Former Vanderbilt All-American punter Jim Arnold (1979-82) could boom a football so high that he met the challenge from his teammates during warm-ups in a game against Tulane in the Superdome. His teammates were impressed.
“I hit the Superdome gondola,” said Arnold. “It was funny. I can’t say enough about the guys I played with at Vanderbilt. I felt like I had the drive to prove myself anytime I was on the field. I was kicking down there before the game and hitting the ball so well the guys were egging me on to try this and try that. So you want to be able to answer that as a teammate with them ribbing and pushing you. Here I was killing the ball in the Superdome and they kept telling me to keep trying to hit it. Sure enough I did.”
Arnold was born in Dalton, Ga., and received many recruiting letters, but took two visits to Clemson and Vanderbilt. Georgia showed an early interest, but did not offer a scholarship. In his high school, Arnold not only punted, but also was a receiver and defensive back while backing up other positions.
He hurt his knee in the spring of his junior year and his coach said that punting would be his only responsibility. Vanderbilt coach Fred Pancoast had been replaced at the end of the 1978 season with George MacIntyre. MacIntyre and assistant coach Mickey Jacobs recruited Arnold to Nashville.
Vanderbilt was 1-10 (SEC, 0-6) in Arnold’s freshman season. He broke the Commodore’s freshman punting record (41.9 yards) and set a Vanderbilt single-game punting average (51.3 yards) against Air Force. Arnold also was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team.
“Our freshman class pretty much came out of winning programs in high school,” said Arnold. “All of us, whether were playing or not or little playing time were really frustrated with that freshman year being 1-10. We had good players and size, but we weren’t closing the deal. It was like when we got down that was it. We couldn’t come back. The freshman class pulled together and said we are not going to let this destroy us. We can definitely work to change things going down the road.”
As a sophomore, Arnold’s Commodores finished the season at 2-9 (SEC, 0-6). Arnold’s punting average improved to 44.2 yards that led the SEC and ranked fifth in the nation. For that effort, he was named First Team All-SEC. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder boomed a 73-yarder against Miami and a 68-yarder against Kentucky that rolled dead at the six-yard line.
“We started the season with changes in attitude and then we had some freshmen that came in and wanted to change the culture there,” said Arnold. “For me, obviously as a punter, I’m getting a lot of work (Arnold laughing). To me, it was what could I do on my end to make things better for my team?
“That is what I concentrated and worked on. With the success I had my freshman year, I thought I could work harder and maybe improve to keep going. From a team standpoint it was still frustrating, but on the horizon we knew we would improve. But it wasn’t enough to put us over the top from a winning standpoint.”
The next season, Vanderbilt improved to 4-7 (SEC, 1-5) with its first conference victory since 1975 against Mississippi. Arnold averaged 43.5 yards per kick and tied the school record with a 79-yarder at Ole Miss. Game film showed that the ball traveled more than 100 yards from the spot where Arnold stood before finally being stopped by the fence at the end of Hemingway Stadium. He was again selected First Team All-SEC.
“We had guys that were not going to lose,” said Arnold. “Joe Staley, John Clemens, Pat Saindon; Whit Taylor and Norman Jordan graduated together with us though they had been there a year longer as red-shirt freshmen. Allama Matthews, Terry Dugan and Bob O’Connor were some of those guys that started in their sophomore seasons. All those guys provided leadership in their own way. Some could be more vocal than others in a positive way. Others got it done on the field and led by example.”
Arnold was known as an unselfish punter sacrificing average for position with hang time and coffin corner kicks.
“It didn’t matter where you were on the field, it was what was needed to happen to help your team,” Arnold said. “For instance, if you are at mid-field the best I could do for my team is to have the ball downed or kicked out of bounds inside the 10-yard line. If you do that you give your defense a lift that can get them fired up.
“If our offense has struggled a big change in field position helps the team. Our offense can go back to the sideline and make adjustments. If the defense holds that helps the offense with great field position and hopefully drive down on a shorter field. I try to help give my offense and defense a lift. There are times when a punter can change the outcome or mentality of the game depending on the effectiveness of his kick.”
In Arnold’s senior year, Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee (28-21) on Dudley Field in a rain-soaked game. It was the first victory for the Commodores over the Vols since 1975. Arnold almost became a Volunteer.
“I was from Dalton, Ga., and Tennessee was only an hour and a half away,” said Arnold. “When I was being recruited I visited Vanderbilt and knew this is where I really wanted to be. When I left after a visit with Coach MacIntyre he told me they had a scholarship for a punter that year and he was 90-something percent it was going to be for me. As the weeks went by it would come down between me and a guy from Kentucky or a guy from Alabama or a guy from Florida or wherever.
“It was a different guy from a different area. I knew about George Cafego at the University of Tennessee that was a great coach for kickers and punters. So I was thinking if I went up there he could help bring out my talent to play at the next level. My coaches in high school were friends with the Tennessee recruiter in my area. I kept harping to my coaches ‘get me to Tennessee.’
“But they said wait until Letter of Intent time. I thought if I waited until the Letter of Intent all the scholarships would be gone and nobody would call me. As we got to the end, Vanderbilt called and signed me. Tennessee called me three days later, but I had already signed with Vanderbilt. It all worked out great. I do not regret whatsoever going to Vanderbilt.”
The Commodores were 8-4 (SEC, 4-2) that season and lost to Air Force (36-28) in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham. This was only the third football bowl invitation in Vanderbilt history.
“That season was very special we started out just average,” said Arnold. “We had several wins and loses to North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. “I think the turning point of that season was the Florida game. They were ranked pretty high. We just got after them. We realized if we gave it anything we had, we could win against anybody. We ended up beating Florida at home and that took the mindset up a little more and everybody realized that we could control our own season. When we played Georgia we were leading going into the fourth quarter and then Herschel Walker happened. North Carolina was played on a hot day.”
In the North Carolina game played in Chapel Hill, Arnold set an SEC record for a single game with his 53.1 average (eight punts).
“That was a good day,” said Arnold. “You have days like that on the golf course. To be good you strive for consistency and have those days where the consistency is at a higher level. For me, it just happened to be a day where you are in a situation on the field where maybe you need a longer kick to prevent a return. I was able to do it for my team. I not only consider that a personal accomplishment, but a team accomplishment. The guys on my punting team were close to me. Those guys deserve a lot of credit with those records as well.”
Arnold averaged 45.8 yards per kick as a senior and for the third straight season named First Team All-SEC. He was the first Vanderbilt kicking specialist to earn All-American honors. Arnold was selected to these All-American teams: Associated Press, UPI, Football Writers Association of America, Playboy and Kodak.
He broke the SEC record for most career punts (277) and highest average per punt in a career (43.9). And broke the SEC career punting record of 11, 549 yards set by former Ole Miss All-American Jim Miller. Arnold finished with 12, 171 yards.
Said MacIntyre about Arnold, “Jim’s the best kicker in the country, pro or college. He’s a team guy too. He’s willing to increase his hang time to help the kick coverage. Jim is a very deserving young man. He works at it so hard.”
Arnold played in the Senior Bowl and was selected by Kansas City in the fifth round (119th overall) of the 1983 NFL draft.
“I was pleased to be drafted by Kansas City and obviously I wanted to make it into the NFL,” said Arnold. “Scouts were telling me the teams that needed a punter and who may take a chance on me in the draft. We also thought Reggie Roby or myself might go higher in the draft. It didn’t matter. We were able to be drafted by a team and play in the NFL.”
Arnold played three years in Kansas City that was coached by John Mackovic. Those teams were 6-10, 8-8 and 6-10 not finishing better than fourth place in the AFC Western Division.
“My first year in Kansas City I had been a punter who basically kicked the ball down the field and had good coverage teams while I was coming out of college with national statistics,” said Arnold. They wanted me to do more directional kicking. As a result, I believe I suffered a little bit my rookie year.
“Then they changed it up in my second year and I ranked high in the league in stats overall. Kansas City was a great town to live in. I enjoyed my teammates, but I don’t know if that was the place for me to be successful. I was happy to be in the NFL and playing in the highest level. I worked hard for it. Obviously that did not end up being the place where I would flourish.”
Arnold left Kansas City after three seasons and signed with Detroit as a free agent. He played eight seasons (1986-93) with the Lions and broke several team punting records. The Lions’ best season in that era was in 1991 where they were 12-4 and NFC Central Division Champions. Detroit would beat the Cowboys (38-6) and lost to Washington (45-10) in the NFC Championship game. Arnold was also a two-time Pro Bowl selection (1987-88) in Detroit.
“Being with the Lions was awesome to me,” Arnold said. “We were indoors in a dome (Silverdome). We had eight games guaranteed indoors and really nine games since we played Minnesota in the division and they were in a dome. When I first got there Darryl Rogers was our head coach. I played for them in 1986 and the next year I got cut in training camp, which was one of my Pro Bowl years. Then I came back after the season started.
“The next year (1988) they named Wayne Fontes the head coach during the season. Wayne and I really hit it off well. Wayne knew that I worked hard every day in practice and I was consistent and was always there for them on game days. Wayne allowed me to do my thing to be successful and then here we go. I think Wayne was definitely a players’ coach who got guys to perform for him.
“We had Mike Utley who was paralyzed (November 1991). We had some things happen around our team that made us closer. We took that 1991 season and lost to Washington in the NFL Championship game. Washington won the Super Bowl and I believe it would have been a closer game if we played them at home.”
Arnold was asked to talk about his teammate running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
“Barry was one of those special athletes that you see every so often who fortunately for him did not have to leave the game due to injuries,” Arnold said. “Barry was a guy who was not pretentious; not who you would consider the Hollywood-type. He wasn’t arrogant, but very humble.
“He was amazing to watch. When Barry was on the field with the offense you weren’t sitting on the bench. You were watching the game. There was never a game that you didn’t look over at your teammate and say ‘did you see that?’ There are countless fans around the world that saw the guy play and were amazed at what he could do on the field.”
After eight seasons in Detroit, Arnold signed a free agent contract with the Miami Dolphins his final year in the NFL. The 1994 Dolphins were 10-6 and won a first-round playoff game with Kansas City (27-20) and lost the final week in the second round to San Diego (22-21). Don Shula coached Miami and Dan Marino was the Dolphins’ quarterback.
“The circumstances leaving Detroit were simple,” said Arnold. “We were going through contract negotiations and put something in front of Detroit. Miami asked me to visit with them during free agency. They really wanted me down there. I had no desire to leave Detroit, but at the time there was just no communication whatsoever with Detroit.
“I decided to make that change, which in hindsight was not a good decision. It was not that I wanted to get out of Detroit. During that time the GM was not responsive to getting a deal done. Miami was an unbelievable courtship and a polar opposite marriage. Things happen in life that teaches us things and this is one of those that taught me.”
“When I got to Detroit it was let Jim do his thing. We know he is going to come out and work very hard in practice and be ready for the game. Things usually took care of themselves in the end. There was a little different atmosphere practice-wise in Miami. I didn’t feel like they gave me the opportunity to be myself and let me work the way I needed to be on Sunday.”
It was after his lone season playing in Miami that Arnold decided to retire from professional football.
“I had success in Detroit,” said Arnold. “I was cut in 1987 after the last preseason game. Then I got called back right after the first game and stayed another seven years. During that time I didn’t want to be the guy that got invited to training camp and got cut. I did not want to be a journeyman.
“I didn’t want to be a guy that was hanging on to make a team. I told myself if I ever felt like that I was going to retire. In the 1995 season I worked out for a few teams, but I wasn’t in camp. I waited throughout that season hoping for a chance that never came. I decided to retire from football”
What is the mental attitude that a punter must have while standing in on near the goal line under pressure and knowing the defense is coming strong to block his punt?
“You prepare for it,” said Arnold. “One way you prepare is by film studies so you know what kind of wrinkle they will try to throw at you. Hopefully that’s been covered in practice with your punting team. You can see the wrinkles they may try and throw at you and you are ready to take care of that.
“You’ve got to have confidence in the 10 guys in front of you. They are going to do their jobs so you are allowed to do yours. From my standpoint I’ve got to drill that situation too. I’ve got to know is this going to require me to take one step. I can’t take my full progression because you may not have as much room as you normally do. I’ve got to be effective with that kick.
“I work on that in practice so I would be prepared at that moment. If you approach that moment with confidence and with a little aggressiveness, I think you will have success rather than thinking, ‘Oh my God, I hope they don’t block this and my guys block.’ There are too many negatives that come into that situation that prevent you from being successful. If I can eliminate most of that I am going to have the confidence to be successful.”
Arnold said his most memorable game was the 1991 playoff victory over Dallas in the Pontiac. Said Arnold, “The Silverdome was so loud I could be on the sideline screaming at a teammate standing next to me and not be able to hear what each other is saying. It was electric.”
A punter has to aggressive after successfully getting his punt off and cover downfield to protect from a long runback or touchdown. Arnold remembered a few of those coverages and his tackles.
“We were playing against the Giants in the Meadowlands,” said Arnold. “David Meggett was returning and I was determined not to let him have any deep returns. He got the ball and a little bit of a return. I worked to get inside the wall. He came towards me and I’m squeezing him to the sideline when I hit him. I took more than what I thought I took. One of my guys came behind Meggett so when I hit Meggett. I took his force and one of my teammate’s force coming into him. It was like two guys hit me instead of one.
“In my rookie year when I didn’t have my head on a swivel Jeremiah Castille (Tampa Bay) knocked the crap out of me. So I learned to keep my head on a swivel and try not to let guys take advantage of me. On the return sometimes you have to stick your head in there. Don’t be shy about doing that because that is when you are going to be hurt. Defensive guys say its better to give than to receive.”
Arnold played in 174 games in the NFL for 12 seasons. He plans to attend the 25th anniversary reunion of the 1991 Lions’ team in October in Detroit. The Lions website posted this article about Arnold in their history section:
“The Lions’ teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s featured one of the strongest punters in the league—Jim Arnold. From 1986-93, he punted his way to the top of several punting records. During his eight seasons, he punted more times (536) and for more yards (22, 893) than any other punter in team history. He ended his career with an average of 42.71. In 1976, net punting became an official NFL statistic and since that time, Arnold has the highest net punting average for a season with 39.6 in 1987.
“Arnold is the franchise’s only player to earn trips to the Pro Bowl twice (1988-89) as a primary punter. In 1988, his first Pro Bowl season, Arnold finished first in the NFC (third in NFL) with a net punting average of 35.9 and his gross punting average of 42.4 was the first in the NFC (sixth in NFL). In his second Pro Bowl trip, Arnold finished third in the NFC (fourth in NFL) with a 36.0 net punting average, and he was second in the NFC (third in NFL) with a 43.1 gross punting average.
“In Arnold’s final year in Detroit, 1993, he had his best year in terms of gross punting (44.5) average and best year in net punting (36.8) as the team won the NFC Central title. Arnold’s career-long punt was a 71-yarder at San Francisco on December 28, 1992. He also has the record for punts in a season (97) in 1988 and is tied for third with punts in a game when he had 10 at Green Bay.”
In the Vanderbilt record book Arnold ranks third all-time in single-season average (45.8), second in career average (43.9), most punts in a career (227) and most yards punting (12, 171). Arnold was named as a Vanderbilt SEC Legend (2002) and enshrined into the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame (2009).
Arnold lives in Franklin, Tenn., and helps coach the kickers at Father Ryan High School in Nashville. He was asked about being a former Vanderbilt football player and graduate.
“I take a lot of pride in being a Vanderbilt University graduate,” said Arnold. “I was just a little skinny kid from Georgia who didn’t know much about Vanderbilt. I’m proud that I was recognized as someone who had success there and being named an SEC Legend and being in the Hall of Fame are extremely high honors that I hold in very high regard. When I was told I would be part of the Hall of Fame in the second class I was amazed and humbled. I’m very proud of being a Vanderbilt graduate.”
Traughber’s Tidbit: While a student at Vanderbilt, Arnold had a pet lizard named Sundance that he kept in a 10-gallon aquarium. Said Arnold in a Vanderbilt press release, “He’s a very passive type lizard. He’s not a very quick lizard. You can get him out, lay him down on the bed and let him crawl around a little bit. Basically he just stays in the just about same place. I put him on my shoulder one time and went up to some girls. They screamed. I’ve never seen anyone run so fast in my life. Maybe if I get another one I will name him Butch.”
Tidbit Two: From the same Vanderbilt press release Arnold said, “I do impressions here and there. I can do different characters from movies and TV shows I’ve seen. I do Festus off of Gunsmoke, Slim Pickins, Mel Tillis and Roscoe of the Dukes of Hazzard. I kind of have a couple of our coaches down now—coach (Ray) Barnes and coach (Ron) McCrone. I’m working on Watson Brown. It’s all meant to be fun. It’s not meant to hurt anybody. I think all the coaches realize that. They like to joke around about it too. The players want me to do one (impersonation) of somebody when I come into the locker room everyday after practice.”
If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.