Hired by legendary Laurier football coach David ‘Tuffy’ Knight, Tom Arnott started his coaching career at WLU in 1983 as the offensive line coach. He later became responsible for recruiting and he was the offensive coordinator for one of the greatest Golden Hawk teams of all time, the 1987 Yates Cup Championship team. He later went on to become the Head Coach at York for ten years and the Head Coach at Guelph for five years. Twice he was honoured as the OUA Coach of the Year. I have known Tom for 14 years. I first met Tom in 2006 when he took my job, but more about that later.
Dave Morrissey: In the course of my research for this interview, I learned that you played defensive line for Guelph in the mid-1970s. I knew that you played university football, but I have to admit, I was kind of shocked to learn that you were a D Lineman! Tell me about that.
Tom Arnott: Yes, I was an undersized defensive lineman. It didn’t start out that way. The coaching staff approached me in my rookie year and said they were short at that position and they asked if I would be willing to play that position. At the time, I weighed 185 pounds, but I was able to get my weight up to around 205. I did play a bit of offence, but I remained at D Line during my entire playing career and I think I did okay. I relied on my quickness and deception rather than brute force. It was great. I loved playing D Line.
DM: Well, I think you did a little better than ‘okay’ because after you graduated, you were selected by the Toronto Argonauts in the 8th round of the CFL draft. Tell me a bit about that experience.
TA: I was surprised that Toronto drafted me. I had been talking to the player personnel guy from Calgary and they conveyed they were thinking of moving me to LB, but the Argos selected me. They told me to come into camp at 240 pounds to play defensive line. I think maybe I was able to get up to 225. I had a great experience in camp. I learned a lot about the game and that experience probably lead me into coaching. Leo Cahill was the Head Coach and I learned a lot from him as well as from the Front 7 coach on the defense. I made a lot of friends on the team, guys I am still close with now.
DM: How did you get started at WLU?
TA: I had been coaching the defensive Front 7 at Guelph. Laurier had posted an ad in the newspaper looking for coaches. Rich Newborough called me up and told me to come interview with Tuffy. He shocked me when he asked me to coach offensive line and I accepted. I spent the rest of the summer trying to learn how to coach that position.
DM: I know you had a lot of success at Laurier. Would you agree that the 87 team was the pinnacle of your success at WLU?
TA: Yes, that team was the most complete team that we had during my time at Laurier. It excelled in all 3 phases of the game. We had talent and depth. The real strength of the team was the character of the players and their cohesiveness. They worked hard, practiced hard, and played hard. Winning the Yates in 87 was great. Going out west to play UBC in the national semifinal game was somewhat of a disappointment of course in that we lost 33 to 31, but in my mind that does not diminish the achievements of that team. I think we were the better team, but we weren’t as sharp that day as we had been in previous games. It was one of those games that whoever scored last was going to win it. (Editor’s Note: You may recall my Episode 17 chat with All Canadian WR Ken Evraire. He missed that game with a broken leg. If Evraire played, Laurier would have won, and if you don’t believe me, just ask Ken!)
DM: I’ve been doing recruiting for Laurier for almost a decade now. In the course of some of my interviews in this series, multiple players have mentioned that you played a key role in getting them to come to Laurier in your role as the recruiting coordinator. To what do you attribute your success in that area?
TA: The big reason for any success I had was due to the place I was recruiting the players to come to! Laurier was a smaller school that had been having recent success on the football field and I was impressed with how engaged the staff and students were with the football team. That made it easy to ‘sell’ players on our school. I also was always very up front and honest with players about what they could expect coming to play at WLU.
DM: After Laurier, you became the Head Coach at York and you held that position for a decade, twice earning OUA Coach of the Year honours. Following that, you returned to alma mater and served 5 years as the Head Coach at Guelph. What would you say were you most thrilling victories and heart breaking defeats?
TA: At York, it would’ve been the first time we beat U of T. York hadn’t beaten Toronto in a long time. It was a Thursday afternoon game and it was the first time we played against them on our home field and it was a very decisive victory for us. At Guelph, it was a last second come from behind victory over Queen’s in Kingston. As far as losses that still sting, the one at York was against Western. That York team had the best record in school history. We actually scored the winning touchdown to beat the Mustangs with about 90 seconds left in the game. It would’ve secured first place for us that year. However, there was a highly questionable holding penalty on one of our offensive linemen that nullified the score. At Guelph, it would’ve been a last minute loss vs Waterloo. We were marching towards their end zone and the win would’ve secured a home field playoff game. We had a runner heading toward the end zone but the ball just popped out and Waterloo recovered.
DM: So, it is 2006, and at my high school, one day the Head Coach told me that I was being replaced as the offensive coordinator for the senior football team. We’d won a championship in 2003, overachieved with a rebuilding team in 2004, but in 2005 we should’ve won it all again but the offence underperformed and we lost in the semi-finals. Initially of course, I was quite upset, but then I found out exactly who was replacing me and then of course everything made sense.
TA: Yeah, I heard I had big shoes to fill!
DM: (Laughing) Yeah, not really, the team got quite an upgrade and it really wasn’t a surprise that you helped guide the team to a championship that year. What was it like coaching high school ball after being at the university level for multiple decades?
TA: As you know, I ended up at FX because of my relationship with one of the VPs, Frank Furgiuele. He had formerly played at WLU and we had been good friends for many years. He knew I wasn’t coaching at any university that year and he asked me to help out at STFX. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Coaching is coaching. It’s all about trying to put players in the best position as possible to have success. I’ve always said that high school football is probably the most fun you’ll ever have in your life playing football, and coaching it was really fun too. I am grateful for the experience.
DM: What would you say is the most bizarre play you have ever witnessed in your entire career?
TA: That’s a tough one, but I’m going to have to go back to my playing days at Guelph. We were playing Windsor. The Lancers were running an option offence. They ran a fake dive into the line and then pitched the ball to a RB. Our defensive end intercepted the pitch and was running downfield headed for a touchdown with a clear path to the end zone but he gets tackled from behind and in the process, the ball pops up and a Windsor player picks it up and starts running the other way. He gets hit by one of our players and the ball pops out. Well, that same defensive end recovered that fumble too and so he starts running again back towards the Windsor end zone but I think he got tackled before he got there.
DM: So, what are you up to nowadays?
TA: I am fully retired. My wife and I split our time between Mississauga and Collingwood. We plan to fully relocate there in the next year or two. In the last few years, I have worked at Braeben golf course in Mississauga. I’ve enjoyed playing a lot of golf and watching my kids, seeing them raise their families
DM: I remember you being a Cleveland Browns fan. My dad is one too. What do you think of the current Cleveland team?
TA: When you are a Browns fan, you always have hope, but you’re always waiting for it to be dashed! I thought last year’s team was awful. They were immature and stupid. I was disgusted with them. There seems to be a change in culture with the new Head Coach. Mayfield seems more settled down and more of a leader this year.