In this day and age fans have become accustomed to a new brand of football. It’s no longer the three yards and a cloud of dust that our fathers championed. It’s a fast-paced game with a lot of scoring. And in this modern world it’s 24/7 football on the internet, on the T.V., and even in video games, where the release date of the new Madden Football game has become an annual event. There’s a whole generation of twenty-something year olds playing that video game. But in Jonesboro, Arkansas there is a 29-year-old guy getting ready to call plays in real life at Arkansas State University. Walt Bell is the new Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator for the Division 1 Red Wolves. He’s in elite company considering he’s one of only 128 coaches that get to call plays for a living at the FBS level. Sounds overwhelming, right? Well, I checked in with him to see what he thinks of the rare position he finds himself in.
You’re 29-years-old and the new Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator at ASU. Most 20-somethings, when they think of competing in football, they’re playing video games. You’re sitting in a press box calling plays at a bowl game. What’s that feel like? – “To be honest, I never felt calmer. I hate flying or riding in a car because I hate not being in control. I was more nervous in my first game in middle school than I was calling that bowl game. For the first time, I was in control and it felt great. And of course, I say I was in control, but there were also eleven kids on the field that control the execution of what I called. There are guys that never drop a ball and on that one crucial play they’ll drop the ball. So in a way, control can be an illusion. But being the one in control of calling the plays felt great and I’m excited moving forward in that role here at Arkansas State.”
When did you know coaching was in your future? - “Round-about way actually. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all doctors. In my dad’s heart of hearts he really wanted me to do what I wanted to do and he created the atmosphere that would allow me to follow my own path. When I was young I always gravitated towards military history through the autobiographies of leaders like Patton and Stonewall Jackson. My first sports were combat sports like boxing and wrestling. And as I got involved in team sports, leadership positions like coaching always grabbed me as something I could see myself doing. Now I did go to college pre-med, to be doctor like my Dad. Two or three years into that my Dad was nice enough to let me know I was not going to be a doctor. I ended up getting my undergrad in 3 years and my masters as I played at Middle Tennessee State. My last game as a player was the Motor City Bowl. After that I was all set to head off to law school at the University of Memphis. Well, when I got off the plane after the bowl game there was a message on my phone from Blake Anderson.”
What did the message say? – “He called to offer me a grad assistant position. Well, that may be overstating that actually. It was more like, “You want to come down here and help me out? There really isn’t a spot, but you can come down here and work with me and we’ll figure something out.” So of course, how could I turn down such a great offer? I went down to Louisiana, lived in the coaches’ locker room for six months, and tried to help Blake install the new offense. I tried to do anything I could to help the other offensive coaches learn the system, the practice structure, basically anything I could do to be useful. That first opportunity hooked me into coaching.”
Heading down to Louisiana-Lafayette for a job that didn’t exist tells me you had some trust in Coach Anderson maybe? – “Well, to be honest, he was my position coach when I first got to MTSU. But in terms of my own development as a person, he was like a second dad to me. Driving me in the direction I needed to go in order to figure out what kind of man I needed to be and have that maturity growth in college. He was my football dad. I knew he always looked out for my best interests.”
So it appears his idea that you may have a future in coaching was a good one for you? – “You know I had a class where we had to read Tom Collins’ “Good to Great” and it really opened my mind to what I was meant to do. That book asked important questions; first, what do you love? And second, what can you be the best at? That’s the hard one because you had to be honest. I would love to have played centerfield for the Yankees, but that wasn’t in the cards. What I loved was teaching. Seeing people learn and helping people develop new skills. The other love was competing. I knew I could be a great competitor. And football and this job allow me to teach and compete every day.”
There’s only 128 offensive coordinator gigs out there, you’re only 29, and you’re one of them. Have you let that sink in and enjoy this yet? – “Not one bit. That’s not my personality. My entire coaching career I get that question, “Aren’t you happy to get that opportunity?” I got my first position coaching job at Southern Miss when I was 25 or 26, and I think I was the youngest position coach at that point or close to it. Now I say yes openly. But inside I’m mad I wasn’t the offensive coordinator. The day I got this job, inside I’m thinking I want to be the best OC and then be a head coach. My mentality has always been about being good at whatever task I’ve been given as opposed to being happy about where I’m at in my career.”
Who have you reached out to or spoken with to prepare for what is coming in this new role? – “Honestly, I’m blessed to have been surrounded by guys who are very good at what they do. It’s Blake, it’s guys like Glen Elarbee, Clay Helton, Darin Hinshaw, Tommy West , Larry Fedora, and Gunter Brewer. My network isn’t huge because even though I’ve been at multiple places now, it’s always been with those guys. Luckily, we’ve been successful in this system so when we do work with other coaches and do clinics, we’ve kind of built up our own X’s and O’s family. And fortunately for me they’re all excellent at what they do. I consider myself a fortunate person in that aspect. They have all had a hand in me being ready for this job.”
How hard was it to decide to come to Arkansas State? – “At the end of the day, I was very fortunate to have the choice of two unbelievable jobs at two outstanding institutions with two great coaches. I was playing with house money at that point.”
At that point, was it about the schools, or were you going where Coach Anderson was going? – “You know, I was going to go where Blake went. He knew that. He has fought for me every step of the way in my career. I am who I am and where I am because of him. I would throw myself under a bus for the man. I don’t think it was even a real discussion between us. It was more like, “Are you coming or not?” Don’t get me wrong, the destination did matter. If Blake was going to coach at some high school, well then I probably wasn’t going with him. And he would have told me not to follow him there. It really is a family like relationship where I trust his judgment and know he wouldn’t steer me wrong. But still, I never thought I’d have the choice to be the OC at both schools, and that’s why it was such a difficult decision. North Carolina is a wonderful school. Chapel Hill is a great place to live. I could see myself back there at some other point in time if they’d have me back.”
When you two used to talk about the future and the chance to run your own program, did you ever think an opportunity like Arkansas State would be that first chance? – “No way. And any coach will tell you. The most important thing to consider when taking your first head coaching gig is whether or not you can win at that school. When it’s your first one, it could be your only shot. We are incredibly fortunate to be here at a program that has won regardless of who the coach was. They are 100% all in to being successful in football. The Jonesboro community is incredible in its support for this program. I’m not sure I’ve bought a meal since I’ve been here. Everybody wants to be a part of it in any way possible. And then there are the guys in that locker room. They’re winners. They love playing this game and know what it takes to win. It’s a special place and you couldn’t pick a better situation to run your first program.”
What surprised you most about the program when you got there? – “Maybe not a surprise, but the neatest thing about this place has been the kids in that locker room. They have been through a lot of transitions and dealt with a lot of situations that would have driven some guys out of the program. They’ve got chips on their shoulders and are out to prove something every day. Our offices overlook the field and every day there’s 30-40 of them out there just tossing the ball around and playing ball. They love this game and they work hard. Not a single one of them thinks they’re owed a thing. Not a single one was some guy that every school in the country recruited and has some sense of entitlement. As a teacher, I’m already excited about their thirst to learn and how they learn. It’s a special group of kids.”
Speaking of recruiting, that is an area where you have earned a lot of praise in your abilities and earned the reputation for being an “ace” recruiter. What has made you one of the best recruiters in the country? – “I by no means think I’m an ace or a guru at recruiting. I think I have a few things going for me. First is my age. I think that first meeting is important and when the person recruiting you looks like you and talks like you, it puts you at ease right away. I’m 29, and when I shave I look 18, so yes, I think age helps me. Second, I grew up around technology and thanks to my dad; I became a tech nerd too. So being able to manage the technology side of the equation is a strength in my corner. And finally, I’m a persistence hunter. A persistence hunter chases its target for as long as it takes until it finally just falls over. I don’t have a family or a significant other and not a lot of other hobbies. When I wake up in the morning I’m DM-ing guys on Twitter. When I’m done in the evening, I start DM-ing again or making calls. Dinner, TV, and Twitter/phone calls are what my nights look like. Recruiting is what will make me a great coach. If I have great players, then I can be a great coach. I love the competition of recruiting and I want to beat the other guy.”
What are recruits asking you these days? – “I really think what they want to know is whether or not they can trust you. Period. Once that trust starts then they want to move forward and learn more about your system, your school, and how they fit into your program. So being genuine is key. Luckily I’m a simple guy and what you see is what you get. Now don’t forget, I grew up around 3 small town doctors who were great talkers. And when everybody in town knows you and your family, and in every store you have to say hello and introduce yourself, you learn how to be a great talker. You have to be good at small talk and you have to able to put people at ease. I don’t play any games and I’m honest, whether you want to hear the truth or not. I’m me and I think that helps me build that trust.”
With trust in mind, you recruited an outstanding, highly ranked class this year at UNC, most of whom pin-pointed you as a major factor in their recruiting process. And even after you and Coach Anderson announced you were leaving, not one single recruit backed out of their commitment. Why? – “First of all, I am really, really proud of the class we brought this year to UNC. They’re great players and they’re great people. This class coming in has the highest GPA and test score average of any class in the last however-many years at UNC. Second, UNC has a lot to offer as an institution and a football program. And Larry Fedora is a coach you want to play for and there’s not a doubt in my mind he is taking that program to places it’s never been before. Period. So at the end of the day, I wasn’t recruiting them to play for me. I was recruiting them to play for UNC and be part of building something that has never been done before at UNC. They committed to that dream. That’s why nobody backed out of those commitments and I’m proud of that.”
What’s the memory from UNC that stands out to you? – “Outside of football it’s the people I met around the program. The support staff was incredible and I made friendships that I’ll have forever. In terms of football, just to see the guys I coached grow up and reach their goals. First, to see the maturation and growth of Eric Ebron. When we got there he was off the team due to academics and nobody there thought he belonged anymore or thought he would ever make it. Fast forward two years and the five semesters we were together he built his GPA back up above a 2.0 in an environment where it had become increasingly difficult for a football player to pass and every eye was watching our players in the classroom. He worked his tail off on and off the field. I couldn’t be prouder. We talk or text every day. I love that kid like he’s my own son. My hybrids. I will love those guys forever and they made people think I was a great coach so I owe them for my success. When I told them after the bowl game that I was leaving with Blake, we sat together in that locker room and cried our eyes out. I could barely talk. And that’s not like me. I’ve lost both of my parents and still, I’ve never broken down like that in my life.”
Speaking of Eric Ebron, Mel Kiper has him 8th on his ‘Big Board’ for the NFL Draft – “That’s too low. It’s too low. He’s a special talent and a great kid. He made me look like I knew what I was doing and he’s going to make some NFL guys look like geniuses after they pick him.”
You’ve done the start-over process before at every stop you’ve made with Coach Anderson, but now you’re higher up in command. What’s the first thing on your mind every morning when you wake up? – “Honestly, the most important man in my life is the head coach, Coach Anderson. And the most important person in my personal life is the wide receiver’s coach, Coach Pashcall. One of my best friends in the entire profession is our Offensive Line coach, Coach Elarbee. So what I’m thinking about is what I have to do to not let those guys down. If that means getting here at 5am, be a better teacher, learn more, work harder, or whatever else I have to do to do right by them, that’s what’s on my mind. And at the end of that day, knowing that I did right by them and the program is what will allow me to sleep well that night.”
What do you like most about calling plays? – “My favorite part is watching the kids be successful, particularly the ones other people didn’t think would succeed. I like taking guys that love football, regardless of ability, regardless of recruiting rankings, giving them a job, and then watching them do their job well.”
Players talk about the game “slowing down” for them. When did that happen for you? – “Well, I’m not where I need to be or who I want to be in this profession yet. I’ve been very fortunate to be in the same offensive system since I was 18 years old. I feel like I was on the forefront of this new wave of spread offenses because of the guys I worked for or played for the last 11 years. But that hasn’t stopped me from wanting to learn more every chance I get. The only way to achieve mastery is to do it well over time with repetition after repetition. I’m comfortable in this system, but I’m never comfortable with where I’m at in my life.”
Are any other coaches or teams “must-see TV” for you? – “If I’m going to watch a game, I like to see a fast tempo. I like anything Coach Kelly is doing with the Eagles, and back when he was at Oregon. I enjoy watching Kliff’s(Kingsbury) teams when he was at Texas A&M and now at Texas Tech. His players’ execution skills are second-to-none. My new fascination is with Arizona State. They’re not complicated, but what they do, they do really well and execute at a high level. That execution makes them look complicated. Physical, efficient, and clean.”
What are thoughts on the proposed “slow-down” rule in college football? – “Well, who knows? I don’t think it will pass in the short-term. And I don’t think it should. Long term, who knows because the ebb and flow of sports always change. But calling this a player safety rule is illogical and misguided. Playing fast for 11 years has not shown this style of ball to be a safety concern to me. I might actually have more respect for the proposal if they were honest in their intent behind the rule. This would be a step back in our sport. Great styles make great fights.”
With this proposed rule in mind and who’s supporting it, maybe Arkansas and Arkansas State should start up a series? – “You know what? We’ve had that talk. I’d love to. I’d love for them just to give us a date.”
Speaking of successful teams, you guys have some big time games on the schedule this year with Miami and Tennessee. Who’s more excited, you or the players? – “Probably the players because they’re allowed to be excitable. I look at games and schedules differently. For me, I remember being 7 years old and losing a rec ball game and crying my eyes out. That’s when my father asked me two questions that have stuck with me to this day. “You know what losing makes you, right? A loser.” Ok. “And you know what winning makes you, right?” I wiped my eyes and said, “A winner?” He said, “No, not the loser.” So I’ve always had the mentality that whether you win or lose, don’t’ be happy, don’t be satisfied. And the only way I’ll be happy is if I’m as good as I can be in getting our guys prepared and ready this spring to be able to perform well against Montana State in the first game. Don’t get me wrong. As a kid from Dickson, Tennessee, it will be a special day when we step out on the field in Knoxville. And I’ll wish my dad was there to see it. But, if we’ve done everything possible to prepare and execute the game plan, then that’s when I’ll be excited.”
On a side note, Coach Anderson said you guys like the music blasting at practice. What’s this staff going to have on the playlist? – “I have no idea. We’ve always left it up to the kids and what they like. The reason we do it isn’t really about the music. It’s about creating a distracting environment and making things harder in trying to get the signals called so that the focus level rises and the game day atmosphere is easier as a result. It does help the morale and keeps the atmosphere fun, but the underlying purpose still goes back to teaching them in an environment that will help their preparation.”
Speaking of a fun atmosphere, is it true you dressed up as a Ninja Turtle for practice on Halloween? – “Definitely true. And even in that fun, there was my own little hidden message for ‘The Hybrids’. I was Leonardo. You know why? Because Leonardo was always in charge.
So, do you see yourself being in charge in ten years? – “Wow, even when you think you know the answer to that question, you don’t. Do I want to be a head coach by then? Of course, that’s the ultimate goal. And when I get there I’ll probably find something else to attain, something else to chase. But in reality, I just want to be achieving in whatever role I’m in at that point. As I said before, I want to do right by those around me and make them proud. I want to be successful in what I’m doing and to me being successful isn’t having a certain title or income. It’s achieving. That’s what drives me today and it will then too.”
We’d like to extend a special thanks to Coach Bell for setting aside the time for this interview. You can follow him on Twitter @coachwaltbell.
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