Bucknam pushed all-in for Arkansas

By: Bob Holt
Published: Saturday, June 27, 2020
Arkansas men's track coach Chris Bucknam watches during the Southeastern Conference Indoor Track and Field Championship on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas men's track coach Chris Bucknam watches during the Southeastern Conference Indoor Track and Field Championship on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Chris Bucknam could have become the head coach of the Minnesota men's cross country and track and field teams after the 2008 outdoor season.

The job offer came just as the NCAA Outdoor Championships were set to be held in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 11-14.

But Bucknam, then completing his 25th year as the men's and women's coach at Northern Iowa, turned down Minnesota. He wanted to wait and see if he could land the University of Arkansas job.

John McDonnell had announced in April of 2008 that he was retiring as the Razorbacks' coach when the outdoor season ended, and Bucknam had gotten indications he was on Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long's short list of replacements.

There hadn't been an interview between Bucknam and Arkansas officials. Bucknam hadn't even talked to Long before the NCAA Championships began.

But when Bucknam brought Northern Iowa to Fayetteville for the McDonnell Invitational earlier that season, Arkansas women's Coach Lance Harter gave him a tour of the facilities. Someone from the Arkansas administration asked for Bucknam's cellphone number.

"Minnesota is a Big Ten school, but I knew Arkansas was in the mix," Bucknam said. "I kind of rolled the dice and said, 'I'm going to go for it all. I'm either going to coach at Arkansas, or I'm going to stay at Northern Iowa. I'm not going to do an in-between school kind of thing.' "

Bucknam's gamble and patience paid off when he was announced as Arkansas' new coach on June 27, 2008 -- 12 years ago today.

"It wasn't like I was desperate to leave Northern Iowa, but I felt like I had taken the program as far as I could," said Bucknam, who led the Panthers' cross country and track and field teams to 35 Missouri Valley Conference titles, two top 10 national finishes and six in the top 20. "I know I could have coached at Northern Iowa until I retired. But I was ready for a new challenge, and Arkansas was on the table."

Bucknam and Long first talked a few hours before the final day of the NCAA Championships. They met outside of Drake Stadium and took a walk around the neighborhood.

"We walked and talked for about 30 or 40 minutes," Bucknam said. "I must have made an impression, because we shook hands and Jeff said, 'I'll be in touch.' "

It probably didn't hurt that later in the day the Northern Iowa men's team finished 11th at the NCAA meet.

The next week Buckman was in Fayetteville for a follow-up interview where he again met with Long as well as other administrators, including UA Chancellor David Gearheart.

"I met with the chancellor for about 30 minutes," Bucknam said. "I felt like a football coach."

A few days later Bucknam was offered the job and accepted it to replace McDonnell, who led Arkansas to 84 conference championships and 42 NCAA titles in 37 years.

"The rule in coaching is never follow a legend, right?" Bucknam said. "And John McDonnell definitely is a legend. But I just felt like Arkansas was too good of a job to pass up. I was excited about the challenge.

"I was totally aware of the Arkansas dynasty, but after I was hired it hit me two different times what a big job I was taking over."

The first time it hit him, Bucknam said, was when he saw a huge media contingent at his introductory news conference.

Then came a gala in September of 2008 celebrating McDonnell's life and career.

The event was held at the Tyson Indoor Track Center, but was decorated like a fancy hotel ballroom. The entertainment included a group of Irish dancers -- McDonnell is a native of Ireland -- and then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive was among the speakers.

Then came a video tribute from President Bill Clinton.

"When Bill Clinton came on the video screen and congratulated John for a great career, that's when I realized as big as I thought the Arkansas job was, it's even bigger than that," Bucknam said. "That's when it really became real."

In 12 years at Arkansas, Bucknam has led the Razorbacks to 22 SEC championships and 10 top 10 national finishes, including the 2013 NCAA Indoor title. Four times -- twice indoors and twice outdoors -- the Razorbacks have finished second nationally.

"Obviously, there's been some high points and there have been a lot of SEC championships," Bucknam said. "Winning the NCAA meet in 2013 was great, but we've had four national runner-up finishes that were very frustrating because we were so close to winning.

"I almost remember those runner-up finishes more than I remember winning the national championship."

Bucknam said he's thankful to be preparing for his 13th year at Arkansas.

"I'm glad I'm still here," he said. "When you're an SEC coach at a school for 12 years, I think that's kind of a badge of honor."

Bucknam, 64, said he has no plans to retire.

"I love coaching," he said. "It's a great profession. There's always newness to it and excitement about the next season.

"I feel like we have unfinished business and that the best years are still ahead. Our staff is working incredibly hard to bring some more national and conference championships to Arkansas."

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