By Steve Ruman
Like it or not, Steve Arnold understands that he is going to be known as the basketball coach who is now coaching football.
It’s a label he’ll likely carry with him for at least the foreseeable future. Arnold compiled a 170-40 record on the hardwood. He won a pair of district championships, took a team to the state semifinals, and was named Division I Coach of the Year in 2010.
Then last fall, Arnold decided he would coach one more season of basketball at Warren G. Harding before taking over the Raiders’ football program.
With such a resume, you have to wonder: What will it take for Arnold to become known as the football coach who used to coach basketball?
“You know, I’ll leave that up to others to decide,” Arnold said. “I never thought about that. I only concern myself with our next opponent. I don’t look any further ahead, and I don’t look back.
“It’s funny … before I became a head basketball coach, I was on the Harding football staff for nearly a decade. I got the basketball job, and that decision was questioned because I didn’t have varsity experience.”
Should the Harding football team continue down its current path, Arnold will have no trouble convincing the masses that he can coach, period. After losing their season-opener at Fitch, the Raiders (5-1, 3-0) have reeled off five straight victories. During the streak Harding is averaging 37.4 points-per-game, while its defense has pitched a pair of shutouts.
Harding’s success is coming off the heels of a 2-8 season which ended with the non-renewal of coach Rick Rios’ contract. Rios had been on the job just seven months before it was decided that he would not return.
“Even before the football job opened, I knew (2011-12) was going to be my last year of coaching Harding basketball,” Arnold said. “I was going to probably take a year off, then perhaps try things as an assistant at the college level.”
Meanwhile, community members were eager to find a coach who would instill discipline and bring a family-type atmosphere into the football program. Something similar to, well, to what Arnold did with the basketball program.
“There was a lot of persuasion from family and friends,” Arnold said. “And it dawned on me that this wasn’t just about Harding football. It was about Warren. It was about bringing discipline and pride back to a community and to a group of young men who I cared deeply about. That was the attraction.”
Hours after being hired to replace Rios, Arnold gathered with players in what was a short and candid meeting. He explained his philosophy on discipline, laid down the ground rules, and blew his coaching whistle.
He told the players they had five minutes to decide if they wanted to represent Warren.
No one left the room.
Five minutes later, Arnold blew the whistle again. He ordered players to sit at attention, remove their hats, show respect. It immediately became clear that a new set of rules was in place.
“I think at that moment, we went from being a team to being a family,” said Harding senior Jeremy Walker. “We all sort of looked around at each other and decided this is what we wanted.
“I know there were some guys who didn’t show up because they knew about coach Arnold’s reputation as a disciplinarian. As it turned out, that made us a better team. There were no bad apples. Everyone here has the same goal and is willing to accept the same set of rules.”
Walker is a bruising, 6-foot-1, 305-pound offensive lineman who has helped pave the way for an offense that has scored 26 touchdowns in its last five games. He believes the difference between last year and this year has more to do with unity than it does talent.
“Last year I think a lot of guys were playing for themselves,” Walker said. “This year, we’re playing for each other. It’s all about winning games together.”
The Harding offense is guided by quarterback Lamar Carmichael. The junior has completed 66 percent of his passes (52-of-78, 661 yards) without throwing an interception. Michigan State commit Jalyn Powell (11 receptions, 161 yards) leads a balanced receiving corps which has four different players with eight or more catches.
The Raiders’ ground game is paced by LeShun Daniels. The senior, a Boston College commit, has rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns. In last week’s 43-20 win over Shaw, Daniels rushed for 187 yards on 25 carries. He had touchdown runs of 11 and 16 yards.
Daniels is quick to credit his offensive line, and the play of Carmichael.
“Lamar has really elevated our offense this year,” Daniels said. “When defenses key on the run Lamar will burn you. The way we mix things up keeps defenses guessing.”
Daniels said discipline and team chemistry play a key role in the Raiders’ overall success.
“I noticed it back in January when we started lifting. There was a whole different atmosphere in the weight room,” Daniels said. “It used to be that people didn’t want to be in there. This year, everyone was showing up and everyone wanted to become bigger, stronger and faster.”
“We got a lot closer as a team in the offseason and it carried over to summer. Now we’re as close as any team I’ve ever been part of.”
Defensively, Arnold describe the Raiders’ play as “typical Warren football,” saying the unit is strong, physical and team-oriented.
Arnold then points to senior Jimmy Rumple, who he says epitomizes the team-first mentality of the squad. As a junior, Rumple played quarterback, a role he expected to inherit this fall. Instead, he was moved to the defensive backfield.
“I know Jimmy wasn’t too excited about the change early on,” Arnold said. “But rather than get down on himself or the coaches, he immediately began working at being the best safety he could be. His attitude was, ‘whatever it takes for us to win.’”
Rumple, who has two interceptions said the move to defense was made easier “because I trust this staff, they know what they’re doing.” Although he hadn’t played defense since he was in junior high, Rumple said his teammates and coaches have made him feel at ease as he adjusts to his new role.
As for being moved away from what many view as the most glamorous position in sports?
“I’d rather be a defensive back on a team that goes 8-2 than a quarterback on a team that goes 2-8,” Rumple said. “I can’t describe how much fun I am having this year.”
At 3-0 in conference play, Harding controls its destiny in the Lake Erie League. The same likely is true for postseason aspirations, though the Raiders are ranked eighth in a region which includes state powers St. Ignatius, St. Edward and Fitch.
Arnold insists the Raiders are far from reaching their ultimate goal.
“We still haven’t done anything yet. I told the guys last week, enjoy the win, but no celebrating yet,” Arnold said. “They asked, ‘When can we celebrate?’ I just told them that when the time comes, they’ll know.”
And when that time arrives, Arnold might be acknowledged as the football coach who at one time was just as successful at coaching basketball.