Keeping in touch

Steve Arnold’s perspective changed this season.

When he entered Warren G. Harding gymnasium, the sounds of bouncing basketballs echoed differently for the current Raiders football coach.

This was the first basketball season Arnold has not walked in front of the WGH bench since he took over for the late Frank Bubba to start the 2002-03 season.

Arnold had a successful first season as Harding’s football coach – leading the Raiders to the playoffs and a 9-2 mark.

“I went back before our season started,” said former WGH player Jesse Hardin, who now plays at Walsh University. “I found myself going into the gym and had to realize he wasn’t there. I had to go across the driveway to the football office to see him.

“It was kind of weird.”

But it was hard for Arnold to shake his ties with the hardwood – the bonds that eventually led some former players to the collegiate level.

“I’ve been able to go to games and sort of sit,” Arnold said. “It’s been totally different for me to go sit and watch basketball games. It’s funny how you hear people make comments. These people made the same comments about me. You watch it from a different perspective. I try to watch it as a fan, but having coached the game, you watch it from a coaching perspective as well.

“Even watching college basketball, I watch it from the perspective of how do we pick up. What do we do? Can we implement a little bit of this, a little bit of that? I’d call my assistants and say I saw so and so do this or they would call me. Now, I just watch it for entertainment as a fan would.”

Arnold has six former players at the NCAA level – Desmar Jackson (Southern Illinois), Damian Eargle (Youngstown State), Art Cook (California University of Pennsylvania), Hardin, Rashid Gaston (Norfolk State) and Craig McFerrin (McNeese State).

Although Arnold’s perspective changed, his level of commitment to his players has never wavered – even if they are away from the hallowed halls of WGH.

“I talk to him on occasion,” Eargle said. “He’s a very busy man, believe it or not, with the switch to football. He’s a man of many traits. He does everything right.

“He gives me advice from time to time. I see him as a second father. Anytime I have problems, I call him up. He usually gives me the right guidance.”

Cook has started seven games for the Vulcans and averaged close to three points and rebounds per outing.

“When I was at Warren, coach Arnold was a like a father figure,” Cook said. “He helped me with almost everything. When it came to the college process, he played a big part in what college I decided on. He was the main reason I came to Cal.

“I think he treats all of his players like family. He helps us become better men, not just better athletes. He molds us into better men. When we’re done playing sports, we’ll be better men, not just better athletes.”

Jackson left Harding for Wyoming, but after coach Heath Schroyer was fired two years into Jackson’s stay with the Cowboys – the WGH standout roped on with Southern Illinois.

He sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules and leads the Salukis with 15.2 points per game.

“Just a super talented young man,” Arnold said of Jackson, who is a junior. “He just needs to learn to do the right thing all the time. That will help him, even the way he plays. You need to help him do the right thing off the court and that helps him on the court. He’s leading them, but he needs a little bit of help from his teammates in the scoring category.

“He’s just Des. When people say, how do you categorize Des? He’s just Des. He’ll do whatever you need on the court. He just needs a little bit of help. … I’m just very proud of him.”

Arnold is proud of all of his players, but has special reason to like what Gaston, a Norfolk State freshman, is doing. He was named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week for the season straight time. Gaston averages eight points and six rebounds per game.

The Spartans start MEAC Tournament play as the No. 1 seed Wednesday and could make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

“Coach Arnold did a phenomenal job preparing me or anybody else that is in college,” Gaston said. “He did a lot of drills we did in high school from a lot of college coaches and college practices.

“A lot of drills we do now, I’m already used to doing them in practices back at Harding.”

Some players have trouble making the adjustment to the collegiate level. Not Gaston.

“You have to be a smarter player to play Division I college basketball,” he said. “I became more attentive more aware what is going on around me. I’m more active now than I was at Harding. I’m smarter on defense.

“I got stronger. I got leaner. I got some post moves. And, I’m starting to develop a little jump shot.”

Another former Harding big man, McFerrin (6-7, 230), made strides since being with Cowboys.

He missed half of his freshman year because of a shoulder injury, but bounced back to have similar numbers to Gaston.

Arnold isn’t surprised.

“Continue to work hard,” Arnold said. “I told him to always represent Warren Harding as he’s playing college basketball. Craig has a tremendous work ethic when he was here.

“If he carried that work ethic there, he would do well.”

Gaston said Arnold tells him to keep that focus as a Spartan.

“He tells me to stay focused and he’s really proud of us,” Gaston said. “He’s really proud of my success at Norfolk State. He said keep listening to the coaches and, of course, make sure my grades are on point so I continue to keep my college scholarship.”

Hardin was held out of half of the season because of a class from the fall semester, but it didn’t stop the former WGH player. He’s now eligible and averages less than nine points per game for the Cavaliers.

“He told me never quit,” Hardin said. “He said you have to remember how hard it is that you’re a freshman and you’ll have to put in hard work. If you work hard, you’ll be able to succeed.”

These six players are succeeding. Some aren’t so lucky.

“There’s guys that I’ve sent to college that didn’t stay, which is discouraging for me,” Arnold said. “When you have an opportunity and give a kid a scholarship and they don’t stay, they’re homesick, that’s kind of discouraging. You try to encourage them. You can only do so much as a coach.

“The only thing you can do as a coach is coach them hard while they’re here. You send them off and give them an opportunity to proceed with their education. Sometimes, kids can’t cut it.”

Eargle (6-7, 225) has done more than cut it as YSU. He’s the Horizon League’s all-time leading shot blocker and this year’s league defensive Player of the Year.

“First and foremost, he’s going to graduate in May,” Arnold said. “That’s what I’m most proud about.

“What more could you ask from a young man? I’m just very happy for Dam. He’s a very quality, humble young man. When they played Cleveland State I had a chance to talk to him. He’s obviously going overseas and make some money. I’m just very proud of him on and off the court.”

As for Arnold, he doesn’t see his work as job, but more as a calling.

“I just look at it I think God has blessed to me to a point to have a great rapport with young men,” he said.