New track coach has big plans for Kentucky program
The same day former Kentucky track and field coach Edrick Floreal left Lexington for a new job at Texas last month, an interview for the brand new opening was already all but done.
If it weren't for the specific placement of two tents and some rainfall, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart might have introduced a different person as the new leader of the Wildcats' track and field program last week.
In early June, Barnhart was at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., with Floreal and his team. With the Wildcats primed for a solid finish on the sport's biggest stage, Barnhart also found his attention drawn elsewhere.
Standing under another tent near Kentucky's blue-and-white tent was Purdue head coach Lonnie Greene, who was gathering with and talking to his team while waiting out the rain in between events. Barnhart watched and started making mental notes, gathering information and observations that would come in handy in the very near future.
"It was maybe the best interview I've ever done without even talking to the guy," Barnhart remembered about watching Greene that day. "To watch how he interacted with his team, the camaraderie from their team and the enjoyment of participating in the national championship from his student athletes and the coaching staff was incredible."
On June 13, four days after the national championships concluded, Floreal was hired by Texas and Barnhart suddenly had a coaching search to conduct. One candidate immediately came to mind.
"It didn’t take long. I guess Lonnie likes to lead from the front of the pack because he was the first one we talked to and he took the lead and never gave it up," Barnhart said last Tuesday with Greene sitting to his left.
"I didn't think you were a distance runner, But you went the distance, so we're good," he said to Greene with a laugh.
After formally interviewing three candidates, Barnhart lured Greene away from Purdue, and back to a state and a conference with which he was already familiar.
Prior to his six-year tenure at Purdue, Greene spent 16 years as an assistant at Arkansas. The Nassau, Bahamas, native graduated from Murray State in 1989.
"I became a man in the state of Kentucky," Greene said. "This place has got a special place in my heart. The entire state."
Greene said he was competing at the Junior Pan American Games when then Murray State head coach Jay Flanagan approached him, asking where he was going to college. Greene told him he didn't plan on it, and later that year he arrived in Kentucky in the fall of 1984.
More than 30 years later, Greene is back in the commonwealth as a head coach who wants to win right away.
"I think Coach Flo did a great job of coming out of the gate and doing some great things," Greene said. "I believe that I can pick up where he left off and continue to grow this. I believe that you can win here."
Greene has seen the level of talent in the SEC firsthand, helping lead Arkansas to 16 SEC event championships during his time there.
"I think that's going to pay dividends on my return to the league," Greene said of his time at Arkansas. "The reality of it is, this league is so competitive. You could be a team that finished seventh in the conference and go to the national championships and vie for the national championship."
Greene, like Floreal, said he finds value in what sprinters and hurdlers bring to a team, but wants to attack the league he calls "the mecca of track and field" in the most appropriate way.
"Speed and power is where I live," Greene said. "My approach coming into the SEC is going to be more of a holistic approach, more of an all-encompassing approach. I think that’s the way you can win the SEC."
Entering his first season, Greene will have to replace the production of freshman Sydney McLaughlin and junior Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, both of whom opted to turn professional after winning individual national championships in the 400-meter hurdles and 100-meter hurdles, respectively.
"It's a very good team," Greene said of his new team. "We've lost a couple of very key individuals in Sydney and Jasmine and a few others but the recruiting class that Flo had was a very competitive recruiting class. We’ll try to finish off with a few pieces before school starts if time permits."
Under Floreal, the UK women finished fourth at the 2018 national championships and the men finished 16th. Greene's Purdue women came in eighth.
In addition to the holistic approach, Greene said he wants to continue growing the program by looking for the next crop of talent beyond America's borders.
"It's got to be an international thing," Greene said. "You gotta find the best kids in the United States, and then you gotta find the best kids around the world. ... If you want to be competitive you have to spread your wings a bit, and I have those connections around the world."
Replacing professional-caliber talent, competing in perhaps the toughest league in the country and filling a coach's shoes who elevated the program to new heights. The challenges are there, and Greene is ready.
"I don't believe in the incremental approach," he said. "That'll get you tired. That'll get you tired real quick. I wanna be effective right away."