Henley: Tom Arth's rise in coaching ranks was inevitable

Henley: Tom Arth's rise in coaching ranks was inevitable

December 15th, 2018 by Gene Henley in Sports - Columns

Tom Arth watches UTC's football game at Western Carolina on Oct. 13.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

For University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fans, Friday was a day that was going to come eventually.

Maybe it would have been 2019. Perhaps 2020, but no later than 2021.

But at some point, football coach Tom Arth was going to get poached away by some larger program. Anybody who presents his level of intellect and coaching acumen will receive opportunities, so no one should have been surprised when it came out that Arth — just finishing his second season at UTC — was leaving to become the head coach at the University of Akron.

It could have been an easy decision. Arth is from nearby Westlake, Ohio. He played at nearby John Carroll, where he also received his first head coaching job after playing professional football and had national-level success.

But where it gets dicey is in the details. The early signing period is Wednesday through next Friday, and Arth as well as his UTC assistants spent last weekend hosting recruits on campus in hopes of getting some players committed for next season — expected to be a promising one for the Mocs with a bevy of talent returning.

Arth conducted his first interview with Akron by phone last week, before heading to the Ohio school Friday for one in person.

For the second straight season, he had been linked to another job, only this one had definitive merit behind it. Last December it was alleged that Arth was being linked to the quarterback coach's job with the Indianapolis Colts, who were set at that time to hire Josh McDaniels. Multiple sources then told the Times Free Press that it was a "done deal," and that while Arth may not have been negotiating his deal personally, it was being done through his agent.

Arth is his own agent.

The speculation came from a former UTC assistant coach, who had floated the rumor that became widespread, and it all came to a halt a few days later when McDaniels changed course and remained with the New England Patriots as offensive coordinator. But even then, it became clear that Arth would not remain at UTC for long.

And now he's going, leaving UTC athletic director Mark Wharton with the biggest decision of his 15-month tenure. Where to go next?

It'll be slightly better — and slightly worse — than what Arth inherited. Worse in that the Mocs were coming off three consecutive Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances and 28 wins the three prior seasons, 36 if you count the 2013 season in which the program earned a share of the Southern Conference championship. But most all of the experience that had created that level of success was gone, and Arth also walked into a situation with his starting quarterback (Alejandro Bennifield) and preseason All-America linebacker (Dale Warren) facing multiple-game suspensions.

Players didn't initially buy in to Arth's style, which led to a 1-7 record to start 2017. Then came a sudden turnaround, with two wins in the final three games highlighted by the 23-21 upset of then-No. 8 Samford. That helped catapult the program to a 4-0 start in 2018 and a national ranking, but UTC struggled in SoCon play, falling in five of its final seven games to finish 6-5 — disappointing considering the start.

For two seasons, the offense never really clicked. The Mocs topped 400 yards only twice, in the first two games of 2018. Arth had decided to take steps to change that, replacing his offensive coordinator, his receivers coach and his offensive line coach.

Would it have made a difference in 2019?

We'll never know now.

For the next coach, it will be a good situation to walk into. The Mocs return nine offensive starters and at least six on defense, and aside from the defensive line, there's no position where there isn't experience returning. Quarterback Nick Tiano, running back Tyrell Price and receiver Bryce Nunnelly will make for a potentially explosive trio on the offensive side, while the Mocs will return four players who started games at linebacker and in the defensive backfield.

But for now, there are bigger concerns, such as keeping a potentially talented team together as well as a budding recruiting class. To do that, Wharton should walk down the hallway into Chris Cook's office and offer him the job, even if just on an interim basis. Cook, a former All-America offensive lineman for the Mocs, currently serves as the tight ends and tackles coach, as well as recruiting coordinator. He spent a week last summer as an intern with the Atlanta Falcons. He also coached at East Carolina.

Right now, a program that held its previous four head coaches for at least three years is looking at making a change for the second time since December 2016. Want to know what lack of stability looks like? Look up the road in Knoxville, where the Vols have had five head coaches since 2008 and have a losing record this decade despite being one of the top 10 winningest programs of the last 100 years.

In the short term, Cook can provide that stability.

Arth was faced with a tough decision the week before signing day: To stay with a program he tore down and was building back up his way or to leave for a job in an area where he has longtime ties and likely will make twice as much money.

He chose the latter.

Wharton's decision?

Not nearly as hard.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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