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Doug Arnold: The Little-Known Pillar of State College Football Success

by on September 21, 2017 5:00 AM

He was an unlikely candidate for a coaching position in football. Aside from a year or two in his junior high days, he never played the sport. And with a wiry frame that measures 5 feet, 9 inches and 135 pounds, he didn’t have a commanding physical presence.  

In fact, Doug Arnold looks like a gymnast — which he was, competing for Coach Gene Wettstone’s Penn State teams of the early 1970s.  

But regardless of his real or perceived limitations, one thing is for sure. Doug Arnold is a team player. So in 1985, when State College needed an assistant football coach for its ninth grade team, it was Arnold, a teacher at Park Forest Junior High, who said yes. Then, in 1986, Doug agreed to be co-head coach of that team. And in 1987, he assumed sole responsibility as head coach. (He also coached the junior high/middle school boys’ track and field team from 1988 to 2015.)

LEGENDARY RECORD

This summer, Arnold finally retired from his football role — with little public fanfare but with appreciation from players, parents and fellow coaches. In 32 years, the native of Erie had achieved five undefeated seasons and a total record of 168 wins, 75 losses and 7 ties. If you compute things as the NFL does (half-credit for a tie), Arnold’s teams posted a winning percentage of .686--a smidge better than Bill Belichick’s NFL winning rate of .677 and a notch below Joe Paterno’s college mark of .749. Statewide statistics are lacking at the ninth grade level, but some observers speculate that Arnold’s win total is the highest ever for that football level in Pennsylvania.

Why was Arnold so successful? “He worked hard at it,” says Denny Rhule, one of Arnold’s assistants for nearly 20 years. “He went to clinics and talked to different coaches, he loved the game, he was really good with the players. He just kind of attacked it.”

Rhule now assists his son Matt, who is in his first year as head coach for Baylor University, and he’s been around football since he played quarterback for State High in the mid-1960s. His top memory of working with Doug Arnold?  “I always remember how much fun it was to coach with him,” Rhule says. “It was a highlight of my career.”

Chris Weakland, who became State High’s athletic director in July, was one of Arnold’s students. Weakland later served as one of his assistant coaches, and still later he interacted with Doug as a parent of two football-playing sons. “The same thing that made Doug so effective as a classroom teacher also made him very effective as a coach,” says Weakland. “He related really well to the kids. He brought incredible passion. He left his fingerprint on a lot of kids’ lives, and it was a positive fingerprint, that’s for sure.”

The 2015 team was the last of Doug Arnold's five undefeated teams. Arnold, sporting sunglasses, is at the far-right of the second row. Photo provided.

‘THE BEST YEAR OF MY LIFE’

Of course, no one knows Arnold better than his college sweetheart and wife of 41 years, the former Jeannie Tammen of State College. “The cool thing,” says Jeannie, “is that wherever we go or whatever we do, everybody knows Mr. Arnold. They want to reminisce with Doug, and it’s never a short conversation. And they’ll say, ‘That was the best year of my life,’ or ‘That was the best team I was ever on.’ I think it’s a testament to Doug that they want to have a conversation with him; it’s not just a quick ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye.’”

Those former players aren’t the only ones who wanted to have a conversation with Doug Arnold. So did I. So I sat down with this legend of the local gridiron who is still operating within a 135-pound body. I wanted to know how he learned his craft, how he achieved success and who were some of his most memorable players. Here are edited portions of our conversation:

Prior to becoming head coach for the ninth grade team in 1987, you served just one year as an assistant and one year as co-head coach. What was it like to take over the program?

Arnold:  The year that I started as the head coach, not only did I have Ron Pavlechko’s son, Aaron, on my team, but I also had Joe Paterno’s son, Scott. So I thought there might be a little pressure for me to know what I was doing. But Scott was just fun. And Aaron wasn’t upset if I didn’t know something; he was trying to help me. We had a great group of kids that year (1987) and we went 4-2-1.

How prepared or unprepared did you feel?

Arnold:  Oh, I was totally unprepared. Totally. I could get through one day of practice, and then I’d have to figure out, “What am I going to do tomorrow?” In a lot of cases, I would say something and Aaron would just be shaking his head — he wouldn’t say anything. So I’d say, “What do you think, Aaron?”  And he’d say, “Well, I think the guards should pull right rather than left on that particular play.”  

What were your expectations when you first became the head coach?

Arnold:  I thought I would coach football until it wasn’t fun or I had something else. But it kind of gets to you. Up until that point, I wasn’t sold on teaching, but once I got a chance to work with the kids on a different level and had such a good time with them, I had a different outlook on teaching. The coaching absolutely helped the teaching. They went hand in hand.

You certainly didn’t remain in coaching for 32 years because of the pay or the publicity. So what kept you going?

Arnold: The kids, the competition, the assistant coaches. It gets in your blood. It is tiring, it is time-consuming. It doesn’t pay that well. But I couldn’t, after a while, see myself not being the coach.

What was your philosophy for involving your assistant coaches?

Arnold: My philosophy was, “If the guy is better than me at it, then let him do it. Kurt Haushalter was better at running the defense and so was Denny Rhule. I never ran the defense, never called the defense. If they’re better than you are, it’s going to be better for the kids. You have to set a little bit of ego aside.

Do you think it may have actually helped you that you never played football and therefore you weren’t so invested from an ego perspective?

Arnold:  Might have. Might have. But there were certain things that I was sure of. I would put my feet down and say, “We are doing it this way because I have enough experience at actually making it work.”

What were some of those principles?

Arnold:  Absolutely the way they warm up — not doing a static stretch but doing a dynamic stretch. And doing the plyometric drills. There’s nobody who could talk me out of those things. And the kids had to hustle all the time in practice. If they didn’t play hard in a game, I’d pull them out, tell them they weren’t playing hard and then put ‘em back in.

One of the things we always did, just before the game started, is that we would all take a knee in the end zone. And I would say, “Let’s have a moment of silence to get yourself ready for the game. If you want to pray, pray. If you want to meditate, meditate. If you just want to get yourself psyched up — whatever you feel is necessary.” And during that time, I would pray silently for the kids and for the coaches—that we would be a good example for them and treat them right. I always felt that would be most appropriate when you’re teaching in a public school. I didn’t think it would be appropriate to lead the group in prayer, but I was going to exercise my conscience to pray for them. I would ask the Lord to look out for both teams — especially to keep us from injury.

As for schemes, those things are always negotiable. And sometimes the kids would come up with better ideas than we had. One particular team came up with a fake punt, and they asked if they could do it in a game. And I said, “Sure, try it.” And it worked. We had a player they called “Lloyd”— that wasn’t his real name — and he was the up-back who they hiked it to. So it became known as “Lloyd Right.”     

So it was just a direct snap to the blocking back in punt formation, and he would run right?   

Arnold:  Yeah, but we had a whole lot of activity going on with everybody else. How the punter should fake that the ball was going over his head and some cross-action blocking to create a seam. It always seemed to work.

It always worked?

Arnold:  Yeah. And as a matter of fact, it got me into a little trouble, and that’s kind of a funny story. We went to Lock Haven, and in the second half we pretty much blew them out. So at the end of the game, I had the third team in. We moved backwards and got to the point where we had the ball on our own 5-yard line and needed to punt. So I put the first team back in since we only had one punting team. Well, the punt didn’t go very far — to our own 30 — and we had an illegal procedure penalty. Their coach wanted to block the punt, so Lock Haven accepted the penalty to make us kick again. That made our kids angry. And I was a little perturbed as well. There was no way they could win the game — there was only a minute and a half left, and we were up by more than two scores.

So the kids said, “Can we run Lloyd Right?” And I said, “Yeah, go for it.” We were punting from the end zone, and Tony Johnson was the up-back. He squirts through the line, and he is past everybody in a heartbeat, and all he has to do is to beat the kid who’s back to return the punt. He does a little juke, but he drops the ball and Lock Haven gets it at our 35.

So we’re shaking hands after the game, and the Lock Haven coach has a hold on my hand, and he’s a big guy. And he says, “Eighteen points wasn’t enough! Eighteen points wasn’t enough! You may be up now, but the worm will turn, my friend!” I guess that’s from Shakespeare. And Denny Rhule is right behind me, so he looks over my shoulder and says to this angry guy, “Not in my lifetime.”

It was just funny because they could have had the ball on the 30, and we would have kept our third team defense in there, and they may well have scored. But he wanted to block the punt. Of course, if Tony had taken it all the way for a touchdown, I would have felt bad.

But Tony’s brother, Larry, didn’t play for you, did he?

Arnold:  Larry was in 10th or 11th  grade when the Johnsons moved in. [Larry Sr. was an assistant coach for Penn State from 1996 to 2013]  And I think Tony was in ninth the year they moved in. What a great boon he was for our program.

Did you have a whole series of special players who moved in to State College?

Arnold:  You remember Ron Dickerson, Jr.? His dad was a defensive back coach at Penn State. He came as a ninth grader the first year I coached as an assistant with Tim Gervinski. He totally dominated everything that he did. And when (Coach Ron) Vanderlinden came to Penn State, his son, Reid, was a terrific safety and receiver.   

But there were also kids moving out. Jimmy Caldwell, his dad was Jim Caldwell (now the head coach of the Detroit Lions). Jimmy was here in eighth grade, and he was the quarterback. He was so fast and elusive, could throw, was smart, could play defense like crazy. So when we went to the eighth grade games, we were thinking, “Next year, we’re going to be great.” And I’m sitting here in the living room on Christmas Eve and watching Channel 4, and the news was that Jim Caldwell accepted the head coaching position at Wake Forest. I was thinking, “Oh, good for him.”  And then I went, “No! No! No! He can’t do that!”  And then a couple years ago when Ted Roof was here (as Penn State’s defensive coordinator), he had twin sons, T.D. and Mick, who were in eighth grade at Mount Nittany Middle School. They were tremendous, but then he went to Georgia Tech and took them with him.  

It cuts both ways.

Arnold:  It absolutely does.

Or as some might say, “The worm will turn.”

Arnold:  The worm turned on me with those kids, that’s for sure.

          

Coaches of the 1992 team were, from left, Pat Irwin, Denny Rhule, Kurt Haushalter and Doug Arnold.

What are some of your general observations of ninth grade boys?

Arnold: Well, they’re funny as all get-out, they just are. The way they act around girls, the way they act around each other. But they have always been a lot of fun to coach. They’re big and fast and strong, and they play good football.   

Some people have this feeling that the country is going downhill, and they say, “It’s terrible, the kids these days…”  I don’t see that. What I see is really fine, upstanding young men. Their parents have been doing a great job with them. And one of the things they picked up from me was that the only appropriate response to any coach was, “Yes, sir.”

What are your funniest memories?

Arnold:  Kids running into me, kids accidentally kicking footballs off my head. Somehow, they’re kicking a field goal, and the ball would take a right angle and bounce right off my face. Graham Spanier’s son, Brian, was punting the ball during pre-game, and he kicked the ball off the back of my head. Denny and Kurt couldn’t get off the ground, they were laughing so hard.

Which players would make your personal Hall of Fame—based on performance in ninth grade football and overall attitude?

Arnold:  Well, there are so many. Too many to mention. But Jeff Nixon is probably right up there as one of the neatest kids and best athletes. He played running back for us and then went to West Virginia on a scholarship before coming back to Penn State. He coached running backs for the Miami Dolphins and is now co-offensive coordinator for Matt Rhule at Baylor. Ron Dickerson Jr., he was pretty incredible. And I would absolutely put Scott Koch in there because he was a kid who helped us to our first undefeated season. He was 125 or 130 pounds of dynamite. Jordan Misher rushed for an incredible 1,817 yards and 24 touchdowns. His yardage was nearly double what Koch had previously gained, and we often took Misher out of the game early because we had sizable leads. And Brandon Ream — he died of cancer a few years back — he was a very good quarterback and safety who played with a lot of heart and a lot of skill. He had a lot of character, a lot of character, until the end. He was pleasant, upbeat, more concerned about his mom and dad and his wife than himself.

And I know you had some incredible families that provided you with more than one player.

Arnold: Well, if I had a Suhey at quarterback we went undefeated.  

It happened every time?

Arnold:  Three times.

Who were the Suhey boys who played quarterback for you?

Arnold: Kevin was the first—he’s Paul’s older son. Then Doug is Larry’s son who was probably the best ninth grade player I had ever seen, including kids who went on to the pros. Now Doug never got much bigger than he was in ninth grade, but he had the Suhey mystique. Whatever he wanted to do, he would do. And then there was “Spuds,” Paul Suhey, Jr., and his varsity team played in the state championship game.

Also, the Ganter family — and there were four of them. John was the first, and he was a running back/receiver and d-back. And then Chris came along and he was our star quarterback and lots of fun. Then Jason came along and he was a receiver, tough as nails. Ben, I believe, broke his collarbone in pre-season for my team, but he was the starting quarterback for the varsity.

Then there was the Paterno family. Scott was an average player, but as I said earlier, he was very encouraging to me in my first year as head coach. I never got to coach Jay, but I liked him as a student and I later appreciated him as a player’s parent who was very supportive when he might have found reason to be critical. Joey Paterno, Jay’s son, was a good linebacker and just a great kid. Most people would put a “JVP” sticker on their car to honor Joe or Jay — and I’m a huge Joe fan and I really like Jay. But I got my JVP sticker for Joey because I liked him so much.  

And, of course, the Stupar family. Jon was a big, strong, tall kid who was an unusual combination of quarterback and defensive end. He was a killer defensive end, and he would have been a killer tackle or a killer tight end (his eventual position in the NFL). Nathan could have played any position that he wanted (he is now a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints). And Robby was talented all over the place, and I believe he played fullback at Youngstown State.

After 10 or 15 years go by, which memories will be the most vivid?

Arnold: Only the good ones, really.  Sometimes when I got home from practice, I used to tell Jeannie, “This mom said this, this dad said that, these parents are driving me nuts, this kid can’t remember his helmet.” But as I look back even three years, I only remember the good things.  I’ll remember the relationships that I have had with the coaches and with the kids. Just watching them come into their own.  



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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