Tom Arnholt recalls career

Feb. 2, 2010

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Editor's Note: Bill Traughber has earned his reputation as Middle Tennessee's premier sports historian. The Nashville native has brought back the enjoyment and discovery of golden stories from our city's long forgotten past over the decades. For many years, Traughber has been a popular contributor on Vanderbilt's official athletic web site as well as special articles in game programs and publications. His new book, a collection of his best works which includes past Vanderbilt athletic essays, is called Nashville Sports History and will be released early in the spring of 2010.

It is very unusual for a basketball recruit wishing to play for a college to be influenced by another team’s player. That was the situation for former Commodore player Tom Arnholt (1970-72) to attend Vanderbilt.

“I used to sit in my room at night on the farm with a flashlight reading Sports Illustrated when I was 13 years old,” said Arnholt. “I was reading about this “Pistol” Pete Maravich. When he was a freshman in college, I would have been a junior in high school. He was at LSU. His dad, Press Maravich, was his coach and this guy is averaging 44 points per game as a freshman They said he was going to be the next superstar and I thought man if could go to Vanderbilt, I could play against him and Dan Issel who was at Kentucky.”

Arnholt was a high school All-American for Columbus High School in Columbus, Indiana and a two-time all-state member. As a junior (1966-67) he averaged 16.7 points per game and in his senior year, Arnholt raised his average per game to 25.2.

Vanderbilt was coming off one of its best eras of its basketball history. From 1963-64 to midway through the 1968-69 season, the Commodores’ record was second best in the NCAA at 117-28. The 1964-65 Commodores were led by Head Coach Roy Skinner, Clyde Lee, John Ed Miller and Bob “Snake” Grace and won the university’s first SEC championship. That squad would lose to Michigan in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

“I had really good grades and was recruited by most of the Ivy League schools like Cornell and Dartmouth,” said Arnholt. “Ohio State, Cincinnati and Western Kentucky were the other schools I was interested in playing for in college. I had about 80 to 100 schools after me. Indiana did not have a good team at that time and Purdue had Rick Mount, which meant I never would have seen the ball. And Vanderbilt was having a good program at the time so that persuaded me to attend Vanderbilt with Tom Hagen and Clyde Lee playing previously.”

In an era where freshmen were not allowed to participate on the varsity athletics’ teams, Arnholt was required to play for the Vanderbilt freshmen team. Arnholt was a member of what was at the time the top rated basketball class in the country.

“Vanderbilt recruited a guy named Steve Turner who was seven-foot-four,” Arnholt said. “I was amazed at his height. At that time Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] was playing basketball and they took the dunk rule away from him. We had a couple of 6-foot-8 forwards in Chris Schweer from Elmhurst Illinois and Glenn Butler from Ozark, Alabama who was a great shooter. Then there was Jimmy Conn, a guard, and myself.

“We had five really strong freshmen. And there was Bobby Bland who was the assistant coach to Roy Skinner. Bland developed a kidney ailment and he ended up passing away during my freshman year. He was like the Vice-President to Coach Skinner. Bland was the one that recruited us. The program suffered with his loss.”

Arnholt led the Vanderbilt freshmen team in scoring with 22.4 points per game average. In the contest against MTSU at Memorial Gymnasium, Arnholt scored 51 points. That freshman team record was never matched nor has a varsity player scored as much as 50 points in a game. Arnholt also scored 50 points in high school, which remains a school record.

It was at the end of that record-setting game that Arnholt met his idol for the first time.

“The night that I got those 51 points I was walking off the floor and everyone was congratulating me,” Arnholt said. “Here comes Pistol Pete walking towards us. LSU was in Nashville to play the varsity that night. He was a junior while I was a freshman. He extended his hand and introduced himself to me. He said that was quite a show I put on that was something he normally does. I said, ‘Yes sir, that is why I came here to play—against you.’ He said, ‘Really.’

“He told me he ran a summer basketball camp and asked me to be a counselor in the summer. I said are you kidding? You tell me when and where. It was a camp in Buies Creek, North Carolina at Campbell College. I went down there that summer and played against him for two weeks. When it was all over he gave me a check for one hundred dollars that I was tickled to have. He also gave me a pair of those gray floppy socks. He said, ‘Arnholt, when you come to Baton Rouge, I’m going to smoke you.’”

That recruiting class was expected to continue the winning ways for the Commodores. Skinner was quoted in the 1969-70 program on Arnholt, “He has everything it takes to be an All-American.”

“We were on track to have an incredible program that they were building,” said Arnholt. “I truly believe that when Skinner lost his right arm in Coach Bland the program lost something. I lost my teammates also, Jimmy Conn left. He was a great baseball player and academics got a couple of players. I was a senior captain and the only one left from that recruiting class. The cohesiveness fell apart with the players and coaching staff with the loss of Bland. It had to be very difficult for Coach Skinner. Skinner was very quiet about it and he is a class guy.”

During Arnholt’s first season as a varsity player, Vanderbilt’s record was 12-14 (SEC, 8-10) an obvious rebuilding year. Perry Wallace was a Commodore senior teammate of Arnholt’s. Wallace was the first black basketball player in the SEC. Arnholt remembers the rough treatment Wallace received especially on road trips.

“I got hit in the head with a beer can at Ole Miss,” Arnholt said. “Some Bubba was up there in the crowd. We were in a huddle before the game or during a timeout. I was standing next to Perry and they were aiming for Perry and I got hit. I got clocked in the head and blood was running down my face. He said, ‘Thanks man for taking one for me.’ On the road they called him every name you could think of.”

Arnholt has two highlights from that first varsity season that are most memorable.

“We beat Kentucky at home [89-81] where I scored 28 points and hit 14 of 15 free throws. They had an incredible team and were ranked No. 2 in the country. It was one of those great games at Memorial Gym and I remember after the game Dan Issel came up to me and told me that when we come to Lexington it was going to be a different story. They just waxed us up there. He had 40-something points. He was unbelievable.

“Another highlight was when I played against Pistol Pete in the first meeting at LSU. I will never forget it. It was December 11, 1969. He got 61 points on me that night. When LSU next came to our place there was a whole exposé of him on the cover of the Vanderbilt/LSU program. On the inside were photos of him showing us up while we were chasing him on several of his shots.”

Arnholt averaged 14.3 points per game as a sophomore earning a starting position at guard. He also collected 117 rebounds, 78 assists while shooting 79.5% from the free throw line. The SEC coaches named Arnholt to their All-Sophomore team.

Arnholt’s junior year resulted in a 13-13 record for the Commodores and 9-9 in the conference. One game at Memorial Gym against Ole Miss resulted in a Vandy victory 130-112. This is a record for most points scored in a game for the Commodores.

“That was a fun time,” said Arnholt. “At that time in the SEC you didn’t guard anybody. You wanted to see how much you could score. We went over 100 points eight times in my junior and senior years. On my high school team we averaged 92 points a night. It was nothing to go over 100 points. Johnny Neumann was on that Ole Miss team and he could light it up. He didn’t have the fluid ball handling skills that Pete had, but he was 6-foot-6 and could shoot the ball.”

In that record-setting game, Arnholt collected 15 points while Van Oliver led the Commodores with 24 tallies. Seven Vanderbilt players scored in double figures. The Rebels’ Neumann scored a game high 53 points, which remains a Memorial Gymnasium record for most points scored in a game.

Another team that Arnholt liked to face was the Tennessee Vols. The only victory Arnholt enjoyed over UT was as a junior playing in Knoxville.

“Ray Mears was coaching Tennessee at that time and he would do anything to make people mad,” Arnholt said. “He had those guys riding unicycles, warming up with orange and white basketballs and “The Walk.” He’d bring those cycles to the visitor’s game. Now they wouldn’t allow that today. He had this little assistant coach named Stu Aberdeen and he would incite the crowd too. 

“They knew what they were doing. It was fun, but boring playing against UT. They had that slow-down style of play. Of course, this is before the 35-second clock. It was like watching paint dry. Kentucky was always a blast to play. They were always up and down and a high scoring team.”

Arnholt’s numbers as a junior include 10.1 points per game, 66 rebounds, 68 assists and an 81.6 % in free throws. As a senior, Arnholt was the lone captain as the Commodores finished the season with a 16-10 mark and 10-8 in the SEC.

“Ron Bargatze got involved at this time and was doing most of the recruiting,” Arnholt said. “He recruited [Jan] van Breda Kolff, Terry Compton and Bill Ligon that sophomore bunch. That’s what helped us to rebuild and recover from Bland’s death and players leaving. The timing was wrong for me.

“They won the SEC championship the year after I graduated. In my last game against Mississippi State I scored 33 points [a career high]. I was the senior captain and van Breda Kolff and that bunch went out of their way to give me the ball to show folks what I could still do. I certainly didn’t ask them to do that for me.”

Arnholt led Vanderbilt in free throw percentage (89.0) as a senior, which ranks third all-time for a single season. He currently ranks seventh on the all-time list in free throw percentage (83.0) with 150 minimum attempts.

What did Arnholt think of his successful and four-time SEC Coach-of-the-Year in Skinner?

“He was a very quiet guy that had a way of winning,” said Arnholt. “He could attract the talent and always had some great assistant coaches with him. He would simply set up a game plan and let everybody run it. He never over-coached. He was a quality person and didn’t do a lot of screaming.”

After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1972 with a BA degree, Arnholt was drafted in the 16th round by the old ABA’s Memphis Sounds. After not making the cut, Arnholt moved to Los Angeles and entered the entertainment field.

While in California, he headed up the home video division of B.D. Fox & Friends, designing consumer marketing/advertising campaigns for the home video releases of such films as “Batman” and “Pretty Woman.” Arnholt also marketed musicians and entertainers as country movie stars Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, Clint Black and LeAnn Rimes.

Arnholt moved back to Tennessee many years ago and lives in Brentwood with his wife of 22 years Mary Kay, daughter’s Jessica, 17 and Emily, 9. Based out of Nashville he is in business development as the National Account Manager for Electronic Restoration Services (headquarters in Livonia, Mi). They specialize in complete restoration and repair of commercial, industrial and residential electronics, equipment machinery and appliances.

Arnholt will be honored on March 24 with his enshrinement into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle, Indiana. He will join the likes of other Indiana notables as Larry Bird, John Wooden and former TSU great Dick Barnett. The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame included Arnholt on its “Silver Anniversary Team” in 1993.

“This is a real honor something I’ve dreamed about since I was five years old,” Arnholt said about his HOF induction. “I started playing basketball when I was five years old. I broke my hip at age 12 when a horse fell on me. I was told I would never play ball again. I came back and started getting good at this game called basketball. That movie “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman is pretty much my story. You farmed, and you played basketball. That is what I did.”

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