His appetite for winning started early, in the first wrestling tournament he ever entered.
He was an eighth-grader at Clara Barton Junior High School in Royal Oak, a burgeoning Detroit suburb.
It was the late 1960s, and William Raymond Arthur didn’t have much of an athletic background to speak of. There were few organized sports outside of Little League baseball to occupy a kid’s time in those days.
Arthur’s physical education teacher cut him a deal: Wrestle in the tournament, and the teacher would allow the lad to take another semester of physical education instead of art.
A little carrot. A little push. It’s all Ray Arthur needed.
“I’d do anything not to take art,” Arthur says.
There was no wrestling team at Barton, or at any of the city’s other junior highs. The schools simply brought the students who were interested in the sport, weighed them, and sent them out on the mat for what was termed the “City Championships.”
Arthur placed first at 98 pounds that day. The coach at Dondero High School, where Arthur would enroll the following fall, invited the eighth-grader to his high school wrestling practice to get his feet wet, get a taste of what the sport was all about.
“He saw something that he thought maybe later on would develop,” Arthur says.
And there was the spark.
Arthur became a standout on the mat at Dondero, where he would place fifth in the Class A state tournament as a senior in 1973, then go on to wrestle at Central Michigan University. His family wanted him to go into business. Education — teaching and coaching — was his calling, his passion.
And, he had some unfinished business.
“I wasn’t satisfied with my high school career because I had won the freestyle state championship and I wanted to win the high school state championship,” he says. “I always wondered what more I could have accomplished.”
When Arthur arrived in Petoskey in 1978, he saw, just has his high school coach had seen a decade earlier, something he thought maybe later on would develop.
It did. And on Friday, Feb. 24, Arthur will be inducted into the Petoskey High School Athletic Hall of Fame along with fellow legendary coaches Don Dickmann (cross country) and Scott Batchelor (soccer).
When Ray Arthur took over as the Northmen wrestling coach for the 1978-79 season, he had a plan.
He mapped out a long-term strategy that included five-, 10-, 15- and 20-year benchmarks, goals, if you will, of things he wanted to establish.
It was vintage Arthur, a frank-talking pragmatist who doesn’t have much time for excuses, for small talk. His drive and determination is evident.
“I’m a very type A personality,” Arthur says. “I don’t like to leave anything to chance.”
The plan had its tangible goals: An elementary program, freestyle tournaments, increase the number of athletes. Someday, eventually, he hoped to have a practice room so his teams no longer had to practice in the cafeteria.
And, it had an overriding philosophy.
“Just a commitment to excellence,” Arthur says. “To try to be the best we could be in every way. We wanted to wrestle the best competition, have the best practice facility, have the best practice uniforms, take our kids to the best camps, make the nicest trophy cases — just strive for excellence in everything we did.
“Just a philosophy that you’re going to always strive to maximize yourself. You can’t be too good. There’s no such thing.”
It was never lost on the wrestlers themselves, and as the wins began to pile up, so did the expectations.
The program was cast in Arthur’s likeness, right down to the very foundation: the work ethic. Arthur’s own fifth-place finish in the state finals his senior year had lit a fire, and he continued to add fuel as the years went by.
“Ray had what he saw was the way to do it,” says Joe Haggerty, who earned three letters under Arthur and was state qualifier in his senior year, 1986, and later became one of the myriad former wrestlers who returned to coach in the program. “And he worked tirelessly to do that.”
Arthur built the program on a foundation of tough kids, often from the same families.
He relied heavily on the parents of his wrestlers who volunteered countless hours in helping the program grow.
Typically, that meant driving groups of young wrestlers to various freestyle tournaments all over the state. The team bonding that occurred over those times became a major factor as the wrestlers grew and matured and eventually reached high school.
Arthur recognized that delegation was crucial to developing the program he wanted.
“Ray was good at getting people to do the key things,” Haggerty says. “He couldn’t be everywhere. He tried to be, believe me.”
He also knew he had to sell the sport. Wrestling doesn’t recruit itself. Kids typically don’t suddenly decide they want to do it when they enter high school. By then, it’s too late anyway and they’re playing catchup with the competition.
No, the passion has to be instilled early. The man with a plan, Ray Arthur, knew he needed a feeder program, and he developed one of the best around.
In the tight-knit wrestling community, he relied on families. Once he had the older brother, the younger ones usually followed. After you get the brothers, then you get the sons, and the program continues to build, and thrive.
As the program grew, so did the numbers.
And with more athletes in the program comes depth — and very good competition for varsity spots.
“We had a freshman team, a JV team, and a B Varsity team (along with varsity),” says Chris Johnecheck, who won back-to-back 140-pound state titles in 1992-93. “And they all had a full schedule. That’s pretty impressive.”
Even more impressive was the even-handed way Arthur treated each of his athletes, whether it was a Johnecheck or the kid who never had a prayer of making off the JV squad.
Winning was important, but it was also clear that the program — as high school athletics should be — was in place to develop young men.
“Coach Arthur created an environment of excellence which has helped me and others with life’s challenges,” says Johnecheck, 37, who went on to wrestle at the University of North Dakota and is today a civil engineer and a married father of three. “He developed athletes into wrestlers, but he provided skills that allowed athletes to be successful after high school.
“If you talk to somebody who was on the JV team or the B team, I don’t think they felt slighted, or that they were any less than somebody on the varsity team. He treated each person the same and gave them the same opportunities.”
What appealed to Arthur in his own beginnings in the sport, and what he continually passed on to his wrestlers, was that it was up to them to make it happen. They could be, he says, as good as they wanted to be.
“It’s a sport you could self determine how good you were going to be by how hard you as an individual wanted to work,” he says. “I was pretty self motivated and I didn’t mind doing a lot extra. It’s the willingness to go beyond what you think the other guy will be willing to do. A lot of it wasn’t work because I enjoyed it so much.”
Because Arthur worked so hard in the early days – and in subsequent years — to lay the groundwork, it enabled him to concentrate more on the details as time went by.
“Very few athletes are self-motivated — very few,” he says. “It’s a coach’s job to try to motivate and inspire the kids who aren’t as highly motivated, to get the best out of themselves to live up to their potential as an athlete.
“Nothing hurts worse than to have a multi-talented athlete squander their abilities because of lack of motivation.”
Wrestling is a physically demanding sport, and it can be even more draining emotionally. There are no teammates to blame when things aren’t going your way, nobody to bail you out when you’re on your back.
As a wrestler, you’re on your own.
“He had a sense of calm,” says Jeremy McGuiness, a tri-captain of Arthur’s 1996 Class B state championship team. “He was always calm about everything. He brought everybody down to a relaxed, focused state. Whenever we walked into a tournament, we all dressed alike, we all acted civilized. There was no pointing your finger up in the air and all that kind of stuff.”
Arthur’s planning carried over to competitions. Nine times out of 10, when he sent a wrestler out on the mat, he knew what the outcome would be.
“He did his homework,” McGuiness says. “I’m pretty sure he knew what was going to happen just about every time (we wrestled). He’s sit down as a team and figure out who lined up against who. It was all mathematical.
“That was not always 100 percent, but he knew going in (and) we knew what was expected. As long as I can remember, he always had a plan.”
And, as the years went by, it wasn’t a wonder anymore about what Arthur could have accomplished, but what he might.
His program delivered dual-meet victories by the truckload, tournament titles, district and regional championships.
It also delivered on something else, something not so tangible.
Arthur set out a roadmap on which student-athletes could grow and learn about life, hard work, sacrifices, goal-setting. The same way it was done for him when he was a teenager.
“Wrestling changed my life,” he says. “Because of wrestling I became a teacher, I became a coach, traveled to other countries and wrestled, I wrestled around the United States. I met all sorts of great people and had great experiences, all because of wrestling. And I hoped that maybe somebody else would get that same opportunity down the line.
“I hoped that some kids stayed in school and got their education because they enjoyed wrestling enough that they were motivated to do so.”
That, Haggerty says, is what the program was, and continues to be, about.
“‘They’re just kids, give them another chance,’” Haggerty says, relaying conversations he had with Arthur over the years. “That’s what I got from Ray. They’re kids, let’s give them a second chance, or a third chance, in some cases. It’s a chance. Even if they don’t understand, he understood what that meant.”
Wrestling requires a commitment and a discipline that is perhaps unmatched by any other sport.
“In wrestling, you have to have the discipline to train yourself physically through weight training, you have to do the cardio (training), you have to train yourself to eat the proper foods,” Arthur says. “All those things revolve around motivation and self discipline. Plus the actual learning of the moves, the training and the technique. You drill it and learn it over and over again.
“Later on in life, that same discipline hopefully allows you to stay in good physical condition as an adult, pay your bills, take care of your yard, parent your children.
“When I was finished and I looked back at it, I thought that (coaching) was a good experience for me,” Arthur says. “It affected me in a positive manner as much as I affected the program. I got as much out of it or more than I put into it. And I hoped that it would serve the community in the same manner for quite some time.”