HELENA – Longtime Helena High football coach Tony Arntson is leaving the Bengals.
Arntson, who has coached the Class AA program for the past 24 seasons, will join Mike Van Diest’s staff at Carroll College, filling the position vacated by the recently retired Jim Hogan. Hogan, who mentored the offensive line and led the strength and conditioning program, officially announced his resignation on Monday.
That opened a door for Arntson. After meeting with Van Diest for more than three hours early last week, Arntson agreed to join the six-time NAIA national champion Fighting Saints.
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“When I sat down and went through everything and talked to my family, everything was right. It felt good, it felt right,” Arntson said. “It’s a great opportunity for me. Coach Van Diest recruited me to college at the University of Montana. I had the pleasure to coach both of his sons in high school football, he’s coaching both of my sons at Carroll, and now I get a chance to go work underneath him. It was an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.”
Twenty-four years have passed since Arntson first walked onto the sidelines as the head football coach of the Bengals, quickly becoming the young gun in a profession filled with legendary coaches.
“In 1994 when I accepted the job at Helena High, I was 26 years old and turning 27, but I was the youngest guy in Class AA. That was back with the mentors – John McElroy at Butte, Dale Pohle at Great Falls High, Jack Johnson (of CMR), (Paul) Klaboe and (Ron) Lebsock, I’m talking about the names, the who’s who in AA football. Those guys treated me so well and so awesome, but when Lebsock retired a month ago, I was the last one standing from 1994. Maybe that edged me out, I don’t know. Maybe I felt like I didn’t belong anymore,” he laughed.
Arntson, who quarterbacked Great Falls CMR to a Class AA state championship in 1984 before enjoying a collegiate career with the Grizzlies, was one of the bright offensive minds in Class AA football. He mentored numerous quarterbacks to fine careers, including Kaleb Winterburn the last two seasons.
But Arntson’s focus will now shift from under center to the trenches. While he has a great understanding of the schematics of the offensive line, proper technique and fundamentals are admittedly his greatest challenge.
“It’s an area that I believe, and I’ve always said this, it’s the hardest position on the field to play. Physically and mentally, the combination of physical play and mental play at that position is unbelievable,” Arntson said. “I was so fortunate here at Helena High to have a great offensive line coach in Bob Sampson. He and I have worked together for a long, long time. It pretty much got to the point where I would try to keep my hands off. … I’m going to go back and spend some time with him, some of the other great ones, and obviously with Coach Hogan. The success he had, the relationships he built with his players at Carroll, I’m not going to quit using him, for sure. I’m going to get him around as much as I can and learn as much as I can from him in a very short time.”
Arntson, who will also work with Carroll offensive coordinator Nick Howlett, will bring new ideas and a fresh approach to a program that has finished 4-6 in each of the past three seasons. The Fighting Saints, who won national titles in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2010, as well as 12 consecutive Frontier Conference championships from 2000-2011, remain one of the most respected programs in the country.
One area Arntson is expected to make a significant impact is the recruiting process, selling student-athletes on the “Carroll way.” Though it’s a procedure Arntson hasn’t performed firsthand, he has sat through hundreds of recruiting pitches from coaches seeking his former players, including his new boss.
“I’m very fortunate going to work under the greatest recruiter there is. There’s always been something about Coach Van Diest, whether he was at (the University of) Wyoming or Northwestern, it didn’t matter. Since he’s got to Carroll, I still believe he’s the best recruiter I’ve ever been around,” Arntson said. “There’s something in his personality, I guess you could call it an ‘it factor’ like you do with athletes. Some of them just have ‘it’ and he’s got ‘it.’ Whatever it is, he makes kids comfortable and makes them believe they’re coming into a great situation, and they are. I’ve watched him and a bunch of others, so I’m really looking forward to the recruiting process. I think it will be fun. There’s a lot of window time behind the steering wheel, especially in Montana, but I’m going to get the opportunity to go recruit the Portland area where my brother’s at.”
The smile grows larger and larger on Arntson’s face as he discusses the future, clearly excited at this next phase. But, as Lucius Annaeus Seneca once stated, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. For nearly a quarter of a century, Arntson has been the face of Helena High, building one of the most consistent programs in the state.
After four state championship appearances, 160 wins, compared to only 91 losses, dozens of all-state and all-conference athletes, as well as numerous coaching honors, Arntson is flooded with emotion at the thought of packing up his office and leaving the program, coaches, athletes and Helena High administration behind.
“I’m trying to hide and lay low and stay away from as much public stuff as I can, but I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of tears shed before this is all done,” he said.
Tears of sadness. Tears of joy. Tears deserved either way.
Reporting by Richie Melby for Montana Sports