"Let me ask you — and I mean this only half-jokingly and half-seriously. Are you going to ding me again?" Frank Arnold was saying the other day on the telephone. "Every time you write about me, you ding me."
Same Frank. Feisty as ever.
I would have been disappointed if he were any different.
For those too young to remember, Arnold is one who helped build expectations in Provo to someplace north of reality. Ever wonder why fans don't show up unless the Cougars are winning — and sometimes not even then? Blame Arnold. That overused phrase about "raising the bar?" Frank helped put the bar up in the first place.
How was he supposed to know he was creating a beast that would eat him alive? He took his 1981 BYU basketball team to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars have never been so close since. But the Cougar faithful — which became an endangered species a few years ago — can always hope.
All it will take is four future NBA players, which is how many Arnold had on his most successful team.
"I coached in the right and the wrong era," said Arnold, who spent the summer in a mountain cabin outside Show Low, Arizona. "It was the wrong era because salaries are so much higher today. But it was easier then because of the players, who were less into themselves and more into team play. It's tougher coaching today."
BYU launched its 100th basketball season Friday night at the Marriott Center with the usual Midnight Madness celebration. It is an annual ritual, in which fans are invited, players introduced and the hoop season initiated. Saturday is the first day practices are allowed, so to build interest and show commitment, teams nationwide routinely meet before midnight for the countdown.
It's flashy. It's choreographed. It's show biz.
Too bad they didn't have it when Arnold was around. He had players that would have fit in nicely with the laser show.
Back then it wasn't necessary to stage gimmicky promotions to bring out fans. All you had say was that Danny Ainge was coming back for another season. That packed the Marriott Center all by itself.
Two decades ago, BYU had just experienced a comeback. Getting into a Cougar game was tougher than getting into a Bee Gees concert. In the 1950s and '60s Stan Watts took the Cougars to unprecedented heights, winning the then-prestigious National Invitation Tournament twice. But the program lagged under Glenn Potter, who failed to win a championship in three years.
In 1975, Arnold arrived to fix the problem. Formerly a UCLA assistant, he was a man for the era. His goal was to get the best LDS players to come to Provo, and he did. Ainge was a national Player of the Year. Fred Roberts and Greg Kite went on to play a combined 25 years in the NBA. Devin Durrant, an All-America scoring machine, spent part of two seasons in the league.
For his part, Arnold elicited emotions of all sorts. He won a lot of games, but did he have to stomp his feet like that? Some felt he was too critical of players, too outspoken on his post-game radio show and too combative for a BYU coach. At the same time, he was well-spoken and appealingly candid, unafraid to admit when he or his players failed to meet his expectations.
"Greg Kite, bless his heart, has just got to learn to be more aggressive," he would say.
Occasionally Arnold clashed with the media. Getting "dinged" was a fairly regular occurrence, at least in the Salt Lake papers. Still, nearly two decades later he allows that both BYU fans and media were good to him. He had even fewer troubles with his players. The worst rules violation he remembers was when Ainge talked teammates into staying out too long on the beach in Hawaii. They showed up for the game looking like lobsters.
The only other "problem" he encountered was the night in Laramie when a player ordered an extra chocolate milkshake.
That's it. No academic fraud, nobody carrying a gun, assaulting a girlfriend or shoplifting.
All coaches should be so lucky.
Despite making four postseason tournament appearances and winning three conference championships — including a tie for the title in his final season — he was fired. As he self-deprecatingly notes, he was "let go the BYU way," by not having his contract renewed. Yet Arnold holds no ill will. He follows the Cougars avidly from afar. Way far. He and his wife spend winters in Phoenix, summers in the Show Low cabin they built with their own hands. They are currently working on a two-story home next door.
They have a small TV that picks up only two fuzzy stations and no daily newspaper delivery. If you want to call, you'll have to get Arnold's cell phone number because there's no land line to the cabin.
The couple recently completed an LDS mission to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Here Arnold was able to watch many of the BYU games on TV.
It was almost enough to convince a guy to return to coaching.
"Oh, try me — for the money," he says. "You're darn right I would."
And he'd bring his attitude with him.