With the opening round of the Tennessee state playoffs approaching in November 1999, the Dickson County High School football coaching staff turned its attention to what it thought awaited beyond that first Friday: a weekend of yardwork.
The path for the Cougars through Class 5A was difficult. They finished the regular season with a 5-4 record, and a matchup with No. 1 Riverdale — a nationally ranked squad that had finished the regular season undefeated and was two years removed from a state title — was looming. Two games earlier, Dickson County had promoted a green sophomore quarterback named Walt Bell to the starting role, and though he had won his first two starts, the coaches didn't think the Cougars stood much of a chance.
"We were all talking about raking leaves in our yard the next week because we figured we was going to get slaughtered," said Joey Holley, then Dickson County's wide receivers coach.
Riverdale had won its previous four games by a combined 154-7. Dickson County had won only one playoff game in the 1990s.
But on that November Friday, the Cougars went off script. Dickson County jumped out to a 14-7 halftime lead. Riverdale forced overtime. And in the extra period, Bell threw the game-winning touchdown pass for a shocking 21-14 upset.
The brainy sophomore quarterback who wanted to air it out in a run-first offense led Dickson County to the state quarterfinals before the Cougars fell. It was the furthest they had advanced since winning the 1988 state championship. Dickson County hasn't made it that far since.
For Bell, it was one of the first times he showcased his smarts in the spotlight, and in the years since the stages have only gotten bigger during a quick rise through the coaching ranks.
He got his first offensive coordinator job at Arkansas State at age 29. He'll be 32 when Maryland kicks off against Howard at Maryland Stadium on Sept. 3 in his first game as the Terps offensive coordinator. And soon enough, some who have coached him think he'll be leading his own program.
"I don't know how we did this to this day, but we wound up winning that game because Walt was the quarterback," said Holley, now the Dickson County High School principal. "He made some plays in that game that a sophomore probably shouldn't make, and the reason he made those plays is because he was always so smart and so knowledgeable about the game."
"Almost a mad scientist kind of look"
Bell's career numbers at Middle Tennessee State are meager: two catches for 21 yards, one rush for minus-5 yards and two tackles. He walked on as a quarterback, converted to defensive back and finished his five-year career as a wide receiver. At 5 feet 10, 180 pounds in his redshirt freshman season, he was undersized. Even his biography in Middle Tennessee State's media guide in 2005, his redshirt junior season, said, "needs to get stronger and faster."
But while the physical tools weren't quite there, his Blue Raiders coaches and teammates noticed the smarts that had stood out to Holley and those at Dickson County. The same bio that pointed out where he needed to improve also said Bell "is like a coach on the field and knows the offense as well as anyone" and he "understands defensive philosophy."
"He knew our offense like the back of his hand," said former Middle Tennessee State quarterback Clint Marks, who pegged Bell as a "Wes Welker-type" wide receiver. "He could tell you what everyone was supposed to be doing on the offense, just like I could do the same thing as a quarterback. But the quarterback, he has to know that. The receiver doesn't really have to know what everybody's responsibility is, but he knew that. He was basically like another coach."
While Bell couldn't outrun or outjump opposing defensive backs as a wide receiver, he could outthink them. So he used every advantage he could find on offense, whether it was tweaking his route to get a little more separation from his defender or finding another tendency that he could leverage.
"He had a real brain for the game and almost a mad scientist kind of look sometimes where you knew he was thinking of ways to beat coverages and different routes and different systems," said Darin Hinshaw, one of Bell's offensive coordinators at Middle Tennessee State. "You don't see players doing that."
Marks and Bell both arrived in Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 2002, and though Bell was a walk-on, Marks said there was an element of competition between them at quarterback. But after Bell's position switches, Marks became confident in his opinion of what he was seeing from opposing defenses. Marks watched Bell work with the other wide receivers on the team, the ones Bell was competing with for playing time, and knew he was seeing a future coach, someone who enjoyed teaching.
That's where Bell was headed.
"He wasn't the best wide receiver on the team," said Hinshaw, who was hired to be Kentucky's co-offensive coordinator in December. "But he played because he was definitely the right guy to play. Honestly, we should have played him more because he knew what to do, and he was a champion with how hard he worked. There's no doubt about that."
"He always had ideas"
Like most young coaches trying to break into the ranks, Bell led a nomadic existence after he graduated from Middle Tennessee State. He hasn't stayed with a team for more than two seasons. He coached at Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis, Oklahoma State, Southern Miss, North Carolina and, most recently, Arkansas State.
But at each stop, Bell had connections that helped pull him along. When Bell was a graduate assistant at Memphis in 2007 and 2008, Hinshaw was also on the offensive staff, which was led by current Southern California head coach Clay Helton. Though Bell was at the bottom of the totem pole, he was still trying to make an impact by studying the Tigers and other teams to know what was working and what wasn't. Sometimes, Bell would draw up plays and give them to the other offensive coaches.
"He would come up with some ideas and [we would] definitely use them, and he would come up with ideas and [we] wouldn't use them," Hinshaw said. "But that's just part of ball. But he always had ideas, always was trying to come up with new ways to do things."
In 2010 — after a season as a quality control coach on Mike Gundy's staff at Oklahoma State — Bell was reunited with Blake Anderson at Southern Miss under head coach Larry Fedora. Anderson was Middle Tennessee State's wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator with Hinshaw during Bell's first three seasons in Murfreesboro, and Anderson was on staff at Louisiana-Lafayette when Bell worked there in spring 2007.
Bell followed Anderson and Fedora from Southern Miss to North Carolina, gaining more responsibility along the way. He started as an offensive graduate assistant his first season before becoming wide receivers coach in 2011. And when Fedora took the job leading North Carolina in 2012, Bell became the tight ends coach and co-recruiting coordinator. And while coaching future first-round NFL draft pick Eric Ebron in the Tar Heels' prolific offense, Bell found his footing.
So when Anderson left to become Arkansas State's fifth head coach in five years, he took Bell with him from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Jonesboro, Ark., to be his offensive coordinator.
"He has a knack"
After two record-breaking seasons at Arkansas State, Bell made the leap to College Park with coach DJ Durkin. It all came together quickly right before Christmas: Fedora called Bell to tell him to expect to hear from Durkin. Ten minutes later, Durkin called. That was a Wednesday night. On Friday night, Bell decided he wanted the job. On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 20, Maryland announced Bell was its new offensive coordinator.
He has worked to learn the personnel, figure out how he's going to implement his system and help with the recruiting stretch run before National Signing Day on Feb. 3. The days, weeks and months before the season opener are going to go by quickly, Bell said.
Those he has worked with before expect a smooth transition from the Sun Belt Conference to the Big Ten Conference for Bell.
"He has a knack," Hinshaw said.
"I just knew he was going to be a coach one day and be a very successful one," Marks said. "Just the way he went about it, the way he was learning everything, you can tell that the X's and O's side of football came to him really easily and you knew he'd be successful at the coaching level."
"He is a very motivated, self-motivated at that, determined young man," Holley said. "It's hard to even call him that now. He's a man."
Bell knows the situation he's stepping into, and the offensive ineptitude that has occasionally bogged down the Terps. He won't pigeonhole the offense into one scheme or one identity. Things always change, and he wants to adapt. His offense at Arkansas State featured a 3,000-yard passer in 2014. Last fall, it had three running backs with more than 600 yards.
"We'll do whatever it takes to win," Bell said earlier this month. "If we've got to be in the wishbone, we'll do it. If we've got to be in empty every snap and throw it a million times, we'll do it. We've got to go win football games, and that's what we're working towards."
Therein lies the goal. Former coach Randy Edsall's back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 were Maryland's first consecutive winning seasons since Ralph Friedgen had three straight 10-win seasons from 2001 to 2003. Bell understands he's in a win-starved program that has failed to reach bowl eligibility four times since 2009.
And that's where things have stayed the same for Bell. He still has that same determination he called on more than 15 years ago when he faced the biggest game of his life as a 15-year-old. He found the way to win with Dickson County against one of Tennessee's giants. Now he'll have to find a way for Maryland to win against the Ohio States, the Michigans, the Michigan States of the country.
"Points, yards — nobody cares about that stuff," Bell said. "The guys that care about that stuff didn't win them all. At the end of the day, there's only one stat that matters and that's wins and losses, and ultimately, that's what we'll be judged on here. Nobody's going to care if we're the No. 1 offense in the country if we're 0-12. The guys that typically talk about stats are the guys that don't win much. If you win them all, it speaks for itself."
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