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Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014

At 77, Richard Bell still calling defenses

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Richard Bell
AJC File
Richard Bell had a five-year stint as Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 1989 to '93.

By Chip Towers

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Richard Bell stands in familiar territory.

You can still find him today in the same spot he could be found most afternoons this time of the year for the last half-century. He’s standing on a football field about five yards behind the free safety at the back of a defense.

A defensive coordinator and one-time head coach for nearly five decades at the highest levels of collegiate football, Bell is still calling the shots for a defense. Only now he’s doing it on the smallest level of Georgia high school football.

Bell is an assistant coach — and middle school P.E. teacher — at Prince Avenue Christian School near Athens.

The fact that he will turn 77 in September is trivial to him. He tried that whole retirement thing after stepping down at the Air Force Academy in 2006. But it didn’t stick.

“I wasn’t really fulfilled from that standpoint,” said Bell, who had a five-year stint as Georgia’s defensive coordinator (1989-93). “You can only exercise so much and vacation so much. I’m not a golfer. Retirement is good for a lot of people, but you know, I was going to be active and I still felt like I could coach.”

It’s not like Bell spent much time in a rocking chair. He actually wrote a book — “Winning Defensive Football” — during his three-year hiatus. And he filled in the rest of the time traveling all over the country as a paid consultant for high school and college football teams.

It was in the latter capacity that Bell stumbled upon Prince Avenue Christian. He was summoned there by former Wolverines coach Mark Farriba to consult him on the team’s defense. After a few sessions, he left one day with a job offer.

Bell didn’t jump on it. It was six weeks before he got back to Farriba with a response, and then it was only tentative. After accepting the position, Bell told his wife, Marilyn, to remain at their home in Atlanta and he rented an apartment in Athens.

Four years later, the Bells are still renting. But now Marilyn is with him in a house in a neighborhood across the street from the school in Bogart, and they couldn’t be more content.

“We had some success that first year, and it was really fun,” Bell said. “So I decided to make a commitment. But, hey, I’m just year-to-year. Nobody’s trying to tie me down to a long-term contract.”

Bell had a good long soak in big-time football. An Arkansas player in the late 1950s, he held coaching positions at 10 major college programs, including Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, South Carolina, Duke and Navy. He tutored under Bobby Dodd on The Flats and matched wits with Bobby Bowden, who was offensive coordinator at West Virginia when Bell was the Mountaineers’ defensive coordinator.

He had a one-year stint as South Carolina’s head coach, but was let go after a 4-7 season in 1982. He came to Georgia from Duke in 1989 under new coach Ray Goff and still talks excitedly about the Bulldogs players he helped develop, such as Mo Lewis, Ben Smith and Mitch Davis.

There aren’t many NFL prospects among Bell’s charges these days. A private school in western Oconee County, Prince Avenue Christian barely goes two-deep on offense or defense. But the coaching part for Bell may be more fulfilling than ever.

“We’ve got a bunch of kids that are bought in,” Bell said. “They’ve got good ability but not great ability. The key is their heart and their spirit and their will and working together to go beyond their limits.”

It has gone well. The Wolverines made the playoffs for the first time in Bell’s first season, had an undefeated regular season in his second and made it to the quarterfinals again in 2013.

Current coach Jeff Herron, who arrived at Prince Avenue Christian from mighty Camden County last year, said much of that success is because of Bell. He calls him “one of the sharpest football minds I’ve ever been around and one of the best men I’ve ever known.”

“The kids absolutely love him,” said Herron, who coached Bell’s son, Murray, at Cedar Shoals 25 years ago. “Him staying on was a big part of me taking this job. And I told them I didn’t want it if he wanted it.”

No, Bell wasn’t interested in being the head guy. He knows his place is standing at the back of a defense. How much longer, he said only a much higher power can answer that.

“The good Lord has blessed me with good health,” Bell said. “I watch what I eat and I exercise regularly, and I’m very much aware of the advantages of taking supplements and all that. I’m enjoying this, and I guess I’ll keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore.”

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