By Michael Alexander, Staff Photographer (Photos and Interview) | Published May 11, 2006
On the eve of a roast for Ron Bell, the head basketball coach for Marist School in Atlanta, who is vacating his coaching position after 31 years, The Georgia Bulletin (GB) spoke at length with him. Bell cited health reasons for stepping away from the relentless demands of serving as the head basketball coach; however, he will continue to teach physical education, coach boys varsity golf and assist the basketball program in a restricted capacity. Bell was recognized as the National High School Coach of the Year in 1995 and State Coach of the Year in 1989, 1994 and 2000. From his memorabilia-filled corner office in the school’s Centennial Center, overlooking the baseball field, Bell talked about his journey to coaching and his years at Marist.
GB: Where did you grow up?
Bell: About two miles from Ringgold, Ga. and four miles from the Tennessee border. Both sides of my family were very agricultural. We lived in a place called Pleasant Valley. I had a lot of relatives who lived up and down the valley. Of course, we had to work on the farm, but when we weren’t doing that, we were hunting and fishing, and when we weren’t doing that, we were playing football, basketball and baseball. Mom said I started coaching when I was 10 years old because I was coaching my younger cousins and my younger brother in sports.
GB: Did you play basketball in high school?
Bell: I played basketball. I was the first player at Ringgold High School to make the North-South All-Star Team. I played in the 1962 North-South All-Star Game. I was also All-State in basketball.
GB: Were there any coaches who influenced you?
Bell: My father died between my sophomore and junior year of high school, so my high school basketball coach saved my life. Coach C.K. Gant was the first person to talk to me about college. He taught me to dream, and he taught me how to work to make the dream come true. If Coach Gant was not at Ringgold High School in 1960, ‘61 and ‘62, Ron Bell would not be sitting in front of you today. There was no way I could afford to go to college. He pushed me, he encouraged me, and he challenged me. We are the sum of our experiences, and being Baptist I really feel like God has had a hand on me all my life. He formed me into who I became and who I was, and the people he put before me.
GB: From Ringgold High School where did you go?
Bell: I had several scholarship offers, including the University of Georgia, but I knew I wanted to coach, and I knew I wanted to play. I didn’t want to sit on the bench. So I went to Young Harris College, a private, United Methodist, two-year liberal arts college in northern Georgia. It was small and in the country, and I was a country boy. Young Harris had a legendary coach named Luke Rushton. He was called the dean of junior college coaches. I knew he would be a great mentor for me. I probably should have accepted a scholarship at a four-year institution, but it’s amazing how God works. So many of the principles, the high expectations, the work ethic, getting and asking kids to grasp beyond their reach, and the seriousness you project when you walk out on the court all came from that man. He was very demanding, very competent, and he brought that confidence out in us. Our teams were fundamentally sound.
GB: What happened after your two years at Young Harris?
Bell: From there I went to the University of Montevallo in central Alabama, a Division II school. I went there because it was a great physical education school. I just didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a great teacher. They had a tremendous program, and they were known throughout the country. They were also starting a basketball program. Once again, I didn’t want to sit on the bench. I wanted to play, and I wanted to be captain of the team. I wanted to learn everything I could possibly learn. I played left forward for the team. Our coach, Dr. Leon Davis, was a great guy, but he wasn’t as detailed or demanding as the Young Harris coach. Expectations weren’t as high. I tell people I learned how to win at Young Harris and how to lose at Montevallo. I also learned what not to do and how to handle certain situations.
GB: So what did you do after college?
Bell: All I ever talked about during college was returning to Ringgold to be a basketball coach. I married my high school sweetheart, Sandra Sue, in my senior year. When my sports eligibility ran out, I just worked and went to school as I completed my senior year. I got to know an Air Force recruiter who used to come on campus to recruit. I played on this basketball team he had. Even though I told him I just wanted to return home to teach and coach, he convinced me to take the officer’s training test. I passed the test, and the recruiter submitted my name for officers training school. I only did it to help the guy satisfy his quota. Then I graduated from Montevallo and took a teaching job at Ringgold High School. I was promised a coaching job the next year.
GB: Did you still play basketball?
Bell: There was a Southern Professional Basketball League consisting of teams from Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville, Tenn., Rossville, Ga., and Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala. I played point guard for the Rossville team. The first night I suited up to play our opponent was the Harlem Globetrotters. [Laughs] We won the league championship, and I made $50 a night. While I was doing all this, a letter came from the Air Force, “Congratulations, you’ve been selected for officers training school.”
GB: What did you do?
Bell: At first I said no way I’m doing that. I wrote the recruiting office in Chattanooga and told them I was under contract with the school until the end of May, but to consider me for a class at that time. That gave me time to think it over some more. About a month later I received an acceptance letter for the end of May. I had been around small schools and small towns all my life. I asked myself if I was selling myself short. Then I started thinking this could be a real broadening experience for me to find out what my limits were, what my capabilities were, and what my challenges were. I don’t know why, but I know God had a hand in it. Well, I took the big step, and it was the best move I ever made.
GB: What was the Air Force like?
Bell: I had a job, but I also got to play and coach basketball for three years while I was in the Air Force. We flew all over the country playing. I was offered captain and a regular commission in three years. We had one year where I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I had a team of enlisted men I was trying to teach sound basketball. We went 71-8 that year. I got a chance to try some coaching techniques in a non-pressure situation. That got me to thinking about college ball.
GB: Did you pursue a college coaching position?
Bell: I contacted the University of Montevallo. Bill Jones was the athletic director, and he promised me a graduate assistant job in August after I got out of the Air Force. But I received a call from Bill in July, and the position was no longer open.
GB: Where did you go after the Air Force?
Bell: The head coach and athletic director at Ringgold (High School) found out I was looking for a job, so he called me for a coaching job. He said I don’t have a boys basketball position, but I have a position for someone to teach girls PE (physical education), and coach girls varsity basketball, girls varsity track and ninth-grade football. I went there, took a 50 percent cut in pay and benefits and had a ball. This was the fall of 1971. The girls basketball team had a great year and we went 20-5. They offered me the boys job for the next year.
GB: You must have been happy about that. You said you always wanted to return to Ringgold to coach basketball.
Bell: [Pause] I felt I couldn’t be happy unless I was in college coaching, because I thought that’s where the real bright guys were, and I’m on an ego trip and I need to be there. Me! Me! Me! Eventually I get the graduate assistant job at Montevallo and we move there. I was also going to grad school and teaching a couple of PE classes. It was a long year. From a basketball point of view, it was fantastic. I worked a lot of hours, so I wasn’t with my wife and family very much by the time we had two children, Greg and Kristen. That spring Bill hired me as a full-time assistant basketball coach. We found this house in the country by a fishing lake. We were packing up to move out there one morning and my wife discovered a knot in her side. Thirty-one days later she was dead of cancer. Talking about being just destroyed. My high school sweetheart! Greg was 4 1/2 and Kristin was a year and nine months. All this is relative to Marist, because if she was alive I’d probably be a college coach today.
GB: What direction did you go in after your wife’s death?
Bell: I remained coaching, we had a great recruiting year, the basketball team had a good year and we had an All-American player coming back. I was managing with my own kids, but it was very difficult. Bill was offered a job at the University of North Alabama and I was offered the head-coaching job at the University of Montevallo. I went with him as his assistant because I couldn’t see myself handling my personal responsibilities and holding down a head-coaching job. We had to turn the program at North Alabama around, so there were a lot of long hours.
GB: Did you ever feel guilty about your time away from the family?
Bell: By the middle of the year I knew I had to get out of college coaching. I had remarried, and it wasn’t fair to my new wife and the kids. I was out on the road during a recruiting trip and on this particular day I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Well, you want to make a difference in young people’s lives.” And then it was just like God spoke to me. “Who’s going to make a difference in your own young people’s lives?” From then on I had to face the fact that I was chasing an egotistical dream to be a big-time coach, make a lot of money, be famous and prove to the world I knew something about basketball. So from that point on I started dealing with the reality of giving up that dream.
GB: So how did you get to Marist?
Bell: I had some friends in Atlanta and for a couple of years I came here to recruit players. I came to Marist to scout two players, Bill Fenlon and Randy Carroll. I knew the Marist coach, Don Law, because we had played against each other in high school and college. I had a talk with Don after practice, and I told him I was thinking about leaving college coaching because of the strain on my family life. I told him it wasn’t definite, but I was thinking about it. Well, Don said, “I’ve made up my mind and this is definitely my last year coaching.” He said only two people knew, the athletic director and the headmaster. To make a long story short, while I was in town I met with the athletic director, Dean Hargis, and Father (James) Hartnett. I was up front with them about how I was seriously thinking about leaving college coaching, and I’d like to be considered for the Marist job when it came open. So finally I made the decision. I notified Marist, they brought me back in for an official interview, and lo and behold I get the job. That was 1975.
GB: So what was the transition like?
Bell: I tell people only God could have sent a poor, country Baptist to a well-to-do, city Catholic school. When I first got here it was really difficult. My surroundings in previous schools had been more of a mixture of black and white. In the Air Force it was mostly black. I had been around kids who were mature at a young age. Our kids seemed immature, spoiled, and preppy. But they were still kids, and they were God’s children. I can remember praying to God. I said, “God, I don’t mean to question you because only you could have opened this door and you opened it up. But have you really thought about what you’ve done? You’ve taken a poor, country boy and put him in this situation, and I feel like a sore thumb here. I want to be where kids really need me, where I can make a difference in their life like Coach Gant made in mine.” But what God showed me over a period of time was the wisdom I had gained over my life experiences helped make me a person of purpose. I haven’t been on a mission to repay God for sending Coach Gant my way. That’s just who I wanted to emulate.
GB: What is the most important thing you’ve tried to teach your players over the years?
Bell: Even from the beginning basketball was always a tool to teach something bigger about life. To teach right and wrong; to teach respect for your fellow man; to teach respect for your opponent; to teach respect for the officials. As their coach I listened to their dreams, but I also taught them how to work toward those dreams. I never discouraged their dreams, and I prided myself on never giving up on a kid. I’ve been amazed at what kids can accomplish when we set goals that are beyond their reach, but they manage to get there. [Smiles]
GB: Is there any particular Marist team that you’ve coached over the years that stands out and why?
Bell: Boy, I get asked that question a lot. The ‘93-94 team was 32-0 and ranked number one in the state most of the year. They were beat in the final four the year before and they came back and made a commitment to go undefeated and win the state championship. And they did it. They were also ranked sixth in the nation by USA Today. But the team that is most memorable is the championship club of 1989 because it was the first. That team went to the state finals three straight years, ‘86, ‘87, and ‘88. We lost each year, plus we graduated fours seniors in each of the first two years and three in the third year. Two of those guys, Derek Waugh and Jeff Blount, were on that first state runner-up team as freshmen, so they had experienced losing three straight years. The ‘88-89 club was driven with a purpose to win the state title in 1989. I’ve never been around a more dedicated, serious, purposeful group of young men. They were the epitome of beautiful team basketball. No coach could ever, ever, ever, ever want anything more from a team than that team gave all of us.
GB: With three state titles, nine regional titles and winning 76 percent of your games over your 31-year career, what do you reflect on when you look back over what you were able to accomplish as a coach?
Bell: A blessed life. To know that I wanted to coach when I was a junior in high school; to be able to coach 38 years at one level or another—military, college and high school; to have the mentors I had; and to have the young men and their parents respond and be willing to be coached and be willing to be unselfish and to be willing to act like gentlemen in all situations. Boy, what a blessed life! And I could say the same thing even if we never won a state championship.
GB: You were 29 years old when you started coaching at Marist. What has been the biggest change in the game, in the players and in you over the years?
Bell: The game has become more flash and show than substance. It’s become more star than team. I’m old school, and I love the teamwork part of the game. The athletes are so much bigger, stronger and skilled at a young age. How have I changed? I learned how to handle my competitive nature. I’ve grown in handling how to lose and deal with frustration. When I was a young coach, I found myself wanting to beat the other coach. I had to get past that because if you love coaching, you have to respect the other coaches for what they’re trying to do too. You can’t compete on the basis of grudges and hate. I learned to compete on a level of intelligence and respect. I’ve been on a quest to try to get better every day as a coach.
GB: What will you miss most about coaching basketball?
Bell: The players.
GB: What will you miss least about coaching basketball?
Bell: The long hours and the time away from my wife.
GB: How important were faith and spirituality in the makeup of the Marist basketball program when you were coaching?
Bell: They were at the center. I prayed every day for God to help me be the coach that my players needed. Before every game I prayed for me to accept the officials even when I didn’t agree with them. We prayed as a team before and after every ballgame. I would not have had the effect or influence on young people without the blessings of the good Lord. My dad was a Baptist minister, and he pastored churches. My parents were firm believers that I would grow up to be a minister. As my mother grew older and I started having success as a coach, she said, “I just can’t believe you never became a minister.” I said, “Mom, I am a minister. I just have a different congregation and a different pulpit, but I’m still doing God’s work.”
GB: In your own personal life, would you consider God a starter or a bench player?
Bell: I think God can be both. I think he can be a starter, but if he has to, he can sit on the bench and still be a team player. [Short pause] And if I need a “go-to” guy, he can do that too. [Laughs]
THREE-POINTERS IN OVERTIME
Coach Bell was once assessed a technical foul in the closing minutes of a game for violating the bench decorum rule, a national rule that stated high school coaches could not stand up during a game for any reason. Marist lost the game by one point. After that game Coach Bell’s son took the rear seat belts out of one of their vehicles, he put them on a blue chair and Coach Bell buckled himself in during games. They carried the chair to home and away games until the rule was eventually changed.
At the bottom of every Marist basketball scouting report Coach Bell had the words of Jesus printed from Matthew 7:7 (Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened.).
Coach Bell will conduct his War Eagle basketball camp for the 21st time this summer. There will be three sessions, two in June and one in July.
For further information call (770) 936-2275 or go to www.marist.com on the Internet. Click on Athletics, then Summer Camp.