GLASGOW — The year was 2017, and Jackson Arnett heard the naysayers.
He had just been hired as the new head football coach at Barren County High School in May. While he was greeted with a fair amount of congratulatory compliments from the public, he also heard some very surprising words.
Some people were literally apologizing to him because he had taken on the job.
“There was a lot of people who were actually telling me that they were sorry for me,” Arnett said. “A lot of people were telling me that this job simply couldn’t be done.”
The naysayers only grew in number as the then-25 year-old Arnett was facing an incredible uphill climb.
He had just inherited a program that was experiencing 16 straight seasons without a winning record. To make matters worse, the team he was hired to coach only won one single game in the fall of 2016.
Despite his young age, Arnett was not without coaching experience. He had coached multiple sports at Corbin High School, and he was previously the offensive coordinator at Ballard High School before accepting the Barren County job.
It was always a dream of his to be at the helm of a stable, and talented football program. Young and hungry for his shot, Arnett took the opportunity at Barren County High School despite the long odds at building such a program.
“That (the naysayers) always kind of fueled my fire a little bit,” Arnett said. “I’ve always been really competitive in that part. A lot of that was just me wanting to do something that people said couldn’t be done.”
Fast forward to now, and in his third year at the school his Trojan football team finds itself off to its first 5-1 start since 1995.
“It ain’t all me,” Arnett said this season’s success. “We have good players, and we have had some luck there. We have a good coaching staff, and we have just tried to change the culture. We mostly have just set a standard, and we have absolutely not steered away from that. We demand that of them.”
Such a standard has not always been an easy one to meet for the Trojans. In his first season at Barren County, the Trojans again won only one game. In his second year, there was only minimal improvement as the team won three contests.
“There have been times along the way that I thought to myself, ‘Golly, what are we doing?’ because this is just not working,” Arnett said. “There was a lot of culture change which had to happen when I was brought in. There was a lot of back-talking and a lot of players asking, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ When I took this job I felt that it was a top-five hardest job in the state of Kentucky based on what we were going to have to go through in that first year.”
Luckily for him, Arnett would not be alone in the endeavor. Close friend and former teammate Jacob London joined him on the coaching staff as the defensive backs coach in 2017.
For London, the decision to join Arnett was an easy one to make as he says there was no way that he was going to let his best friend down.
The two formerly played for Monroe County High School where the duo was a part of two regional championship teams. In fact, from their sophomore to senior seasons the Falcons appeared in three straight regional championship games while also notching a combined record of 30-11.
“We have definitely taken that culture we were previously a part of and tried to apply that here,” London said. “It’s something that they have had a little taste of, but they have not had that here throughout the years consistently. They just haven’t been able to see that stable culture that we had at Monroe County. It’s just about winning football games. It’s just taken time obviously.”
That time and commitment Arnett, London, and the rest of the coaching staff made is shown in the performance of the current senior class. The staff saw something special with this particular group, and the players got plenty of playing time early on.
Oftentimes as sophomores, the group would play a JV game on Monday night then turn around and play a varsity football game on Friday night. The initial results were not prosperous, but the end payoff has been huge.
“Not taking anything away from any other class, but there is more talent here (with this class),” Arnett said. “They are just a little bigger, and we started all of them as sophomores. They got beat down and beat up a lot of times. We hoped that this would be the year for them.”
Leading that group now is senior receiver and defensive back Tyler Bush who plays both ways for the Trojans.
Arnett says that Bush is the real MVP of the team thus far because he does it all for Barren County. Through six games, Bush has notched two receiving touchdowns, four rushing touchdowns, three touchdowns off interception returns and one off a kickoff return.
For Bush, he saw years of hard work paid off when the Trojans defeated a talented Greenwood High School team on Sep. 27, which marked the program’s best start this century.
“It changes the program,” Bush said of the victory. “All the hard work we have put in over the years has really changed and affected the program and it shows.”
Senior running back Dayvion Holloway has also been a force for the Trojans this season. He currently leads Class 6A in rushing yards per carry (11.9), and he is currently fourth in rushing touchdowns with 12 total.
However, the strength of the team may just be the defense, which is led by defensive coordinator Tommy Muse, who has been with the program for the better part of the decade. Currently, the Trojans rank fourth in team defense in Class 6A as they only allow 14.3 points per contest.
Among the standouts individually on defensive besides Bush have been senior linebackers Jackson Coots and Easton Fraizer who are among the top three in tackles on the team.
“Our kids really focus and pay attention at practice,” Muse said. “It’s all on them on Friday nights. They play hard, and they executive defensively. We run 4-3 principles and we play a lot of cover three. It’s mainly just gap control. We try to keep it very simple and just let them play.”
One of the biggest obstacles the team has had to overcome due to their recent success is what Arnett calls “rat poison.” He actually had a guest speaker recently come in and talk to the team about ignoring the praise they have recently received.
“There are more people patting us on the back now, which I don’t really like that much,” Arnett said. “We have tried to keep that both out of their heads and out of ours. When you hear that you suck for so long, and then you do well, people want to start telling you that.”
This week, the Trojans will go up against district foe Central Hardin, which is currently ranked fourth overall in Class 6A. It will certainly not be an easy game for Arnett and company, but he is keeping this season in perspective for his team.
“We just take it one day at a time,” Arnett said after practice on Wednesday morning. “We aren’t even worried about Friday night yet. We are just worried about practice today. Thursday we will focus on our walk-through, then on Friday we just hope they are prepared and play hard. Our big thing is just to take it one day at a time, and we have been telling them that for three years.”
It’s that one-day-at-a-time mantra that has led to this program’s turnaround during Arnett’s tenure. However, just like with any team, the old naysayers still exist as some complain that the Trojans are just beneficiaries of an easy schedule.
But with each passing victory, those naysayers from 2017 are getting quieter and quieter.