Harter's last lap: Final meet nears in legendary career

By: Bob Holt Bob Holt's Twitter account
Published: Sunday, June 4, 2023
Arkansas coach Lance Harter (right) shouts instructions during the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Fayetteville.
( Hank Layton)
Arkansas coach Lance Harter (right) shouts instructions during the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Lance Harter and his wife, Kim, recently were invited by friends to join them on a bicycling trip through Austria in September.

“When they brought it up, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do that. It’s during the cross country season,’ ” Harter said. “Then I went, ‘Wait a minute, it’s OK. We can do that.’ ”

Harter, 73, won’t be coaching the University of Arkansas women’s cross country and track and field teams next fall as he has since the 1990-91 school year.

After 33 years, 45 SEC championships and 7 national titles with the Razorbacks, Harter will officially retire June 30.

Harter’s last competition leading Arkansas will be at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which for the women begin Thursday and run through Saturday night in Austin, Texas.

It’s been 22 months since Harter announced on Sept. 2, 2021, that he would retire at the end of the 2023 outdoor season.

Back then Harter’s last meet at Arkansas seemed like a long way off. Now the end is in less than a week.

“I think emotionally I’m still stable. I haven’t come to tears or anything,” Harter said with a smile. “It’s been so enjoyable the last few months because we’ve had a lot of celebrations.”

In February before the Razorbacks hosted the SEC Indoor Championships at the Randal Tyson Center, Harter was honored at a reception attended by about 400 people, including his conference coaching peers and numerous athletes he coached at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and Arkansas.

At the reception, Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek surprised Harter by announcing the track at the Tyson Center would be named in Harter’s honor with his signature embedded on the Mondo surface near the finish line.

The Razorbacks then won their ninth consecutive SEC Indoor championship.

“I think we all knew it needed to happen,” Arkansas distance All-American Lauren Gregory, who won the mile and 3,000 meters, said of the Razorbacks making sure to take the title on Harter’s big weekend. “No one was messing around.”

The Razorbacks then won the NCAA Indoor championship and won the SEC Outdoor title.

Before the conference outdoor meet, Megan Elliott — Arkansas’ director of operations, who was a distance runner for Harter — unveiled special T-shirts for the team.

“Megan had T-shirts made up for everybody that had ‘Arkansas Track and Field’ on the front, but on the back it said, ‘Harter’s Last Lap,’ ” Harter said. “That was really nice.”

Chris Johnson, Arkansas’ assistant and sprints coach the past 12 years, will succeed Harter as head coach. The transition of Johnson taking over for Harter also was announced 22 months ago by Yurachek.

“I’m definitely ready to pass the reins to Chris,” Harter said. “He’s very deserving of getting this opportunity.

“Chris was being offered every head coaching job that became available, because he’s been the hot name, so I’m really glad we could work it out where he’ll be our next head coach.”

Johnson, 46, confirmed he has turned down three head coaching offers from Power 5 conference schools to stay at Arkansas.

“Coach has been able to execute his vision and get people around him that complement his strengths,” Johnson said. “He has a lot of foresight in being able to see what it’s going to take to be great and win championships.

“He’s been able to figure out the code to get to that point, to put teams together and get what he needs out of the staff and athletes.”

Johnson said he appreciates that Harter has allowed he and field events coach Bryan Compton to coach their groups and recruit for what they feel are their needs.

“He also has guided us in the way things should be done and how that fits into the overall scope of the program,” Johnson said. “Our athletes are going to do what’s best for the team and not selfishly just do what’s best only for them.

“We’ve also always done what’s best for the athletes. Coach’s sentiment is, ‘Let’s always do what’s best for the athletes, and that’ll always be what’s best for the team.’ ”

Yurachek, hired at Arkansas in December 2017, said he’s grateful to have worked with Harter.

“I call Lance the ‘Silver Fox,’ ” Yurachek said, referring to Harter’s wavy hair. “He very humble, but he has a quiet confidence about himself.

“He knows going into a meet where we’re going to finish, and most of the time that’s at the top. He doesn’t show his hand, but he knows he and his staff have put together an incredible team year in and year out, and he understands what needs to be done to win championships.”

Dave Van Horn, in his 21st season as Arkansas’ baseball coach, said he’s gotten to know Harter better since the Fowler Center — which is shared by both the baseball and track and field teams — opened in 2014.

“Lance has such a good demeanor about him,” Van Horn said. “I’m sure he’s tough when he needs to be, but I think he’s built that program and maintained it at a high level for so long because he treats people right.”

Harter, inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2021, said he can’t single out his favorite championships.

“I tell the kids after every championship, ‘As coaches, we need to thank you that we get to celebrate with you, because this is your championship,’ ” Harter said. “Obviously we were a part of the championships as coaches, but the kids allowing us to share the wins with them is really special.”

Britton Wilson, the defending NCAA champion in the 400-meter hurdles who has set collegiate records this season in the 400 and 400 hurdles, transferred to Arkansas from Tennessee last year.

“I’m glad to experience being at Arkansas while Coach Harter is still here,” Wilson said. “It’s kind of sad he’s retiring, but it’s also exciting to see him move on and have his own life separate from the program.”

There’s one more chance for Harter to add another national championship to Arkansas’ trophy case in Austin this weekend.

The Razorbacks are ranked No. 3 in the coaches’ poll behind No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Florida, but they also were ranked No. 3 indoors when they edged Texas 64-60 to win the national title in Albuquerque, N.M.

“I’m an optimist to some degree, but I’m probably more of a realist,” Harter said. “We won indoors by the skin of our chin because of some extraordinary performances by each and every one of our athletes who were there.”

Arkansas will be without Gregory, whose college career is over after she suffered a broken foot.

“Can we win against Texas again on their home track and without Lauren?” Harter said. “Definitely we’ve got an opportunity to win.

“But I think realistically we’d like to be among the top four and get a trophy. Texas will be highly motivated after they were supposed to win indoors and we beat them.”

After Harter retires, he and his wife will continue to live in Fayetteville. They also have a 10-acre farm in Goshen where they have been refurbishing a house.

“I always tell the kids that my philosophy is, ‘Don’t look at anything as finality. It’s just a part of life, and you move on to the next adventure,’ ” Johnson said. “Coach is not dying. He’s going to be around. He’s healthy and he’ll continue to be a great resource for our program and our staff.

“I don’t think we’re losing him as much as he’s transitioning to do something else.”

Harter said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, children and grandchildren, but that he also wants to continue to be an asset for the Razorbacks.

“I’m going to be the ultimate fan,” Harter said. “I’m smart enough to know to stay out of the way, but if asked I’m going to help any way I can.”


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