Written by Gabe Burns, Sports Editor
Kerwin Bell is trading oranges for peaches.
A legend in the state of Florida, Bell is crossing the border to make his mark in Georgia as the new coach of Valdosta State football.
“It was a privilege just the other day to meet Kerwin Bell and his wife,” said VSU president Cecil Staton at Bell’s introductory press conference on Tuesday. “When I looked at his resume, I saw someone who has enormous depth and experience. He has been someone who decided that after an illustrious career in college football and professional football that his calling in life was to coach and mentor student athletes.”
Athletic director Herb Reinhard said he spoke to the team a day after David Dean left to accept a co-offensive coordinator job at Georgia Southern. Reinhard recalled stating to the players that he would bring them the “very best” coach. On Friday, he told the team that he believes he fulfilled that promise.
“I am genuinely excited about having Kerwin Bell and his family join Blazer nation, Valdosta State University and this community,” Reinhard said. “Kerwin is not only a very, very fine football coach….but Kerwin is a nice guy. You all are going to enjoy getting to know him. You’re going to enjoy being part of Blazer football and working with him to continue to build on the foundation that we’ve built at Valdosta State.”
Bell displayed an intriguing charm, vigorous passion and an unrelenting dedication to winning football games. He stressed a focus on accountability, trust and family while accentuating that relationships are an instrumental part of football. His ultimate goal is what one would expect: filling the trophy case.
“Our goal is very simple,” said Bell. “Listen, I tell the guys all the time I’m just an ole country boy from North Florida. I don’t get very complicated now. We’re going to have a very simple goal and that’s to win a championship because that’s the number one thing.”
The coach’s central message to Blazer nation was emphasized countless times:
“I need your help; you getting involved and coming on board with me and taking this (program) to another level. I hope you’re ready to make that possible.”
Born in Live Oak and raised in Mayo, Bell stayed in the state of Florida when he walked on at the University of Florida. After being redshirted in 1983, he would quarterback the team through 1987 in route to becoming a member of the university’s Hall of Fame (1997). Bell was named the SEC’s Player of The Year in 1984 and threw 56 touchdown passes while wearing the orange and blue. The Gainesville Sun anointed him as the 26th best Florida Gators player ever in their 2006 rankings.
After graduating with a degree in psychology, Bell was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 1988 NFL Draft. He would go on to play professional football for 13 years in the NFL and CFL. He attributes much of his expertise to the wide-range of coaches and players he met throughout his career.
From coaching under Steve Spurrier to sitting in quarterback meetings with a young Jim Harbaugh, Bell accumulated a rare blend of football knowledge from some of the greatest minds in the history of the sport.
After tearing his ACL in a pick-up basketball game, Bell was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1989 and entered a hiatus from on-field action. During that break, the former Gator signal caller received his first coaching opportunity as a graduate assistant under Spurrier at UF in 1990. He credits Spurrier as the man who got him into coaching.
Fans should expect to see an offense that is not overly different to previous installations in terms of favoring an aerial assault. Bell runs a vertical pro-style passing attack with a spread run game. His offense also uses a dose of screens to ensure the team does not pigeonhole itself as strictly vertical.
Bell said he produced his offensive scheme roughly 16 years ago as the head coach at Trinity Catholic High School. He uses many of Spurrier’s concepts that have made waves in the pass-happy NFL. That scheme is one reason why JU essentially reset its record books as one of the nation’s best offenses under Bell.
Bell mentioned that he has “a little bit of Spurrier in me” when speaking in regards to his stylistic aggression.
“We’re going to put up points. It’s going to be fun,” said Bell. “If we get ahead by 21, we’re trying to get ahead by 28.”
Bell’s success as offensive coordinator for the Toronto Argonauts and at Trinity earned him the head coach job at Jacksonville University. Taking over a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program that had experienced little success, Bell went 66-35 with two Pioneer Football League Championships in nine seasons.
Rumors of Bell moving up the coaching ladder elsewhere persisted as he continued to build JU into a powerhouse. Bell confirmed he received “a lot of offers” but was more interested in winning titles with the Dolphins.
Bell and JU experienced “philosophical differences,” as Jacksonville.com described it, and the school elected not to resign Bell to a contract extension after the 2015 campaign. Fortunately for both Bell and VSU, when one door closes, another often opens.
Reinhard said that Bell’s successful tenure at Jacksonville, both on and off the field, played a significant role in his hiring.
“His ability to connect with a community; we need to do a good job connecting with our students,” Reinhard said. “They need to know how important they are to the success of our football program…. (Bell) has a track record of invigorating students and getting them to come out and support the team.”
“A football coach (in the Valdosta community) is integral to not only the fabric of the institution, but also the fabric of the community.”
VSU is a different task for Bell. Instead of rebuilding project, he is walking into a stable program that has grown accustomed to winning, with three national titles since 2004. Now the ninth coach in school history, Bell sets his sights on reaching new heights in the Azalea City.
“It’s remarkable to know that I am now in charge of taking this program to the next level,” said Bell. “It’s exciting. This is the first time I haven’t had to take over a program at the ground level.”
“Everywhere I’ve been I’ve had a vision of what I want it to become. I believe I’m going to be able to take this program to another level. Like I said, there’s been a lot of success on this football field. But I think there’s more success that can happen in the community.”
Recruiting is Bell’s top priority, with signing day less than a week away. He plans to address personnel and system afterwards.
National titles have been won by the past two VSU coaches. If Bell’s press conference was any indication, that streak has a favorable chance of reaching three.