Extreme team makeover: WCU latest school to buy into Kerwin Bell's vision
CULLOWHEE, N.C. – When Kerwin Bell was playing professional football, he had a natural attraction to the teams that, for a lack of better words, were insignificant.
The former Florida Gator quarterbacked two years for a startup team called the Orlando Thunder of the World League of American Football. They lasted two years before folding.
From there he went to the Sacramento Gold Miners, a failed Canadian Football League expansion organization that only made it three years.
“My wife told me way back when I was playing ball, ‘why do you always go to the tough places?’” Bell said.
And when he retired from the game and transitioned to coaching, that pattern continued. He went to Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala, Florida, which was launching a brand-new football team. He went to Jacksonville University, a non-scholarship program which has since dissolved. And now he’s with Western Carolina, whose football program doesn’t have an overly rich history of success.
But those are the opportunities right in his wheelhouse; the ones he has been in his whole career, the ones he seeks out. He doesn’t like it easy or made – he wants the places where he can build from the ground up; create his own story.
“That’s sort of who I am, I’ve been that my whole life,” Bell said. “I’m a visionary guy.”
And no matter the situation, he won’t leave until his vision comes to fruition, or he has no other choice.
“I sort of put blinders on,” Bell said. “I went to Jacksonville University and for nine years, I had other offers all throughout the country and I looked back and said, ‘man, I probably should have done things differently,’”
“But I had blinders on because there was a vision I had for that program … Once I accomplish what I set out to do, I feel comfortable going somewhere else but up until that point I have blinders on.”
The Catamounts job had allure to him because like many of these previous gigs, it was a chance to construct something out of nothing. It was a blank canvas waiting to be designed. Something about a lack of success and the opportunity to change that speaks to him.
“You start learning the facts about the program and just sort of how the last few years have not been very successful and then to get on campus and talk to our chancellor and have a chance then to meet the athletic director Alex Gary in person, you get a feel that it’s sort of a new beginning,” Bell said. “They were new - the chancellor had been here a few years, she hired the AD who had been here about a year and a half and then he decided to change the football coach and I got a chance to come in, so it just felt like it was a new beginning of something that hadn’t had much success.”
In fact, the program has never won a conference championship while in the Southern Conference. The last truly memorable Catamounts team was in 1983 when they reached the national championship game, but that team didn’t even win the SOCON. Since that magical run 40 years ago, they haven’t returned to the FCS playoffs.
Perfect situation for Bell, the visionary who won’t stop until the job is finished.
“It was sort of a program you knew you were going to have to rebuild and take a lot of effort to get it back to the point of respectability and then to the point where you can really compete for championships,” Bell said, followed up by a statement that shows the blinders are still intact. “Well, I envision us winning the SOCON championship and making a run to the national championship. And I believe we can get that done here.”
Climbing the success rungs
All of Bell’s escapades with teams needing help were not for naught. Most times, he fulfilled the vision he chased.
With Trinity Catholic, he took a brand-new program and turned it into a perennial powerhouse. Fielding a team for the first time in 2002, the Celtics made it to the playoffs in just their second season. Then in 2005, they went 14-0, winning the state championship and in 2006, went undefeated again before losing in the state championship, ending a 27-game win streak.
In 2007, he took over a Jacksonville Dolphins collegiate program that had just one winning season (6 wins) since its inception in 1998. By his second year, he made the program conference champs, concluding the year 9-4 with a first-place Pioneer League finish. He stayed there until 2016, having just one season with less than six wins.
Then he went to Valdosta State, a DII program in Georgia where in his third year, it went undefeated and won a national championship.
The common denominator? By his third season, his teams have achieved at the highest level. 2023 marks his third year with WCU. The Catamounts, so far, are following the script he’s used for all his programs to get it done.
“I’m an old country boy man so I keep it pretty simple, but I think there are two things that need to happen,” Bell said. “First of all you have to improve your roster, so there’s going to be a lot of turnover … Once that happens, now the second thing has to happen for you to have a chance to start competing for championships and that is getting to the point where your team is linked together, believes in each other, been through tough moments and grown.”
In year one, his staff focused on step one. Through the portal and high school recruiting, WCU had over 100 new players come into the program. There were 120 when they got there and only 20 of those original players remained.
It was a Colorado and Deion Sanders-esque makeover that brought in talent and character suitable to Bell’s liking.
“We brought in not only talented players, but I have a conviction on the kind of players I want at every position, as far as their character and what kind of person they are,” Bell said. “And now we have 100 to go with the 20 we really liked when we got here and so now, we have a locker room full of self-starters, guys who want to be the very best, guys who will come up here on Saturday and Sunday and work out on their own because they want to be great. That’s who we recruit.”
In that first year, 2021, things started off shakily, getting out to an 0-6 start but they righted the ship, winning four of their last five to finish 4-7. That was a three-win improvement from the final year under the previous regime.
Step one was complete; WCU was comfortable with its roster. In year two it was time to tackle step two, which is growing and believing in each other through tough moments. They needed to see what being elite looked like.
“Jordan (Michael) had to lose to the Detroit Pistons for years before the Bulls overcame and learned how to win,” Bell said. “It happens on every level in every kind of sport, you need to learn how to win. You’ve got to go through some tough moments, and I think we did that last year.”
Against some of the top teams in the SOCON that were ranked in the country, the Catamounts were falling short in 2022.
They lost on the road at No. 21 Samford by three scores. They lost in Greenville, South Carolina to an up-and-coming Furman Paladins team, 40-47. Then they got spanked at No. 12 Mercer, 6-49.
“Mercer kicked our butt; they had been together two or three years and taught us how to play winning football,” Bell said. “I even told the coach (Drew Cronic) at the end, give me another quarter, I want my team to continue to see what it takes to be at that level.”
The Catamounts “didn’t look left and they didn’t look right.” They grew from it.
They went on to beat ETSU on a last-second field goal and then beat No. 15-ranked Chattanooga at home to wrap up the year 6-5. Another improvement leading to year three, the year where Bell has won at every stop.
“Our guys trusted each other and going into the offseason I made the statement to my team, its championship or bust and I made that statement because I know we’ve gotten to that second phase that every team need to get to,” Bell said. “We now have a chance to win championships.”
Win so much, make a grown man cry
Entering week 4, the odds of WCU taking home that year three crown that Bell so often wins aren’t that slim.
It’s already beaten Samford, a team it lost to last year, to start 1-0 in conference play. It’s gone on the road and beaten Eastern Kentucky, a 2022 FCS playoff team. It went into Arkansas to take on the SEC Razorbacks, earning invaluable experience.
“We’re still a long way from where we can be as a football team, but the potential is tremendous,” Bell said. “But how good can we get? … I think we can go compete in the playoffs; I really do. And I think we could win some rounds in that playoff.”
Bell hopes to give the rural area of North Carolina that quality of football because they deserve it.
“Even when they weren’t great, I heard the year before I got here, they were 1-8 and still sold more tickets than anyone. Their attendance was one or two in the SOCON,” Bell said. “I grew up in Florida, which is a football state and I coached at Valdosta State which is South Georgia; they love football, right? But these people up here, man, I couldn’t believe how passionate they are.”
And being the visionary he is, Bell can picture the scene in Cullowhee when they get the job done for the first time ever.
“I was at the University of Florida in 1984 and I was the starting QB as a redshirt freshman and people think Florida has won all these championships but up until then, they’d never won an SEC championship,” Bell said. “In 1984, we flew back to Gainesville after beating Kentucky to win the SEC championship and I see grown men crying in the streets and I think on a smaller scale, that’s what’s going to happen here in Cullowhee when we’re able to do that.”