COLLEGE PARK, Md. — One of the best young coaches in the country went to school to be a quarterback and a doctor, but after switching positions a couple of times and changing his major, he wound up spending the first few months after college sleeping on a couch and being paid with meals.
At 32 years old, Walt Bell is in his third season as an offensive coordinator for an FBS program, and his first at a Power Five school. He’s already turned down one head coaching position, but has the resume, charisma, work ethic and intelligence of someone who will be running his own program in the very near future.
Bell’s tenure at Maryland is only four games old, but there is tangible improvement and palpable excitement in College Park after a miserable 2015 season. He has moved through the coaching ranks quickly, collecting valuable experience and helping to mold productive offenses at each stop.
Everything he does happens with a simple, straightforward goal in mind.
“One night, one time, be the best in the world,” Bell said.
Bell grew up in Dickson, Tenn., as the son, grandson and great-grandson of a doctor. While at Middle Tennessee State, two men helped him cultivate a career path.
The first was his father, Walter “Butch” Bell III. He was a small-town doctor, just like his father before him, in Dickson. As his son put it, “every boy in the South wants to do what his dad does,” so Bell went to college and began checking off prerequisite classes for medical school.
“He was a great doctor and a great servant to that community, but I think part of the reason he was very adamant about me doing what made me happy is maybe he wasn’t,” Bell said. “I don’t know that for sure. He was a really private guy, like most Southern dudes. Going into my sophomore year of college, that was really the first time he said, ‘I don’t know if you want to do this.’
“From then on out, it was probably either going to be in the military or coach. No. 1, I love to compete. No. 2, I love to teach, and No. 3, I love to mentor and see people around you become better human beings. This provided that avenue.”
The second was Blake Anderson, who was the wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator. Anderson recruited Bell to make the switch from defensive back to receiver, and then became like a second father to him. It was his couch that Bell slept on as a volunteer coach at Louisiana-Lafayette in the spring of 2007 before he became a graduate assistant at Memphis.
Bell has also worked for Anderson at Southern Miss, North Carolina and, most recently, Arkansas State.
“He could have done a million different things,” Anderson said. “He’s extremely intelligent, his IQ is through the roof. He has a couple different degrees. I think he just gravitated toward it because he loves competition. I told him I had a couch for him to sleep on, and I’ll put you work. That’s how he got started. I fed him some food and made sure he didn’t starve to death and made sure he had a place to sleep. From that point on, he’s been rolling.”
Those Middle Tennessee teams weren’t particularly successful, but Anderson and Bell have found plenty of it since. They worked for Larry Fedora at Southern Miss and North Carolina, racking up points and victories with a fast-paced spread offense.
If Southern Miss had hired Anderson, not Ellis Johnson, in 2011 to replace Fedora, Bell would have been an offensive coordinator at 27. When Anderson left Chapel Hill, N.C., to go home to Arkansas, Fedora tried to keep Bell and make him the OC at a Power Five school. He decided to stick with Anderson, and spent two years lighting up the Sun Belt at Arkansas State.
“Walt’s a very, very talented young coach. He’s very driven,” Fedora said. “It’s all football for him. There’s no golf, there’s no fishing. No hobbies. It’s all ball. He’s single, so he spends about 20 hours a day thinking about football.”
Anderson mentioned Bell’s lack of hobbies as well. He’s clearly a very focused individual. If he hadn’t become a football coach, he wanted to go to law school and then apply for Officer Candidate School and craft a career in the military.
While Anderson tried to persuade him to find more balance in his life, Bell’s interpretation of that idea is a little different.
“I think the work-life balance thing, I don’t necessarily believe in that,” Bell said. “I think life is balanced on successes and failures. If you work really hard and have more successes than failures, then you had a really good life. I don’t think that has anything to do with how much I work or don’t work.
“This is my passion. This is what I love to do. This is recess to me. Now imagine being in second grade and getting to do recess 20 hours a day.”
He’s spent a lot of time with some of the best coaches in college football, building an impressive resume. Bell worked on a staff at Memphis that included Tommy West, Southern Cal coach Clay Helton, Kentucky offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw and Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry.
Bell will compete against Pry this Saturday when undefeated Maryland (4-0) goes to Beaver Stadium to play the Nittany Lions (3-2). He also spent a year working as a graduate assistant on defense at Oklahoma State for Mike Gundy and defensive coordinator Bill Young.
“He brought a lot from that,” Anderson said of the Oklahoma State experience. “I would have loved that opportunity. When we talk ball, he would bring an insight to the meeting room that other guys didn’t have because he’s been on the other side, dissecting spread offenses. It’s made him a much more prepared football coach.”
The decision to leave Arkansas State for Maryland was not an easy one. Not only did Bell leave Anderson, he also had to leave Luke Paschall, another Red Wolves assistant who lived with him as a kid and whom he considers a brother.
“Between my brother, Blake and Glen Elarbee, who is now the offensive line coach at Missouri, the best way I can describe it is it was a tribe,” Bell said. “We’ve all been raised the same way. We all think the same way, have the same answers to questions, complete each others’ sentences.
“It’s made me be more detailed. It’s made me do a better job of communicating with our staff and our kids. Ball is ball. We’re going to be productive. I don’t know how long it will take us to get great, but someday we’re going to be great on offense here. At the end of the day, you just miss the relationships.”
Maryland threw an NCAA-high 29 interceptions last season, so Bell and head coach D.J. Durkin have made reducing turnovers a priority. His quarterback, Perry Hills, has had obvious flaws in the past, so Bell has tried to lean on his strengths, shaping game plans around them.
There isn’t an obvious star in the backfield, so the Terps share the workload and find different situations for any of nearly a half-dozen running backs to contribute. The result was no turnovers in the first three games, and the most points in program history through four contests (163).
Coaches who believe in a no-huddle spread offense are often pegged as a certain type. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is a run-first spread guy who doesn’t need a strong-throwing quarterback. Air Raid disciples like Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury only want to throw ball and don’t care about the running game.
Regardless if those stereotypes are true, trying to pinpoint what Bell’s teams are best at has not always been easy, and that’s by design.
“He’s really good at saying, ‘Look, this is what we can do.’ It’s not about what you want to do or even like to do,” Anderson said. “It’s about doing what is necessary to win. We always talk about balance. Balance isn’t about being 50/50. It’s about doing whatever you have to do to win with the game at hand and the personnel.”
There are plenty reasons to believe Bell can be a great head coach and not just a talented play-caller, organizer and developer of offensive players. Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh has welcomed Bell into his staff meetings, where Bell has tried to help them figure out how to attack different types of defenses.
Hills called Bell “an awesome guy, an awesome coach to be around” because he has developed relationships with his players beyond just talking about football. He’s young enough to relate to players, but mature and confident enough to command a room full of coaches who are all older and more experienced.
His roommate early on at Middle Tennessee was another quarterback, Sam Hunt, who put down the football, picked up a guitar and became a country music star. Bell oozes charisma and Southern charm, and he has consistently been a great recruiter at each coaching stop.
“He’s definitely very relatable,” Maryland offensive lineman Maurice Shelton said. “He’s young, and he just knows how to talk to people. He’s told us that he’ll be whatever we need him to be to get the best out of us. If he needs to yell and scream, he can do that. If we need a pat on the back, he’ll do that.”
Bell could be a head coach right now, but he turned down an offer from Louisiana-Monroe, the second time he’s passed on a chance to advance his career at an even faster pace after choosing Arkansas State (and slightly less money) over the same job at North Carolina.
Fedora and Anderson both agree he’s going to be in charge very soon. It’s just got to be the right place, with Bell’s singular pursuit in mind.
“The end goal isn’t to be a head coach,” Bell said. “It isn’t to be the youngest head coach. The end goal is one night, one time, be the best in the world. That’s it.
“We all have ambitions and goals and I might be a little more ambitious than most. I love all of those guys [at Arkansas State]. They are my family, but I really love what we’ve got going here. Coach Durkin is going to be a long-time head coach. He is really special. He is as intense and tireless as they come. The culture we’re building is what I think. ultimately. is going to let this place explode and be special, and I’m glad to be part of it.”