Mark Wiedmer: Arnold made UTC matter in Division I

Mark Wiedmer: Arnold made UTC matter in Division I

November 16th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Former UTC head coach, Murray Arnold, shakes hands, Jan. 29, 2011, with Chancellor Roger Brown during the UTC vs. Elon basketball game at the McKenzie Arena.

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

Twenty-seven years later, John Gibson still remembers every detail.

"We were down seven points with 39 seconds to go," the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga point guard and current Baylor School girls' basketball coach recalled of that night at Lamar in a second-round NIT contest.

"Coach [Murray] Arnold called a timeout and said we're going to foul intentionally, they're going to miss and we're going to win. He was the calmest guy in the gym. And he had an answer for every turn in that game. He always did."

The record will show that the Mocs won that night in an 85-84 overtime thriller after Gerald Wilkins tied the game on a jump shot at the end of regulation. It would be the last of the coach's 135 wins in his six UTC seasons. A few nights later, the Mocs' 1984-85 season ended in a NIT third-round loss at Louisville. A few months after that, Arnold left to take an assistant's job with the NBA's Chicago Bulls.

Clearly, Gibson was not the only one who believed Arnold had all the answers when it came to basketball.

But there are few answers when it comes to cancer. Early Wednesday morning, the 74-year-old Arnold lost his fight with the dreaded disease, leaving behind his wife of more than 40 years, Ann Conn Arnold, who was, in many ways, her husband's top assistant.

"Whenever we were on the road, Murray and Ann Conn would do bed checks instead of the assistants," Gibson said. "They almost always had their bathrobes on when they'd come in our rooms. Her robe said 'Head coach.' His said, 'Assistant coach.' They were almost always together and we were their family."

They were so much their family -- the Arnolds never had children -- that Murray would eat breakfast with the players every morning.

"He called you by your [jersey] number instead of your name," Gibson recalled. "So I was '32.' On your birthday, Ann Conn always baked you a cake. They loved having us over to their house. They'd make dinner. And they'd always load you up with snacks when you went back to campus. They wanted you to know how much they cared about you."

If you think this suggests that Arnold was soft, think again.

He expected his players to take their hats off inside. They were supposed to sit in the front of the class. Be on time, if not early. Dress nicely in public.

"But what I respected most about him was that you had to prove yourself every day," Gibson said. "It didn't matter if you were Gerald Wilkins or the last guy on the bench, he expected every player to give their best every day."

Perhaps that was because he and Ann Conn gave their all to the program every day he was the head coach.

"The program was their life," Gibson said. "Basketball was what they did."

Indeed, if any coach ever loved the game for the game's sake, it was Arnold, who delivered UTC its first Division I NCAA tournament win in 1982 against North Carolina State the year before the Wolfpack won the championship.

Fifteen years before the man who succeeded Arnold -- Mack McCarthy -- would guide the Mocs to their first Sweet 16 appearance, Arnold's Mocs came within a missed short shot in the round of 32 of getting there.

"One of the most innovative basketball minds I've ever talked to," McCarthy said. "And he rarely talked about anything else."

But now it's time to talk about Arnold's UTC legacy.

"There's no way to overstate his impact," McCarthy said. "Everything this program has achieved in its Division I era traces back to Murray Arnold."