By Gene Frenette, sports columnist for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville
Three years ago, Kerwin Bell’s coaching career took its biggest detour when his nine-year employment with Jacksonville University quickly dissolved into a messy divorce.
It had nothing to do with the Dolphins’ football program not being successful because JU went 66-35 on his watch, a winning percentage (.643) far superior to anything before he arrived or since his departure.
School administrators had decided long before the 2015 season ended, though they never made it public, that Bell’s contract wasn’t going to be renewed for myriad reasons.
Part of it was JU wanting to move on from a financial aid scandal that got the program banned from postseason play for two years by the Pioneer Football League, though the coaching staff was never implicated. Another part was JU wishing to reduce the salary of its next football coach, but more than anything, the once-synergetic relationship had simply run its course.
Bell, the former Florida quarterback, didn’t try to hide his disappointment when he got the official word 12 days after the season ended, saying it cost him and his assistants valuable time in looking for new jobs.
“When a guy does a good job for you for nine years, he deserves more respect than that,” Bell told the Times-Union at the time. “I had a dream for this place. It’s a shame we can’t finish it.”
Well, it turns out, that dream Bell had of ultimately taking JU’s non-scholarship program to national prominence is now in full bloom at Valdosta State University.
On Saturday, the Blazers — the nation’s highest scoring team (52.2 points per game) in Division II or above — will take on Ferris State at a 12,000-seat stadium in McKinney, Texas for the Division II national title in only Bell’s third season on the job.
“I knew we had something special going this year, but I didn’t know it was going to be this good,” Bell said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
The 14-0 Blazers, relying largely on freshmen and sophomore playmakers and seasoned veterans on both lines, have blown out virtually every opponent by an average margin of 31.5 ppg. Until last week’s 30-24 semifinal win at home over Notre Dame (Ohio) College, VSU had never scored less than 44 points and put up 127 combined points in its first two playoff victories over Bowie State and Lenoir-Rhyne.
“We just weren’t as sharp last week, that was by far the worst game we played all year,” Bell said.
No limitations on or off the field have slowed down the Blazers. Budget cuts at Valdosta State forced Bell’s program to play with only 30 scholarships (six under the D-II limit) this season, but it hasn’t hindered him from restoring the Blazers’ reputation as a powerhouse, one with three national championships (2004, ’07, ’12) on its resume.
“When I took this job, I knew exactly what I had to do to get to this level,” said Bell. “We formed a football-only booster club to help us get two or three scholarships back. When I was at JU, I loved the challenge of coaching non-scholarship football and beating some scholarship programs, but you also want to be on the high end of things when it comes to resources.
“This is one of the top five jobs in Division II. It’s like going to Ohio State or Florida in FBS. You know you got a chance to compete at the highest level.”
Unlike his time at JU, where Bell relied on a pass-heavy attack with quarterbacks Josh McGregor and his son, Kade, to carry the Dolphins’ offense, the Blazers are a perfect blend of efficiency. They rely as much on the prolific rushing attack of Jamar Thompkins, Seth McGill and redshirt sophomore quarterback Rogan Wells, who have combined for 2,639 of VSU’s 3,554 rushing yards, as much a potent passing game (3,284 yards) to manhandle their opponents.
“People (on defense) have really backed off because they’re worried about our speed at receiver,” said Bell. “It’s really opened up our running game.”
Wells, whose older brother, Rylan, was a JU quarterback (2014-17), still did enough passing to throw for 33 TDs and just four interceptions. Even freshman backup Ivory Durham IV, a Raines High product and the Times-Union 2017 Player of the Year, managed to throw for seven TDs and accumulated 805 yards passing/rushing in mop-up duty.
With four freshmen receivers, including Westside High’s David White, either starting or seeing a lot of playing time, Bell has positioned the Blazers to be an impact program for the foreseeable future. And he’s getting plenty of help from his JU connections.
Former Dolphins’ defensive backs coach Danny Verpaele coordinates the VSU defense, which has scored a nation-leading seven TDs and holds opponents to 20.7 points per game. Ex-JU receiver Andrew Robustelli is the receivers coach.
But the significant change for Bell is he turned over the play-calling for the first time in his career midway through last season. Kade Bell now handles those duties, though Kerwin does retain veto power over his son if he wants to run a different play.
“Everything Kade calls is real aggressive, so he thinks like I do,” Kerwin said. “Now that I got somebody to do that, it helps me get the team ready because I can oversee everything. I can manage the other parts of the team on game day instead of worrying about the play sheet all the time.”
Throughout his football life, the 53-year-old Bell has been a high achiever. He went from a walk-on freshman at Florida to SEC Player of the Year in 1984. After the seventh-round draft pick didn’t pan out in the NFL, he played in two different leagues over eight years before finally playing one game and completing all five passes for the Indianapolis Colts in 1996.
As a head coach, he won a state championship at Ocala Trinity Catholic, guided a traditionally mediocre JU program to two PFL titles, and is now one win away from bringing Valdosta State back to the Division II pinnacle.
“I’ve always had this tunnel vision,” said Bell. “When I was a walk-on at Florida, nobody was going to tell me I couldn’t start. It took me going through two leagues and eight years to get back to the NFL. I sort of took that same mindset into coaching. I wanted to build programs.
“I still have that fire to be the best and we’re going to be focused on what it takes to get there. I don’t look for other jobs. I want to build the program where I’m at.”
Kerwin Bell admits it was a “tough situation” when JU decided it was better off with someone else running its football program. Six weeks later, he was hired by Valdosta State, which is most definitely better off with him.
Gene Frenette is a sports columnist for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org: (904) 359-4540
Valdosta State wins title
MCKINNEY, Texas (AP) — Ninety-six points were scored in the NCAA Division II championship game Saturday. Two points that weren’t scored made the difference.
Rogan Wells tied the championship record with five touchdown passes and Valdosta State won its fourth national title with a 49-47 victory over Ferris State.
Ferris State’s rally from an 11-point deficit fell short when Jevon Shaw’s two-point conversion pass sailed wide of Keyondre Craig at the back of the end zone with 40 seconds left.
“When I saw the ball high and wide, that was a great feeling,” said Valdosta coach Kerwin Bell, a former quarterback at UF.
The lead changed hands seven times before Valdosta (14-0) overcame a 34-31 deficit with two consecutive third-quarter touchdowns on passes from Wells to Joe Fortson Jr. and Travis Taylor.