Editor's Note: This article was written by Victor Miller and originally ran in dalton magazine, Jim Arnold's hometown. Victor is a 1985 graduate of Vanderbilt.
This year's Vanderbilt Commodores football team is fighting mightily to get to a bowl game. They can take inspiration from the players on the 1982 Commodores team that played Air Force in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham, Vanderbilt's last bowl appearance. That team featured a group of players whose careers at VU followed a similar path to the seniors on this year's team, who have seen steady improvement in the program. The seniors on that 1982 team, such as former Commodore great Jim Arnold, experienced one-win and two-win seasons before breaking through for four wins in 1981 and eight in 1982.
Arnold, now assistant golf professional at the Old Natchez Country Club in Franklin, recently recalled the way things turned around for those VU teams as part of a profile on him in dalton magazine, which is published in his hometown in Georgia.
"What was great about it," Arnold said, "was we had a group of guys who were freshmen who came from good programs and who weren¹t deterred by the record their freshman year. I don¹t want to say inspired, but more determined to turn that around in their time. And we kind of all hung together and became good friends."
Arnold played at one of those "good programs," Dalton High School, a traditional power for years in the Peach State. Players at the school are still known by the red suit coats they wear on Friday, game day, and after 28 years mention of the tradition still inspired a strong reaction from Arnold.
"Yes, sir," Arnold politely but firmly replied when asked if the Catamounts wore the red coats back when he played at Harmon Field. "Sure did, every Friday."
Arnold graduated from Dalton High in 1979.
"Three of the four years I was there we played for the state championship," he said. "We didn't win any of those four years but we played for them, so there was always a lot of pride between our high school team."
Arnold played multiple sports in high school, including football, basketball, baseball, tennis and track, where he competed in field events. He said he didn't realize football might be the way to go until his junior year, when he started seeing players from Dalton such as Mark Miller (Georgia) sign college scholarships. "I had success there and thought if I just worked on it a little bit more then I might be able to do the same," he said.
Arnold, who had become the varsity punter in 10th grade, played wide receiver and some other positions, but eventually settled on punting.
Settled on, thanks to the wise counsel of Dalton head coach Bill Chappell.
"I say this very fondly," Arnold said. "I think coach Chappell's probably best coaching move ever was making me just a sole punter. My senior year he said all you do is punt. At the time I did not like that decision, I'll be very honest about it. And looking back on it, it was very prophetic. It allowed me to focus on the skill I already had and just perfecting it."
As he began to look toward college, Arnold said he had correspondence from several schools, including Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Kentucky, as well as from smaller programs such as Tennessee Tech and Northern Alabama.
He said he didn¹t know much about Vanderbilt.
"They had some coaches come down (Mickey Jacobs and Monty Crook) and introduce themselves to me after one of our games and I got invited up to visit Vanderbilt. Before I knew it, I was offered a scholarship," Arnold said. "I had some interest from some other teams but was offered a scholarship, a full ride there, and of course I jumped on it because I knew I wanted to play in the SEC."
Arnold said Tennessee called him three days after he signed with Vanderbilt and coach George McIntyre.
"I believe if I had not signed at that time I might have gotten an offer from Tennessee," he said.
Vanderbilt's football struggles didn't concern him.
"To be honest with you I was just so happy - I don't mean this in a bad way - so happy to be able to be part of an SEC team," he said. "So that was kind of real easy to be able to jump on that and to go and play in one of the best conferences in the nation. They gave me the ability to do so."
And play he did. Arnold started right away, and was part of the transformation that saw the Commodores go 1-10 his freshman year, then 2-9 and 4-7, culminating in an 8-3 regular season his senior year in 1982 that included a 28-21 win over archrival Tennessee in the rain, a Tennessee team that included fellow Dalton High great Bill Mayo, who would later be named an All-American as an offensive lineman. That '82 VU team lost an exciting 36-28 game to Air Force at Legion Field.
And Arnold still remembers the controversial 38-34 loss at Tennessee in 1981, remembers it much the way a fan would, as the game ended with VU throwing a pass into the end zone for the potential winning score, only to see some contact but no referee's flag. It was the last in a series of calls (this time a no-call) that VU's players and fans would complain about for years.
"It was a very close game, the 4-7 team was a good team," Arnold said. "It should have been better than that, it was home cooking in Knoxville. Things can be proved by film, whether anybody wants to admit that or not. It can be."
Although he was a starter from the beginning, Arnold remembers that the transition from high school to college wasn't always easy.
"I had to earn that," he said. "After a couple of weeks of a little bit of shaky practice my coach came over to me and said for me to relax, that I was his guy, and from then on it kind of took care of itself."
Arnold said he was particularly close to several players, including Whit Taylor, Norman Jordan, Joe Staley and Pat Saindon, "very close to those guys."
"We were back in town for the 20th anniversary of the bowl team and it was almost like a family reunion having everybody there," he said. "There were guys you hadn't seen in a while and you were genuinely interested in what was going on with them."
And Arnold still has many fond memories of playing in the SEC.
"There are a lot of fond times. Playing in Tuscaloosa against Alabama and the Bear when he was there, during what was still part of his heyday," he said. "I played against a great coach at Georgia, Vince Dooley, and against great players there. We played against the University of Miami when they had Jim Kelly and Vinny Testaverde, against Maryland when they had Boomer Esiason. It can go on and on and on. My freshman year we played Auburn at Auburn. The wishbone backfield consisted of William Andrews, James Brooks and Joe Cribbs. I played against a lot of superstars, not only at the college level, but in the pro level as well."
Asked when he realized he might have a shot at the pros, Arnold said, "It probably didn't come until about my junior year. When I went to Vanderbilt my first concern was get your degree in four years. Make sure you do that. I majored in sociology with a minor in business administration. I got into school and by my sophomore and junior years I saw guys who were being drafted in the NFL and thought, well shoot, if I can keep my grades up I can keep developing myself and get recognized and help my team as a punter, I may have an opportunity of going forward. That ended up playing itself out."
"In retrospect it (VU) gave me an environment to excel, because I was on the field quite a bit my freshman and sophomore years, a little less my junior and senior years, but still a good bit, and it gave me an environment to foster success. ... I continued to work hard toward my senior year and I thought that if I had a real good senior year then I might have a chance to play in the NFL. I had a great senior year, our team had a great year - which I think helped - and ended up being the first punter taken in the NFL draft in 1983."
Coming from a small Southern town - the Carpet Capital of the World - to a prestigious university in a much larger city did not phase Arnold.
"I liked it a lot, but then Vanderbilt's changed quite a bit since then, too. As an athlete early in your career you're somewhat of an outcast, because athletics had not had a lot of success, not had a lot of kinship, if you will, from the side of athletics to academics. I think that grew during the time that I was there, and I think it was also a source of pride because I think there were times when you probably had professors who weren't all that interested in the program because it wasn't doing that well. You have a group of guys who come through and did turn the program around and get better and that fosters some camaraderie, not only between students and teammates, but also the community of the campus and the academic staff as well."
"I went to the right school, and played for the right team, and I've had a great, great life as a result of that," he said. "I'm very proud and very blessed that I was able to do that. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."
Arnold was named All-Southeastern Conference three times and All-American once as a punter. He was invited to play in the East-West all-star game but couldn¹t make it because of exams, but did play in the Senior Bowl.
The NFL draft back then was not the media circus it has developed into today, fueled by cable television networks and crazed fantasy football league owners. Arnold said he did not have an agent and had no contact with any teams before the draft. He had gone to combines and done well. He received a call about 10 minutes before he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fifth round.
"It's pretty special," he said of being drafted. "You hoped all your life to be able to play there and now somebody's selected you. You've still got to work at it, but you've got a good possibility of being on a team."
He describes the difference between college and the pros this way: "In college you see guys in the field who you know are very, very good. When you get to the NFL, everybody is that way."
Arnold spent three years in Kansas City, one year being selected as an alternate to the Pro Bowl. He was released after the final preseason game going into his fourth year and out of the game for 10 weeks. He eventually was signed by the Detroit Lions, where he played for the final seven games of the 1986 season and for the next seven years, making two Pro Bowls and leading the league in punting three times.
In 1991 the Lions got to within one game of the Super Bowl, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in the NFC championship game.
In 1994, following what he calls "one of the best years of his career," Arnold moved to the Miami Dolphins, but the situation wasn't what he expected, and he wasn't in camp the next year. He worked out for some teams but wasn't picked up so he put his retirement papers in.
"I'd had a good career, I played a long time, and I had made a commitment that I'm not going to be a guy that tries to go to camp and get cut and then I'm waiting to get to camp the following year," he said. "I wanted to say this was it, wanted to draw the line right here. I had a great ride, that was it."
Part of that "great ride" was playing with great players, including Barry Sanders, the NFL's third all-time leading rusher.
Arnold said Sanders was more than just a player.
"I played with him for four years and Barry was one of the most unique superstar athletes I've ever met in all of my career," Arnold said. "If you were in a room and I brought Barry in and introduced you he could carry on a conversation with you about football, or about anything, and not feel like he was put off talking to you. He was a very genuine person.''
Arnold moved back to Nashville in the spring of 1987, "and that's kind of been home base ever since," he said.
For several years after he retired, he worked in the insurance and investments business. He's been working in the golf world the last four years.
A single parent, he spends much of his free time with his son Hunter, 11.
Like his father, Hunter enjoys a variety of sports, including baseball and basketball, "so we try to go down the route that he likes, foster a love for the game and some skill development," Arnold said. "We haven't gone the football route yet but I'm sure that will present itself at some point."
"I'm not the type of person who has to have my son necessarily playing football," Arnold said. "I just want whatever he's doing in his life and whatever he enjoys doing to be just that. He enjoys it, he has a like for the game, he wants to do better, and as long as that's going on that's fine with me."
In 1999, Arnold was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He didn't get in - no player who has ever just punted has ever been selected - but Arnold believes it's time for the Hall to include a punter.
"To know you've been nominated to the Hall to me is a tremendous honor," Arnold said. "I may never get in but I will share with you this: in 1987 I got an award that the NFL gives out once each year to an outstanding punter or place kicker, the Golden Toe award. They have a replica of that on display in the Hall and they have the previous winners on it. So if I never get inducted into the Hall of Fame I know my name will be there forever."
Having been steeped in Southern football, and having played at the highest level of the game, Arnold still cherishes what his "band of brothers" accomplished back in the late '70s and early '80s at the SEC's only private university, and his words may have meaning for those who wear the black and gold today.
"If you could move back in time and go back to my freshman year at that stadium and see what the crowd was like, and then fast forward to my senior year and see what the crowd was like, it was exciting and fun," he said. "I'll tell you, from us going from 1-10 to 8-3 and making a bowl, to being part of the core that helped get us there, I think I probably take more pride in that than if I played in a place where I didn't have to kick but maybe 3-4 times a game (but) won an NCAA championship."