On track: With Bucknam, UA taps into
Norwich tradition of successful coaches © Sept. 26, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications
It’s cliched to say Chris Bucknam has big shoes to fill as the new track coach at the University of Arkansas. It is also undeniable.
During the summer of 2008, Bucknam, who graduated from Norwich University in 1978, accepted an offer to succeed the legendary John McDonnell, who won 42 national championships in 36 years as the Razorbacks’ cross-country and track and field coach—more than any coach in the history of American college athletics.
“I might be as scared right now as I was when I was a freshman at Norwich,” Bucknam says. “I don’t pretend I can come close to replacing a legend. I can only to be true to what I’ve done up to this point.”
There’s no better feeling than seeing kids achieve what they do
and the reaction you get when they do something they didn’t think they could do.
~ Chris Bucknam,
U. Arkansas' head track coach
and Norwich graduate
After a highly successful run coaching at the University of Northern Iowa, Bucknam left some shoes to fill himself. In 25 years, his teams won three national titles, 35 conference championships, and 34 athletes won 85 All-American awards. It’s a road to success that began shortly after Bucknam arrived in Northfield, Vt., at Norwich, the oldest private military college in the U.S., and met cross-country coach Wallace Baines, football coaches Barry Mynter and Joe Sabol, basketball coach Ed Hockenberry, and others.
“As I watched, listened and learned from them, I knew right then I wanted to be a college coach,” recalls Bucknam. “All those men were wonderful people. They were very good coaches, and it was clear that they enjoyed what they were doing.”
Bucknam’s success is hardly unusual among graduates of Norwich’s physical education program from that era who became coaches. Phil Grady, ’70, recently wrapped up a 24-year career at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., with the most wins  of any men’s hockey coach in the college’s history. He led the Continentals to 18 postseason appearances, including 14 straight from 1993 to 2006, and an Eastern College Athletic Conference East Division title in 1998. Grady estimates more than 20 of his former players and assistants are coaching.
“It’s not a coincidence that if you see a successful coach, he ends up influencing a lot of people,” says Grady.
Don Brown, ’77, entered the 2008 college football season, his fifth, tied at third for career wins at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. The 36-win record from the last four years with Brown as head coach is the best four-year span in the program’s history. Regarded as a top defensive mind in college football, he previously served as defensive coordinator for the Minutemen during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, including a key role in the program’s 1998 NCAA Championship.
And at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., Lou DiMasi, ’77, spent 25 years as the first-ever head coach of men’s hockey. DiMasi, one of two people enshrined in both the St. Michael’s and Norwich athletic halls of fame, guided the Purple Knights to the 1999 NCAA Division II men’s ice hockey championship, the only NCAA title in the college’s history. When DiMasi stepped down in 2007, he had the second-best record for winning at St. Mike’s.
When DiMasi was a Norwich student, he said his floor in Hawkins Hall was packed with future coaches on the collegiate, high school and youth league levels.
“Chris Bucknam was my next-door neighbor. Dan Shepardson, who was in my class ... ended up becoming the highest-winning boys’ soccer coach in Vermont history,” says DiMasi. “You had Mike Gonneville, who had a national reputation as a girls’ soccer coach in Vermont. He lived across the hall from me. A little older than me ... was Bill O’Neill, who is still coaching after 40 years.”
Bucknam, Grady, Brown and DiMasi all credited the likes of Baines, Mynter, Sabol and Hockenberry with inspiring their careers. Norwich Athletic Director Anthony Mariano agrees, but praised the students who came through the physical education program.
“The typical type of kid we get here at Norwich is a blue-collar kid who works hard,” Mariano says. “Regardless of their major, if they participated in athletics they often developed the affinity for coaching which made them want to go out and be a part of coaching in some form.”
Advice and counsel absorbed from Norwich mentors is echoed in the coaches’ suggestions to Bucknam for his new duties.
“Be respectful of your program’s traditions. Be yourself. Coach it the way you want to coach it,” says Brown. “Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not.”
“For me, being a coach is doing something that you love every day,” Grady says. “You get to work with motivated, bright, young student athletes. That keeps you young. You can’t help it.”
“This is a mind-boggling opportunity, and I can cower in the corner or I can try to be better,” he says. “I say that with humility, but that’s how I’m looking at it.”
Bucknam is still thrilled with his career choice.
“I love the college atmosphere. I love the excitement the kids bring every day,” he says. “I feel I have a knack for getting the best out of kids. There’s no better feeling than seeing kids achieve what they do and the reaction you get when they do something they didn’t think they could do.”