolstered by a 1-3-4 finish by senior pole vaulters Jacobus, Hoggard and Freier that added 21 points to the team score, the Razorbacks won the NCAA indoor championship two weeks later, finishing 11 points ahead of second-place Southern California in Birmingham, Ala.
Beating USC outdoors in June proved to be a lot more challenging. The Trojans were ranked No. 1 and the reigning outdoor champions, and they were tied with the Razorbacks entering the final event of the NCAA meet in Austin, Texas.
USC was running ahead of Arkansas in the 1,600-meter relay, although Chadwick was closing fast for the Razorbacks when the unthinkable happened: The Trojans' Anna Cockrell stumbled after being stepped on from behind and dropped the baton in the final turn of the third leg of the race.
Before the race began, Harter told his team, "You've just got to get the stick around." What might have seemed so elementary ensured an Arkansas team title.
"It was a perfect script for TV," Harter said of the race.
A gutsy effort by Werner put the Razorbacks in contention heading into the final event. Werner, who had run the 10,000 a day earlier, finished second in the 5,000 to pull the Razorbacks even with USC with only the 1,600 relay remaining.
"She was shot," Harter said of Werner. "It was 112 degrees on the track and there was no wind, and the humidity was incredibly high.
"That really was like, man, these kids are digging deeper and deeper than I've ever seen kids dig. Then to come back in the mile relay and close it off, I was flabbergasted."
While Arkansas was a national favorite during the track seasons, its chances to win an NCAA championship in cross country seemed like a long shot when the season began in August.
The program had never won a national championship in the sport and had not finished on the podium at the NCAA meet since a second-place finish in 1999. And while Arkansas had several older runners -- its five scorers at the national meet were four seniors and a junior -- the majority were recruited to run distance on the track and preferred that to running cross country.
Arkansas ran the 2019 season without its best cross country runner from the year before, Karina Robinson, who was injured. But paced by Werner and Izzo, the Razorbacks dominated their annual Chile Pepper Invitational in late September to ascend to the No. 1 national ranking for the first time, then dominated again a few weeks later at the Nuttycombe Invitational in Wisconsin, a meet that included 10 of the nation's top 15 teams in the polls.
Arkansas won its seventh consecutive SEC cross country championship in Kentucky with a 1-2-4-5-9 finish on Nov. 1. At the NCAA regionals two weeks later, the Razorbacks had the race's top-five finishers.
"What started as kind of a thought became kind of a whisper midseason," Harter said, "and then at the SEC meet became a goal, like, 'Hey, we could win this thing.' "
Arkansas defeated BYU by six points to win the NCAA title in Terre Haute, Ind., the weekend before Thanksgiving. Izzo and Werner finished third and fourth to lead the Razorbacks after finishing 82nd and 81st, respectively, in the race the year before.
Arkansas was the first women's SEC team to win a cross country national championship since Kentucky in 1988.
"That was a hard race and everybody had to play their part, the five girls and where they finished, to edge out BYU by six points," said UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, who attended the meet. "That's hard to do in a cross country meet. But to see their fight and their tenacity and what they were able to do -- the indoor may have been a little bit easier, but the outdoor and the cross country they had to fight and scratch and claw to win those championships, which was really cool."
The odds seem long for Arkansas to win a fourth consecutive national championship during the 2020 indoor season. Harter said he sees a lot of "question marks" on his roster, similar to 2018 when the Razorbacks were national runners-up indoors and 11th outdoors.
Overall the program is on solid ground, and Harter hopes to oversee it for some time longer. He will turn 70 on April 15, and he said he hears that his age is used against him by opposing coaches in recruiting, but he insists he has no plans to retire.
"I love what I do. I look forward to going to work every day," Harter said. "Is there going to be a time when I probably need to be honest and address that? Yes. Is there a capacity where I maybe turn over the head job to somebody and then I become either just the distance coach or possibly a volunteer coach? I love coaching, and I think it keeps you young."
Harter's contract runs through 2024 after he received a one-year rollover that kicked in over the summer as a result of winning the indoor and outdoor national championships. He will receive another one-year extension if either of his track teams finish in the top 10 at a national meet in 2020.
"I mean, he says he still has the passion and the drive to do what he's doing," Yurachek said. "He seems to enjoy it. He's got a great staff that supports him, and then he's built a dominant women's track and field and cross country program here at the University of Arkansas. It's really cool to see. I don't see him slowing down at all."
Harter at a glance
POSITION Arkansas women’s cross country/track and field coach
COLLEGE Texas Tech (bachelor’s degree), Colorado State (master’s)
NOTEWORTHY Led Arkansas’ women’s track and field program to the 2019 SEC and NCAA indoor and outdoor championships, and the cross country program to its first national championship this past fall. … Won SEC coach of the year honors for the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons in 2019. … Earned the 2019 U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s national women’s coach of the year award. … In 30th season as head coach of the Razorbacks’ women’s cross country and track and field teams.
Sports on 12/25/2019
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