By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – For the second time in 32 years, a University of Arkansas women’s head track coach has chosen the women’s program next head track coach.
Of course with UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek’s approval and official press conference announcement Tuesday, Lance Harter’s choice of associate head coach/sprints coach Chris Johnson was named to succeed Harter as Arkansas’ head women’s track coach following Harter’s retirement after the 2023 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, just like former UA women’s head track Bev Lewis upon her promotion to UA women’s athletic director hired Harter away from winning Division II national championships at California-San Luis Obispo to win six national championships, three in NCAA Outdoor track, two in NCAA Indoor Track and one in NCAA Cross Country, and 42 SEC Indoor and Outdoor Track and Cross Country championships.
Upon hiring Harter, Lewis said she just hired the program a better coach than herself. Since retired from the UA and living in Michigan, Lewis and Harter reconnected before Harter’s impending retirement was announced.
“I called her yesterday (Monday), Harter said. “And one of the things I’ll always remember is that when you chose me to be your successor, you said you wanted to find somebody to take the program up a notch. And I felt when we were able to put this whole thing together with Chris that I’m doing the same thing that we’re going to be to go up another notch.”
Johnson, first at Arkansas as a graduate assistant in 2003 and 2004 under Harter and Lonnie Greene, then Arkansas’ sprints coach become the head coach at Purdue and now Kentucky, coached Penn State’s sprinters and jumpers for eight years and for the last 11 years succeeded at Greene Arkansas as the 3-times National Assistant Coach of the Year while assisting Harter and field events coach Bryan Compton coaching the Razorbacks to their five women’s NCAA Indoor and Outdoor national championships.
Harter said more schools than he could count inquired about hiring Johnson as their head coach.
What kept Johnson turning head coaching jobs down to remain at Arkansas?
“Other universities are not going to put the resources and the support into doing that in terms of track and field,” Johnson said. “There’s only three schools probably and one of those would be Arkansas, that has 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’s achievements caused Yurachek dittoing the prediction of his coach to be with what Lewis said upon hiring Harter.
Yurachek did add a qualifier.
“With Coach Harter passing off the baton to Coach Johnson, I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat,” Yurachek said. “He (Harter) has 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 as coach to take this program to the next notch if that’s even possible for our women’s track and field program.”
Indeed if that’s even possible. Only two schools, Arkansas on 2019 and Oregon before it, have won the NCAA Indoor-Outdoor and Cross Country triple crown in the same calendar or academic year.
“Just an amazing career,” Yurachek said of Harter’s accomplishments.
Harter, 70, asserts accomplishments with his imprint aren’t done yet.
Blurting a comment as Yurachek concluded about what head coach in waiting Johnson will accomplish, Harter said, “But between now and then we still plan to win some other championships. I want to make sure that’s clear that we’re not going to take a break.”
Harter’s cross country team won the SEC Championship team last Friday and next week runs the NCAA South Central Qualifier.
And recruiting and developing never ceases which Johnson knows well.
“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from Coach, it’s to get the athletes to buy into the program and what we’re doing,” Johnson said. “Have a clear understanding of what’s going on. And once that happens, good things happen.
As a sprints and horizontal coach, Johnson will have to hire
an assistant to coach cross country and the track distance runners and make it known the distance program remains an Arkansas hallmark as it is for Harter and men’s coach Chris Bucknam and was for the late John McDonnell, Arkansas’ 42 times NCAA champion men’s cross country and track coach.
“Distance is important to Arkansas,” Johnson said, promising he would hire a strong distance coach. “It’s where it got its start and where it got its name.
It wouldn’t be my deal to change that part of the program, because that’s the centerpiece. The sprints and the jumps and the multis were very complementary to what Coach has done and what Coach has established.”
In the meantime, Harter and Johnson vow to continue “business as usual” working as a team with Compton, considered by many, and with the champions to back it up, the nation’s top women’s pole vault coach, and director of operations Megan Elliott.
Johnson said Harter epitomizes the head coach allowing his assistants to be head coaches of their specific areas yet be overall managed by the head coach concerning scholarships, discipline, and policy.
“He’s been doing this for a long time,” Johnson said. “So any advice he can give to point in the right direction, we’re going to take it.”