Retirement in sight: Harter to hand over program to Johnson in 2023

By: Bob Holt Bob Holt's Twitter account
Published: Wednesday, November 3, 2021
Lance Harter (right), head coach of Arkansas women's cross country and track and field, smiles Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, as he listens to Chris Johnson, associate head coach, during a press conference to announce Harter's 2023 retirement and that Johnson will succeed him as head coach at the Broyles Athletics Center in Fayetteville.
( Andy Shupe)
Lance Harter (right), head coach of Arkansas women's cross country and track and field, smiles Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, as he listens to Chris Johnson, associate head coach, during a press conference to announce Harter's 2023 retirement and that Johnson will succeed him as head coach at the Broyles Athletics Center in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Lance Harter isn’t done coaching the University of Arkansas women’s cross country and track and field teams, but the finish line is now in sight.

Harter, 71, will retire from coaching after the 2023 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, it was announced Tuesday.

Arkansas assistant coach Chris Johnson, who turns 45 on Nov. 22, will be promoted to replace Harter. Johnson, who coaches sprinters and hurdlers, is in his 11th year at Arkansas.

Harter has led Arkansas to six national championships and 42 SEC titles since 1991, the year after he was hired from Cal Poly San-Luis Obispo, where he won 14 NCAA Division II national championships.

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The Razorbacks’ latest conference championship under Harter came last Friday when they won a ninth consecutive SEC cross country title.

“Between now and then we still plan to win some other championships,” Harter said of there being five SEC and six NCAA meets before his retirement. “I want to make sure it’s clear that we’re not going to take a break.”

Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said he and Harter began discussing the coach’s future plans last summer.

“We started to put the pieces together for him to retire following the 2023 season,” Yurachek said. “He’s got a lot of pride in what he has built here and he wanted to hand the baton off to his associate head coach, Chris Johnson.

“That made a lot of sense to me. Chris has been a sought-after coach in this industry. Every summer since I’ve been here, I know Lance has gotten multiple calls about Chris and job opportunities.”

Yurachek, hired at Arkansas in December 2017, said he has developed a relationship with Johnson and wanted him to succeed Harter when the time came.

“I think it works out really great for our program,” Yurachek said. “It’s great for Lance in this closing chapter in his coaching career here at the University of Arkansas. And for us to be able to pass that on to Chris Johnson is the best scenario I think we could have.”

Harter has been inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, UA Sports Hall of Honor and U.S. Track & Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

“I just feel truly blessed that I have the leadership that allows me to have input on decisions about my career and about the program in general,” Harter said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have great assistant coaches be part of our program and Chris Johnson, it didn’t take long for the rest of the world in track and field to figure out that he is really, really special and has a great future.

“I feel truly honored that we were able to put this whole thing together where our successor and the program is going to be in great hands.”

Johnson, who officially will replace Harter on July 1, 2023, smiled when asked his reaction about being promoted.

“You’ve got to play it cool,” Johnson said. “But you get outside the office and you’re excited. Who wouldn’t be?

“If you weren’t excited, you wouldn’t really have a heartbeat.”

Chris Bucknam, Arkansas’ men’s cross country and track and field coach since 2008, said he had mixed emotions about Harter’s retirement announcement.

“Lance made the decision it’s time, so I’m happy for Lance and his family, the way he’s going out and winning the way he is,” said Bucknam, who replaced the legendary John McDonnell. “It’s kind of storybook, right? Hopefully it’s a nice, soft, perfect landing.

“But also I’m going to miss coaching with him. We’ve spent a lot of time together on trips, talking about our teams and different things. I’ll always be indebted to Lance, because from Day One he put his arm around me in a tough situation taking over in this job. He just gave me a lot of confidence that I could do it and was really, really supportive and a great friend.”

Harter said he has been contemplating the best time to retire since he turned 70.

“I think it happens to everyone in every profession that the older you get it’s, ‘OK, you know you’re on the last inning of this ballgame. When are you going to close it out?’ ” Harter said. “My wife [Kim] retired a few years ago and she was always one to say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong with walking away, especially with the successes we’ve been able to have.’

“So Hunter and I sat down and chatted about it. July 2023 sounded like the right date. Plus, then I’ll be able to enjoy July 4.”

Johnson, who came to Arkansas from Penn State, said there have been two job offers he took seriously since coming to the UA, but that staying has made the most sense.

“I never want to be presumptuous about when Lance decides to leave, but obviously anybody with good sense would understand this is one of the best jobs, if not the best job, in the country and would love to have the opportunity to be here,” Johnson said. “But looking at other universities, I’m here for the reason I left the other university. Here you can win championships.

“Other universities are not going to put the resources and the support into doing that in terms of track and field. There’s only three schools probably — and one of those would be Arkansas — that have the ability to do that on a continuous basis year in and year out.

“And if I’m already here, there’s really no reason to change that.”

Johnson said that when he becomes head coach, he will continue to coach the sprinters and hurdlers and hire an assistant to coach the distance runners.

“I will manage the coach, and I already have some ideas who that will be,” Johnson said. “But distance is important to Arkansas. It’s where it got its start and where it got its name.

“The sprints and the jumps and the multis are very complementary to what Coach has done and what Coach has established.

“It wouldn’t be my deal to change that part of the program, because that’s the centerpiece of it.”

Harter said he won’t change how he approaches his job before retiring.

“I think the passion is still there,” he said. “I’ve always been real competitive and I have good health.

“Does it scare me to retire? Yes. No doubt about it, because I’ve never done it before. But the opportunity to still be around and stay attached to track and field in one way or another, obviously I would love to be able to do that.

“As long as I’m an asset to the program, I’ll help in any way I possibly can.”

Yurachek said he’s glad to not have to do a coaching search and that he expects it will be a seamless transition.

“And that’s no disrespect to Lance,” Yurachek said. “He’s built an unbelievable program, but he’s also helped Chris grow into his opportunity to be a head coach.

“I think Chris will grab this opportunity and he’s going to continue to take this program to the next notch, if that’s even possible for our women’s track and field program.”


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