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Envisioning Championships

New football coach Kerwin Bell wants players and fans to experience that championship feeling

By Marlon W. Morgan

To this day, Kerwin Bell remembers vividly the scene in Gainesville, Florida in 1984 when he and his University of Florida teammates returned to campus following a trip to Kentucky after the Gators clinched what was then their first Southeastern Conference championship (a title that was later vacated because of rules violations by coach Charley Pell).

Just before landing, the team plane flew over Florida Field where some 40,000 fans gathered to welcome the team home. On the bus ride from the airport to campus, the Gainesville streets were lined with fans.

“I’ll have this memory ’til the day I die,” Bell said. “I saw 60-year-old men cry.”

Bell, who was named Western Carolina University’s head football coach in April, came to Cullowhee to create those same memories for the Catamount players and fans. Known as a program builder everywhere he has coached, Bell sees no reason why WCU can’t become a dynasty within the Southern Conference.

That’s a far cry from the conference doormat position the Catamounts occupied in recent years, which is why Alex Gary, WCU’s director of athletics, was forced to make the difficult decision to replace coach Mark Speir MAEd '95, who was 33-68 in nine seasons with the Catamounts, including 7-25 the last three years. Numerous conversations with players and alumni also played a role in Gary making the move.

“One of the student-athletes said, ‘Mr. Gary, nobody respects us. The other teams don’t respect us,’” Gary said. “As an athlete, if you know when you step on the football field that you’re not respected, and you feel that way, you’re already defeated. I felt like the best way, and really the only way, for us to change that and to provide not only our football players, but our campus and our alumni, with some sort of optimism that we’re going to be able to be successful in the sport of football was to make a change in leadership.”

Alumni sentiment was similar to that of the players, Gary said. Many of them told him that they would be content with a competitive team that went 6-6. During the news conference introducing Bell as the new coach, an alumnus from Knoxville who frequents most WCU football games told Gary of his frustrations.

“He said it was starting to wear on him, taking that two-hour drive back to Knoxville so defeated by losing another game and not performing at the level he hoped his team would perform at,” Gary said. “A lot of people feel re-energized and hopeful. People definitely are starving for a good football team because people come out. Our fans are tremendous. We have the best fans in the conference, and that’s not even a biased comment. Two out of the last three years, not counting COVID, we led the conference in attendance. And that’s having an average of not many wins in a season.”

“Find your niche and where your strengths are and play to those strengths. If you do that, you’ll have success.”

Bell has won championships everywhere he’s been. He began his coaching career at Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala, Florida, which was just starting football. In six seasons (2001-06), Bell won a Florida Class 2B state championship in 2005 and was runner-up in 2006.

From there, he went to Jacksonville University (2007-15), turning a dismal program into one that won three Patriot Football League championships, while posting a 66-35 record in nine seasons. During his tenure, the Dolphins recorded a school-best 10-1 record and a conference title in 2010, leading the nation in total yards per game (486 ypg) and scoring (42.2 ppg). JU was 9-2 with another league title in 2014.

Bell then returned Division II Valdosta State into a national power. In his three seasons (2016-18), he led the Blazers to a 27-7 record, which included a school record 15-game winning streak and two Division II playoff appearances.

His stay there was capped by a perfect 14-0 record, a Gulf South Conference title and a Division II national championship in 2018. His offense led the nation in scoring (52 ppg), scoring a total of 728 points, the most in Division II history.

Bell sees no reason he can’t enjoy the same level of success at WCU, which is why he was genuinely excited to come to Cullowhee.

“When you start looking at the situation and where you’re located, you wonder why it hadn’t been done,” Bell said. “Surely, there’s some concerns. There always is when you go to a new place. Why something hasn’t been done or why things haven’t been accomplished there? But I’m the kind of guy that always looks at the positives. I thought there were a lot of positives here that we could draw from and change the culture and change the ability to win games here.

“I’ve done that almost everywhere I’ve been. There’s always a way you can find success anywhere you go. You’ve just got to find your niche and where your strengths are and play to those strengths. If you do that, you’ll have success.”

That work ethic came from his upbringing, growing up on a tobacco farm in Live Oak, Florida, where he and his three sisters worked together in the fields. Seeing his father work hard to ensure he made his crops every year in order survive was a valuable lesson for Bell.

“We understood at an early age, year-by-year you’ve got to work at something,” Bell said. “Nothing is ever given to you. You’ve got to work extremely hard if you’re going to accomplish anything in life. That’s what I was around most of my life.”

Despite being a star quarterback at Lafayette County High School, Bell didn’t attract the attention of major college programs, so he ended up walking on at Florida. After redshirting his first season, Bell found himself in the lineup when starter Dale Dorminey suffered an ACL injury.

Even as coach Pell was fired midway through the season, Bell led the Gators to a 9-1-1 record and was named SEC Player of the Year. After starting all four years, Bell went on to play professionally in both the NFL and the CFL. In between, he first got the coaching bug while serving as a graduate assistant at Florida under coach Steve Spurrier as he rehabbed an injured ACL.

“At that moment, I saw perfection on the field,” Bell said. “The things he did, I had never seen that as a player, just the perfection of the routes and the timing and all the precision there was to the offense. I think that must have hit a nerve to see that. I thought he brought fun back to the game as a coach. It was fun to be on his staff.”

Bell knew he was destined to be a college coach during his time in Jacksonville as he watched his first recruiting class walk across the stage during commencement. “A couple of years after that, they came back and they’re husbands and fathers. That’s what gets me going, to see you have one little percent of helping them get to that point,” Bell said.

Shortly after accepting the job at WCU, Bell was talking to one of his linemen. He asked the player if he had ever thought about what would happen if they came back to Cullowhee on a bus from winning a conference championship, much like Bell did when he was at Florida.

“I believe there’s so many people that are passionate that you’ll see people crying,” Bell said. “You’ll see people that are so excited about what we’ve done. I’m trying to get our guys to go ahead and envision that. Live that vision because it’s going to happen. We’re going to be the talk of college football if we can do that.

“That’s one thing that I’ve taken away from here is there’s a lot of passionate people that really want us to win. They’ve supported this program for years. They’re looking for a team to go win a championship. That’s what we want to get done here. Any player that’s a part of that, that’s something that’s going to last for the rest of their life.”  

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