Football nerd. Authentic. Competitive.
Pick the words to describe University of Akron football coach Tom Arth who will lead the Zips in his first home game today at noon against the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Arth has proven to be something atypical at a time with the UA program needing a coach with that quality. After the departure of Rob Ianello, they required a coach who could give the program some buzz. Enter Terry Bowden, who was fired at the end of last season.
Looking for Bowden's successor, UA needed someone with youth, vim and vigor to push the program into the upper level of the Mid-American Conference.
Enter Arth, a graduate of football power Cleveland St. Ignatius High School and John Carroll University, where he played quarterback. He eventually returned to coach his college alma mater from 2013-16 and turned the Blue Streaks into a perennial contender in the Ohio Athletic Conference, challenging Mount Union for conference superiority
His team beat Division III powerhouse Mount Union once in those four years — one of just three teams to lay claim to that accomplishment.
Arth is the third hire in marquee sports for UA Director of Athletics Larry Williams. So far, he likes what he’s seen of Arth even after their 42-3 season-opening loss to Illinois last week.
“I believe in his football acumen, and I suppose that's the one part on his resume that hasn't jumped off the page yet,” Williams said. “It's there. He's a football nerd.”
Arth has a belief in doing things the right way, according to those who know him. The Zips practice outdoors rain or shine — and yes, he’s always exposed to the elements in the case of the former.
Stamp of authenticity
Picture Arth coming off the field after the team practiced in a steady rain — sans thunder and lightning — decked in a windbreaker, hair drenched and droplets of rain dripping from his earlobes. That’s his modus operandi.
“This is great work for us. You hope for days like this,” he said of working in those conditions when an $18 million indoor facility is available right next to the stadium. “We know we’re going to play in some games like this when it’s raining or a lot worse than that, so this was easy.”
“Unfortunately on game day, when it rains we don’t get to move the game inside,” he said.
That’s an old-school, some would say correct, way of thinking about the game of football. And despite his youthful 38 years, that’s Arth.
Dave Ragone, quarterbacks coach for the Chicago Bears, has known Arth since he was 14. They played on the same St. Ignatius teams at one point, though Ragone was a year ahead of Arth.
“The best compliment I can give him is he's authentic,” Ragone said during a recent phone interview. “There's no ego about him. He goes about his business at the highest, utmost standard. His passion, when you hear him talk in front of a team, you're going to hear just the passion in his voice, which guys understand that's real, and guys want to play for that.”
That’s made his UA players buy in, quarterback Kato Nelson said recently.
“He’s been the same since he’s got here,” Nelson said of his coach.
He’s demanding as witnessed by the tongue lashing he gave the team Tuesday for not practicing to its potential.
“Like he says: practice reality equals game day reality,” Nelson said.
Arth wants to win. For all responsibilities that come with the title “coach,” the primary one is winning.
There’s a fine line between an outsized ego and competitive drive. Ragone said his friend still has the latter, dating back to those Ignatius days.
At one point, circumstances forced Arth into service as a wide receiver in a playoff game — a 20-19 loss — against Canton McKinley in 1997. Ragone said he took some flak from his former teammate for not throwing him the ball. He suspected that Arth still contends he was open.
He was correct.
“I was open,” he said. “I’m sure I would have found a way to get in [the end zone].”
That competitive nature led to Arth turning John Carroll into a contender as its coach. It helped the Blue Streaks play memorable games against Mount Union, including beating the Purple Raiders for the OAC crown in 2016, their first since 1994.
“He's as fierce of a competitor as I've ever been around at any level, including this one,” said Brandon Staley, linebackers coach for the Denver Broncos, who worked on Arth’s staff as defensive coordinator in 2013, 2015-16. “He's got a tremendous belief, a tremendous will, to do things the right way. And set an example. I think that that's something that means a lot to him, is setting the example, each, and every day. And when I think of him, I think of those two things.”
Arth was in the midst of his tenure at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga when UA came calling. His first season resulted in a 3-8 record. The second it was 6-5. It isn’t a reach to assume he and his staff were on the right trajectory when he left.
Keeping the faith
It’s too soon to know whether success is inevitable at UA, but if acquaintances are to be believed, there is hope for Zips fans who crave sustained success obtained the right way.
“I've never fully believed, in football, with any other person more than I have done with Tom,” Staley said.
His belief stems from the vision he witnessed Arth enact during his career that involves accountability for his players on and off the field along with engaging the at-large university community.
“He's going to put his fingerprints all over this,” he said. “And knowing this man more than half his life, even if I tried to make something up, I can't find anything that would even become even a small headline that would be negative about him.”
Right now, Arth looks like a coach built from an athletic director’s dream. Williams said he doesn’t completely have a handle on what makes Arth tick — yet.
“There are times where I just think, ‘Wait a minute, is this an act?’ But, every time I peel back a piece of the onion, you know, it's the same. It's who he is … he's very driven and [has] incredibly high standards for himself and for those with whom he associates. There are some people that sort of demand that. And it's not in a mean way or an offensive way. He's a remarkable guy.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.