The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Harter receives well-deserved HOF nomination

Aug 26, 2014
Sean Cartell | SEC Staff
Photo: SEC Staff

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - It would be easy to count all the trophies, titles and All-America honors - though it might take some time - and think that one could gain a full understanding of what Lance Harter has accomplished in his nearly four decades as a collegiate track and field coach.

Harter, who has spent a quarter-century as the head women's track and field and cross country coach at the University of Arkansas, is the architect of one of the nation's most storied programs. His impact goes much deeper and is significantly more complex than what perhaps appears at the surface.

Harter's combination of a fierce competitive spirit, an individualized-training approach and a humble disposition make him concurrently one of the most successful and likeable individuals in the sport of collegiate track and field.

"Lance knows how to pull the best out of young people and pour his spirit into them," said Rolando Greene, a longtime assistant for Harter who is entering his second year as the head coach for men's and women's track and field at Purdue. "You will see competitiveness, academic and athletic success and humility. I believe humility is strength under control. He is so humble, his strength is under control and therefore you see performance in the classroom and on the track."

Harter's Arkansas teams have captured 22 Southeastern Conference championships, have posted 13 NCAA top-five finishes and his athletes have claimed 15 NCAA event titles. Prior to his time in Fayetteville, Harter constructed a powerhouse program at NCAA Division II Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, directing his squads to 13 national titles and 30 national individual event crowns.

Appropriately, he is being inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in December 2014, an honor and distinction that many felt was overdue.

"I thought it was about time," said Bev Lewis, the former Women's Athletics Director at the University of Arkansas who hired Harter in 1990. "He is well-deserving of the honor. He recruits quality individuals and makes sure they blend together as a team. He is very competitive, wants to win the SEC title every year, and his teams are always competitive nationally."

*****

Growing up in Northern California in the 1960s, Harter, at an early age, developed many of the fundamental qualities that would later make him a successful track and field coach, learning industriousness, discipline and dedication from his parents.

That track and field became Harter's lifelong passion came purely by chance. That he became one of the most accomplished coaches in his profession was certainly no accident.

"I started out as a surfer and part of the group that I was with did some running to stay in shape and elevate endurance," Harter said. "One of the people in the group was on the cross country and track team and asked me to join them. It was a very slow development, but I think I always had a very high-work-ethic as a result of my environment and the way I was raised by my folks. I evolved to have some success in running and eventually had the opportunity to go to college."

Harter graduated from Texas Tech in 1972 after significant achievement as a distance runner, including finishing as the Red Raiders' top steeplechaser in 1971 and setting several school records. Most importantly, he was a dean's list honoree in every semester of his college career, earning a bachelor's degree in physical education and American history.

"I was the first one in my family to go to college," Harter said. "That was a big breakthrough for my family, and my three younger brothers all went to college. I broke a barrier by going to college and then I was really hooked on the idea of wanting to coach. I just saw the ability to work with people and have the opportunity to touch their lives in helping them realize their dreams."

Harter got into coaching at Colorado State while attending graduate school. He earned his master's degree in education - exercise physiology and gained the requisite experience he would need to begin his career in the coaching profession at newly constructed Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colo. Harter spent five years at the school, leading his teams to five cross country and five track and field conference titles.

*****

There was perhaps no better learning experience for Harter than his first foray into collegiate head coaching. He was hired in 1979 by Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and the job description required him to be a jack-of-all-trades.

"I was able to get the job at Cal Poly as the women's coach and I was also teaching five classes," Harter recalled. "All of my assistants were volunteers and they made a tremendous amount of sacrifices; many of them have become head coaches. We worked hard and we worked together."

The budget was small and the resources few, but Harter found a way to make it work. As someone who had focused the majority of his career on the distance events both as a coach and a student-athlete, he was forced to manage all of the details and learn all of the disciplines during his time at Cal Poly.

"At one time or another, I had to coach every event," he said. "It really rounded me out as far as being a complete track and field coach. It was out of necessity because at one time or another, a volunteer assistant would leave to take a paid position somewhere else and I would inherit the responsibilities of their respective event. It was a common rhythm throughout the 11-year period. I was the cross country coach and always coached the distance, but there were times where I coached the sprints, jumps and throws."

The NCAA began sponsoring women's track and field in 1981, setting the stage for Harter's teams to dominate the national landscape. His Mustang cross country team won eight consecutive NCAA Division II crowns from 1982-89 and his track and field squad captured six national track titles. Harter worked hard to bring visibility to the impressive accomplishments of his Cal Poly athletes.

"We were able to win our first AIAW Championship and then that just parlayed into the NCAA where we won 13 Division II National Championships," Harter said. "In those days, they let Division II teams be in the Division I poll, so we were very, very visible in the Division I rankings nationally."

Even with his team's record-setting accomplishments, it's plausible that Harter's squads would have captured more national titles if not for a restrictive budget which prevented Cal Poly from participating in the NCAA Division II Indoor Championships.

"We wanted to be competitive in both cross country and track," Harter said. "We won 14 national championships and we never went to the indoor meet. That would have been a great opportunity for the kids, but we literally did not have the resources."

In total, Harter was named NCAA Division II National Women's Track and Field or Cross Country Coach of the Year a staggering 10 times during his 11-year career. One of his pupils - Karin Smith - won three NCAA Championships in the javelin while at Cal Poly, setting the NCAA record at 211-5 and qualifying for the Olympics five times.

Fittingly, Harter took his role as an educator as seriously as his role as a coach. During his nine years teaching at Cal Poly, he was twice a recipient of Cal Poly's Teacher of the Year award.

*****

Lewis was charged with the unenviable task of hiring her own replacement.

She had arrived in 1981 as the Razorbacks' head women's track and field and cross country coach and went on to lead Arkansas to a number of firsts. Her 1988 squad won the Southwest Conference Cross Country Championships, and her track and cross country teams combined for six top-20 national finish during her tenure. Lewis earned three SWC Coach of the Year honors during her time at the helm.

Lewis' track and field teams helped set the standard for women's athletics at the University of Arkansas, but in 1989, she would have the opportunity to shape the entire program, when she was named Women's Athletics Director, embarking on a storied 19-year career in that role. Stepping away from the track meant her first priority would be to bring in the right fit to build on the foundation she had set.

She had always been impressed by Harter's Cal Poly teams and was confident he would be able to replicate that success at the highest level in Fayetteville. Harter conversely liked the idea of working for an athletics director who had been a track and field coach and understood the demands of the sport.

"I had known Lance as a colleague for several years and knew he was just an outstanding coach," Lewis said. "I knew of his success, what a good recruiter he was and what a quality person he was. When I decided that I was stepping away, we needed someone to take the program to the next level, and I knew Lance was very capable."

When Harter agreed to take the reins of the Arkansas program, it was under much different circumstances than when he arrived. The school had been a founding member of the Southwest Conference, one not as known for its broad-based strength as the SEC. He likes to joke with his predecessor that she duped him by not informing him of the school's upcoming realignment.

"Lance always laughs and tells me that when I hired him, I never told him that we were moving to the SEC," said Lewis, who recently retired as the University of Arkansas' Associate Vice Chancellor and Executive Associate Athletics Director. "He came in and we moved the next year. He just has such quality kids and his teams are always competitive nationally. I think he wanted to compete with the best, so I don't think it was a hard transition."

Harter, who called the move "a huge leap in the level of competition," embraced the school's transition to the SEC. Since taking the helm of the Arkansas program, Harter has led his teams to the SEC Cross Country Championship more than half the time (14 SEC Championships) and has directed his track and field squads to eight league crowns.

"In hindsight, it was the best thing to ever happen to us," Harter said of Arkansas joining the SEC. "What is sometimes hard to convey is just how good the SEC is. You can be sixth or seventh or eighth in SEC track and field and you'll win most conferences running away.

"Every success is greatly appreciated and the first thing I tell our kids after the trophy process is, 'Ladies, you really need to appreciate this moment. Bask in it, but cherish it and hold on to it. These moments are rare. You have the opportunity to have success at the highest-level conference meet that exists.' The talent level that exists not only in the athletic ranks, but in the coaching ranks of the SEC is the best of the best."

*****

Grace Heymsfield, a current Arkansas distance runner, was one of the most decorated high school track and field and cross country athletes to ever hail from the Natural State.

A native of Elkins, Ark., - a town of about 2,000 residents just 12 minutes from Fayetteville - whose father is a longtime civil engineering faculty member at the University of Arkansas, Heymsfield wasn't so sure that running for her hometown school was what she had hoped for her college experience.

Meeting with Harter and understanding both his philosophy and coaching style convinced Heymsfield that the team environment and training program she was seeking was right in her backyard.

"We know that our coach cares for us outside of running," Heymsfield says. "That support is very unique. He cares enough to get to know us and he is very supportive of all of us. His competitiveness shows in his high expectations of us. I want my coach to have high expectations of me. He has great confidence in us and his training prepares us so well."

With Harter, there's no cookie-cutter approach. He works closely with each individual athlete and tailors her workouts and motivations to exactly the specific method that will work for her.

"I'm somewhat old-fashioned with respect to the fact that I'm very hands-on and very interactive with the athletes on a daily basis," Harter said. "I want to know the complete athlete, not just the contribution they make as a runner. It's a hard way to coach, but I want to make sure each and every athlete feels they have been taken care of and their dreams are fulfilled."

The trophy case in Fayetteville speaks for itself, but the successes of the past aren't something that Harter relies on to motivate his athletes. He wants to find a way to help each of his current athletes blaze their own trails into Razorback lore.

"The chemistry of each and every team is different," he said. "You want to let them feel individualized with respect to this being their time to shine. We have a great legacy here and that's important in the recruiting side, but what's most important is you as an individual and that you are treated as one of the elites who wants to continue the legacy."

The approach is one that is not lost on the student-athletes in Harter's charge.

"I appreciate that he is able to tailor to individual needs," Heymsfield said. "He knows that we're not all the same and I think that's where a lot of our success has come from. He's willing to work with the individual athlete."

The roster of world-class athletes who have trained under Harter's direction is vast and extensive. Christin Wurth, Amy Yoder and Olympian Deena Kastor are among the stars that were coached by Harter. Together with Greene, Harter helped mentor fellow Olympians Veronica Campbell-Brown and LaShaunte'a Moore.

But Harter's impact can be seen in athletes of all skill levels who have come through his programs for decades, ranging far beyond the international standouts with household names.

"There are a lot of coaches out there who can coach the elite athlete, but they don't really know how to coach developing athletes," Greene said. "Lance is one of those guys who can get the vision across to all student-athletes. He knows how to develop, but he also knows how to coach the elite athlete. Lance knows how to bring in a kid that a lot of programs say they could do without, embrace them and bring them along to make them a multiple-time All-American and SEC Champion. He has that fatherly gift."

*****

In the sport of track and field, success is tangibly measured with trophies and medals, two things that seemingly adorn every corner of the Arkansas track and field offices. Yet, Harter understands that a team wins with people, and he values the human factor above all else.

"Lance is a people-person; that's who he is," Greene said. "You couldn't find a better human being. He's going to love them, he's going to empower them and he's going to make sure they are productive in the community. Something that he really emphasizes 'Once a Razorback, always a Razorback.' He will go to the nth degree for present and former athletes. When all those athletes come back to Fayetteville, the first person they want to see is Coach Harter. They will do anything for him and he will do anything for them."

Seeing student-athletes reach their dreams and succeed at the highest level in their sport brings Harter some of the greatest joy he can imagine.

"To be able to win an SEC Championship or be on the podium at the NCAA Championship and to look in the eyes of those athletes - even the ones who may not have contributed to the point total - and see them be a part of such an achievement, it is something that will stay with them the rest of their lives.

"It is really rewarding to visit with young people who come back 10, 20 or 30 years later and say that what they learned in workouts or races in our track and field program helped them through the challenges they've faced in their lives," Harter continued. "That gives me chills."

Not only have top-notch athletes been critical to Harter's success, but so too have been his excellent and loyal coaching and support staffs, which he is quick to credit for their immense contributions to the program.

Greene spent 16 seasons on Harter's staff before departing for Purdue prior to last season, while fellow assistant Bryan Compton has been with the Razorbacks since 1998. Associate head coach Chris Johnson, who filled the open position vacated by Greene, is a former graduate assistant with the Razorbacks.

"Lance surrounds himself with people who know how to do the job and he pours his spirit into that assistant," Greene said. "He gives his athletes and assistants the resources they need to be successful and then he gets out of the way and lets them do their jobs."

Lewis agrees, saying that Harter's ability to consistently bring together a diverse group of individuals to follow a single goal has been one of the keys to his impressive Arkansas tenure.

"He really gets everyone to gel as a team," Lewis said. "He recruits quality individuals and he gets along great with his assistants and that carries over to the whole team."

*****

A conversation two years ago reminded Greene of a father sending his son off to college. Greene had been offered the opportunity to direct Purdue's men's and women's track and field programs. Despite being excited by the job offer, Greene's acceptance didn't come without some sadness.

"I have a loving father, but Lance has embraced me like a father would a son," Greene said. "I had been with him for 16 years, but when that day came, he told me that it was time for me to take my own program and develop it. It was a good day, but a tearful one. It was like a father saying goodbye to a son. He showed me how to do things the right way and I think that's been the key to his success."

Harter, who is married to former Arkansas associate athletics director Kim Harter and is the father of five children, treats every individual who comes through his program as if they were his own child. He has set a standard in his personal life that Greene hopes to emulate.

"We've had our moments where we've cried together and we've laughed together," Greene said. "You're talking about a man who loves his family, his wife and his children. If there's somebody who I'd like to emulate as a husband, as a father and as a coach, it would be Lance. He doesn't just talk the game, he lives it. He lives it doing things the right way."

*****

To fully understand Lance Harter is to make sense of the seeming dichotomy of his personality.

On one hand remains the youthful California surfer who instantly turns strangers into friends; the guy who excitedly looks forward to dinner trips to The Fish Market; and the humble legend who spends his time congratulating his opponents when everyone expects him to be hoisting yet another championship trophy.

On the other is a driven motivator at the top of his profession who expects excellence and settles for nothing less than the best; a man who defeats his formidable opponents by sometimes astounding margins; and a coach who is just months away from Hall of Fame induction.

One thing's for certain: Harter is just as determined to continue coaching his teams with that unique blend of personality and expertise for many years to come.

"My wife recently retired and she asked me how much longer I was going to keep going," Harter said. "I told her, 'I love it! I look forward to going to work.' Sure, there are challenges and paperwork and the intensity of recruiting, but the challenge is just so rewarding.

"We obviously want to continue to pursue winning SEC Championships and we've been on the lower rungs of the NCAA podium, but I think it would be really fun for our kids and staff to get the chance to be at the top of the NCAA podium."

It's hard to fathom that any situation might render the affable coach speechless, but the thought of preparing his own acceptance speech has left Harter with few words.

It's probably because Lance Harter's career has never been about Lance Harter.

"When I've been out running, I've thought about what I'm going to say," Harter said. "I hope I can convey a sense of humor and show that hard work really does pay off. I never ran one race, never contributed one point, but I did work hard. If you can surround yourself with good people to help you compliment your weaknesses, that united front can be very, very successful."