Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Banner year: Culture leads to historic seasons for UA women
Arkansas soccer players take part in a postgame hog call following a 2-0 victory over LSU on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Claire Clark Alberius had an idea that the University of Arkansas softball team was headed for big things, even though the Razorbacks finished only 17-39 in her senior season.
That was Courtney Deifel’s first year as the Arkansas head coach, and she was a big reason for Alberius’ optimism.
“It’s no surprise to me,” said Alberius, a Wynne native who played on back-to-back teams that finished 1-23 in the SEC. “There were some questioning her that next year even. But I was like, ‘She’s gonna do big things here if you give her a little time.’
“Just the mindset of the whole program changed. I remember some girls that last year were saying, ‘Well, we just need to have fun.’ But she said, ‘Winning is fun.’ I was like, ‘Wow, she’s the real deal.' ”
A few years later, Alberius looks like a prophet after Deifel and her team claimed the first SEC title in program history and hosted a super regional.
That’s just one of many highs for the women’s athletic programs at Arkansas during the 2020-21 season.
Women’s track and field won its second consecutive NCAA Indoor championship and its seventh SEC triple crown, claiming the league cross county title along with indoor and outdoor track titles.
Basketball made a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 and finished over .500 in the SEC for the second consecutive season for the first time ever. Soccer earned a fifth consecutive SEC Tournament title game appearance, and reached the NCAA Sweet 16 for the just the second time in school history.
UA Women By the Numbers
1 NCAA championships (Indoor track & field)
4 NCAA top-10 finishes (Indoor track & field, cross county, softball, soccer)
5 SEC championships (Cross country, soccer, softball, indoor track & field, outdoor track & field)
2 No. 1 Ranked Teams (Indoor track & field, cross country)
6 SEC coaches of the year (Volleyball, softball, soccer, cross country, indoor track & field, outdoor track & field)
Multiple coaches, including Deifel, credit Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek for the attitude of family and togetherness that permeates through different programs across campus.
Razorbacks women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors likened Yurachek, who completed his fourth full year on the job, to a fixer.
“I think we’ve had the pieces,” Neighbors said. “There’s been great pieces at periods. But Hunter’s masterful at putting the pieces together. I’ve only been alive for 52 years and only been a [Razorback] fan for 42. But I don’t remember a time when we’ve had this type of feeling on our campus.
“Literally pull for every sport, know what’s going on in every sport. There’s a connection that I’ve never been a part of at any of the six universities I’ve been at. And I don’t think you say anything other than he’s put the pieces together to fit the puzzle.”
Deifel pointed out Yurachek makes every coach and athlete feel important no matter the sport.
“It’s something Hunter said right when he got here: ‘This isn’t just all about football and men’s basketball. We don’t have big sports and little sports, it’s everybody here.’ And he lives up to that.
“This is unlike anything else I’ve experienced anywhere I’ve been. It’s not a check-the-box mentality or an ‘Oh we have this sport, just keep everyone happy.’ I think you see that at some schools. That’s not the case here.”
Yurachek has fostered a connection among all the coaches on campus, but Deifel said it’s truly special to know she’s got the support of someone like the football coach, who might not even know her at another school.
“I got texts from Sam Pittman regularly congratulating me and our team on what we were doing,” Deifel said. “I know at any point I can call Sam Pittman or the soccer coach, Colby Hale, if I need help with something. I can ask them, ‘What should I do?’
Razorback athletes also are given the resources needed in every sport. That’s definitely not the case everywhere, and Deifel knows it. She experienced inequities as an All-American catcher at Cal-Berkeley.
“I know now why my college coach beat her head into a wall trying to get as much as she could for us,” Deifel said. “Because we didn’t have a ton. We didn’t even have a locker room, and we won a national championship. I see what it should look like here.
“We did our own laundry. We came to the field in our uniforms, and we went to the World Series four years in a row. That was our experience.
“But that’s not what it should be looking like. Now being a part of a department that has what they need, I have a great appreciation for Hunter and for Arkansas. It’s like holy moly, how far have we come?”
Hale echoed Deifel’s sentiments about not feeling inferior despite being a part of a so-called nonrevenue sport.
“Obviously we know there’s a pecking order,” Hale said. “But you don’t feel that. You don’t feel like a second-class citizen, like we’re less important. That’s a real credit to what Hunter brings to the athletic department.”
Yurachek chalked up the successful seasons to the coaches and athletes.
“I’ve been in the athletic department at three schools now, trying to create similar cultures at each of those schools, and this is the first one where it has just clicked in,” Yurachek said. “You can just see it happening right before your eyes. It’s really cool.
“I think it starts with the great leadership in each of our programs. It starts with those people. I can try to create whatever culture I want to create. If you don’t have the right people sitting in the right seats on the bus to help you create that culture, it just doesn’t work.
“We just have 15 head coaches that genuinely care for each other and relish each other’s successes, celebrate each other’s successes. They are not jealous of others’ success. They actually see that as a benefit to their own program.”
One thing he acknowledged and took credit for is trying to make sure all the coaches and athletes feel important. He does that by attending every athletic event he possibly can.
“I think they feel important because they see me,” Yurachek said. “If there’s a home event and I’m in town, I’m going to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, tennis, track and field, swimming. If our student-athletes are competing in an SEC championship event or an NCAA championship event, I’m jumping on the plane or getting in the car to go see them compete and support them.
“I want them to be successful or I wouldn’t invest the time to come and support them. To me, it’s the icing on the cake of our job.”
Sports such as volleyball, cross country and soccer had their NCAA championships shifted from the fall to the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. In essence, the regular seasons for soccer and volleyball stretched over the fall and spring, which put those sports in a tough spot, Yurachek said.
The SEC was one league that decided to play in fall and spring for soccer and volleyball. Others around the country simply shut down and pushed all competition in those sports to fall 2021.
Yurachek said he was not in favor of pushing those championships to the fall.
“I thought we rewarded teams not for trying and penalized teams who had a competitive fall season,” Yurachek said.
He specifically noted what the soccer and cross country teams had to combat.
“If you go through what our girls did in soccer where they had a championship segment of an SEC-only schedule, and then tried to re-create that same level of intensity and motivation in the spring to compete for an NCAA championship, I think it was really difficult,” he said. “Our cross country girls, they competed in the indoor [track and field] national championships on a Friday/Saturday and then had to turn around on a Tuesday and compete in a cross country championship.
“Again, totally unfair, in my opinion, to the teams that tried to get through this the right way. I’m not making excuses in any way, but I’m paying tribute to our student-athletes and our coaches in those fall sports because it was a challenge for them to navigate both a fall and spring season and they did so incredibly.”
Volleyball finished with a league record over .500 for the first time since 2012, but it was the only Razorback women’s sport to not qualify for postseason play. That was because the NCAA trimmed the tournament field from the normal number of 64 to 48 because of covid-19. The Razorbacks, one of the last few teams left out, would have made the field in a normal year.
The cross country team finished 10th in the NCAA championships despite missing a few key members, who had helped the track team claim a national title just a few days earlier.
Back in time
Hale was one of several current coaches hired by former athletic director Jeff Long, who was responsible for bringing the men’s and women’s athletic departments under one umbrella in 2008.
Hale acknowledged Long and Yurachek have different personalities, but both helped carry the athletic department forward.
“Jeff was thick-skinned,” Hale said. “He didn’t really care what you thought. In some ways, I think that helped modernize the athletic department. Hunter is a more personable guy, inherited what I’d say is a reasonably healthy athletic department.
“He’s just done a really good job of creating an environment where what’s important are the things that should be important. Hunter does a good job of getting buy-in and getting people in the right places. Both are good but very, very different.”
Hale said Yurachek set a goal of winning six SEC championships at one point, which seemed a bit like pie-in-the-sky since those were few and far between with the exception of track and field or cross country. But then Arkansas claimed 10 SEC titles in a year that included a pandemic.
“Ten SEC championships is insane,” Hale said.
Former Arkansas volleyball coach Chris Poole, now the head coach at Florida State, was around during those early times but said he didn’t recall financial hardships for his program.
“As I remember, I had budgets that were in the top fourth of the SEC,” said Poole, who started the program in 1994 and enjoyed plenty of success before leaving for Tallahassee, Fla., in 2008. “We were seeing a rise in caring about women’s athletics because of the leadership of Bev Lewis. It carried over as you saw the departments combined.”
Lance Harter, who is in his 31st year as the women’s cross country and track and field coach at Arkansas, is one of the few still around from that era. He credited Long for the consolidation of the two departments, which Harter said aided the women’s programs financially.
“Most definitely he was an ally,” Harter said of Long. “There was no doubt when Bev was in charge, we had a very unified staff. But the men were across the way. When we did finally come together, I think Jeff wanted to make sure that we were all going to be treated equally.”
Harter cited female athletes receiving the same per diem as their male counterparts as one perk of the consolidation. When the two departments were separate, the women’s per diem was less, he said.
“That was partly because of the budget,” Harter said.
Neighbors said being surrounded by success keep him on his toes.
“It wakes you up every morning knowing you better be working,” he said. “Because you don’t want to be the low man on the totem pole.”
His team’s success helped persuade Fort Smith Northside standout Jersey Wolfenbarger, one of the top recruits in the nation, to stay at home. In addition, Maryam Dauda and Sasha Goforth — two more in-state McDonald’s All-Americans who initially chose to go elsewhere — have found their way back to Northwest Arkansas.
Neighbors said the success is boosting recruiting, and connecting with the fan base to the point that hundreds of little girls are wearing Chelsea Dungee jerseys in basketball or Braxton Burnside jerseys in softball doesn’t hurt, either.
“We don’t have to roll out a red carpet,” Neighbors said. “We just get them on campus and show them around. It’s not some recruiting pitch. It’s not some sales pitch. This is what it’s gonna be like every day you’re here. And that’s what separates it for me.
“Winning obviously helps, let’s not skirt around that. But the way you win and the athletes that you produce that become the face of it.”
Yurachek acknowledges keeping the same type of people as head coaches is the key to prolonging success.
“We’ve had a really special year,” Yurachek said. “We’ve won 10 Southeastern Conference championships. That’s 10 conference championships in arguably the most challenging conference in all of college athletics. That will be hard to duplicate for sure.
“But what won’t be hard to duplicate, I think, as long as we keep these same people in the seats, is the support that we have for each other. I just think when everybody’s on the same page and for lack of a better cliche, rowing the boat in the same direction, we’re gonna have success.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.