Remembering legendary Marist coach Ron Bell

Marist coach Ron Bell is surrounded by his  former players at the dedication of Ron Bell Court in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Ron Bell family)

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Marist coach Ron Bell is surrounded by his former players at the dedication of Ron Bell Court in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Ron Bell family)

The Marist School won three state basketball championships during the 40 years Ron Bell ran the program, but it may be the one he didn’t win that says the most about the man.

In 1987 the War Eagles were beaten by Rockdale County in the championship game. A month later it was disclosed that Rockdale County used an ineligible player for insignificant seconds during an insignificant game and would forfeit the title.

“He said someone from the Georgia High School Association called and said, ‘Congratulations, coach, you’re the state champion,’” recalled David Boyd, a longtime friend and coaching colleague of Bell’s. “Ron said, ‘What are you talking about? We didn’t win that game, and we’re not going to accept that state championship.’”

Today the GHSA shows the 1987 title as “vacated.”

Bell, who died Tuesday at age 76, was one of Georgia’s iconic basketball coaches. His lifetime record at Marist, from 1975-2005, was 616-199 and included nine region championships, three state runner-up finishes and three state championships (1989, 1994 and 2000). The 1993-94 team went 32-0, was ranked No. 6 in the nation and earned Bell honors as Boys Basketball National Coach of the Year. Bell also coached golf at Marist and his teams won five state championships.

But Bell’s coaching career cannot be defined by numbers. He was known for his integrity, his ability as a coach and his capacity to get the most out of his players.

“He was as good a coach as there was,” former St. Pius coach Mark Kelly said. “He was the most prepared coach, the most competent coach. But you know what, he was just a good guy and you can’t say that about everybody.

“We’d go at each other tooth and nail on the court, but it was like ‘The Godfather,’ it wasn’t personal … it was business. And as hard as we went at each other, we’d go scout together or go out for something to eat after a game. I considered him a dear, dear friend … and that guy could flat-out coach.”

Boyd, who won state titles at four different schools during his long career, remembers his first encounter with Bell. It was a meaningless summer-league game in 1981. Boyd’s team at Campbell had just finished second in the state, was loaded with talent and was expected to win a state championship. Boyd took one look at the Marist roster, didn’t notice any great talent and wasn’t exactly worried. Was he ever wrong.

“They beat our brains out,” Boyd said. “I mean, they just whipped us. I didn’t know Ron before then, but I made sure I met him after that game. I wanted to pick his brain, because they didn’t exactly have a bunch of great athletes -- and we were loaded – and they just destroyed us. As it turns out we both won a state championship that year.”

It would be inaccurate to say Bell never had talent; more than 60 of his players went on to play in college and Matt Harpring starred at Georgia Tech and spent 11 seasons in the NBA. But the Marist players generally exceeded their physical limitations.

Bob Reinhart, the longtime Decatur coach who later was a college coach and NBA scout, said, “Ron was a coach who got extended potential out of his players.”

Bell grew up in a little community known as Pleasant Valley, about two miles from Ringgold and about four miles from the Tennessee border. Both sides of his family were farmers and Bell’s father, Luther, was a Baptist preacher. He spent his spare time hunting and fishing and playing whatever sport was in season.

He grew into an outstanding basketball player and was an all-state selection as a senior in 1962, when he was the first player from Ringgold High School to earn a spot in the prestigious North-South All-Star Game.

That’s where he met his first mentor, coach C.K. Gant, who became a surrogate father when Bell’s own dad died between his sophomore and high school years.

“He taught me to dream and he taught me how to work hard to make the dream come true,” Bell said. “He pushed me, he encouraged me and he challenged me.”

Bell had scholarship offers, including to Georgia, but wanted to play and prepare for a coaching career. So he attended Young Harris College, then a two-year school, to play and learn under legendary junior college coach Luke Rushton, where he was introduced to many of the principles of preparation and discipline that he later embedded in his own teams. Bell played his final two years at the University of Montevallo (Ala.), which was just starting its program.

After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Bell became an assistant coach at Montevallo and pursued his dreams of becoming a college coach. But Bell’s life changed in 1974 when his wife and childhood sweetheart, Sandra Sue, died of cancer just 31 days after discovering a knot in her side.

After getting remarried to Pegi and with two young children, Greg and Kristen, Bell began to look for a more stable work environment. While on a recruiting visit to Atlanta, Bell learned that Marist coach Don Law was ready to step down when the season was over. Bell expressed an interest in the position and was interviewed and hired as head coach.

“I tell people only God could have sent a poor, country Baptist to a well-to-do city Catholic school,” Bell said.

The dynamic worked. Not only did Bell win games, he shaped lives.

Harpring said, “Ron Bell taught me more the game than any other coach I had in my basketball career. Not only did he prepare his teams for the games, he prepared them for life. I played for a lot of Hall of Fame coaches during my college and NBA career, but coach Bell has a very special place in my life, as I owe a lot of my basketball success to him.”

Derek Waugh, who played for Bell and is now the athletic director at Dalton State, said, “His ability to teach toughness, competitive greatness and self-sacrifice for the team was unparalleled. He overcame so much pain in his life and he funneled it into teaching boys how to be men.”

In 2016, the school honored Bell by naming the school’s basketball court in his honor.

Bell was inducted into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in 2011. He is a member of the Young Harris College Athletics Hall of Fame and the University of Montevallo Hall of Fame.

A memorial service will be scheduled later. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to a scholarship fund being created at Marist in honor of Bell.