Image Credit: GatorVision
More than 20 years ago, Corey Bell was a high school football recruit with a tough choice to make: stay in state and remain committed to the Florida Gators in the wake of upheaval at the coaching position and probation for the team or head to South Carolina, a perennial middle-of-the-road team that was in the process of joining the Southeastern Conference.
Bell ultimately chose the Gamecocks, and though the road back to the Gators has been long with more twists and turns – especially lately – than he likely expected, he has arrived back at Florida after all.
“When coach [Charlie] Strong was here during his first stint, he recruited me. You know, and I actually committed here. And that was a long time ago, of course, but I always wanted to be a Gator,” Bell shared Thursday. “Now I have the opportunity to be that, so I took advantage of it.”
Florida is the highest-profile job in Bell’s career but that does not mean his experience is lacking. He was head coach for two Miami high schools almost straight out of college, moved into a role as director of football operations under current Gators defensive coordinator Randy Shannon with the Hurricanes, coached defensive backs at Florida Atlantic and was just hired by Strong as part of his inaugural staff at South Florida.
Though Bell said he’s had a relationship with Florida head coach Jim McElwain “for a while,” it was obvious Thursday that he holds Strong in high regard and wanted to make sure everything was on the up-and-up with him swapping a role at USF for one at UF, especially considering the timing of the situation.
“It happened rather fast. It was a situation where I asked [McElwain] to reach out to Coach Strong because I was with Coach Strong at the time. Once they had the conversation, then Mac and I had a second conversation. So it happened within 72 hours, actually,” Bell shared, noting that Strong was “very supportive” and knew he would handle the situation “the right way.”
The Florida relationships and connections do not stop there, particularly when it comes to his cohorts on the defensive side of the ball. Shannon obviously gave Bell his first collegiate opportunity as a Miami staffer, and the two have remained close ever since.
“We’ve been friends for a very long time, of course, and I worked for him. Looking forward to getting back with him and working with him,” Bell said. “I’ve been waiting on this opportunity for a while, and it’s finally came.”
Bell is also close with co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Chris Rumph as the two were teammates at South Carolina and on the Gamecocks team that earned the program its first postseason victory in the 1995 Carquest Bowl.
“We were great friends then. We stayed in touch over the years, and now we get the opportunity to actually work together,” said Bell. “It’s been fun. We spent a lot of time laughing then and now we’re on the other side of it where we get to laugh and be in the business together. It’s a great situation for us.”
Now that Bell is getting settled with the Gators, he’s quickly learning how serious the expectations are to continue the “DBU” tradition. Though he admits that replacing guys like Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson is not an easy task, Bell is confident that Florida has a mix of talent that should serve the team well next season.
That does not mean McElwain has taken it easy on him, as he admitted Thursday that he’s given Bell a good ribbing about the pressure he’s under just days into his new job.
“I actually busted his chops a little bit today about the fact that I think there’s a bunch of first- and second-rounders that have come out of here at that position, so he’s got a heck of a tradition to uphold and yet has some great guys to work with,” McElwain said.
With Shannon spending time in the secondary as well as with the linebackers, the transition for Bell and the defensive backs should be rather easy. And while on-field coaching is the majority of Bell’s job, he was also hired because of his ability to recruit down in South Florida.
Bell is such as well-liked recruiter in the area that Luther Campbell — better known to some as Uncle Luke, the frontman of 2 Live Crew – recently said UF should clean up in the South Florida area and that Miami was facing an uphill battle now that Bell was with the Gators.
Asked about Campbell’s comments, Bell began with a timid reply but got into explaining why he is able to connect with high school players and their parents.
“Maybe because I’m a good guy? I would think. It’s just due diligence. It’s just doing what I need to do,” he said. “People respect you and the things you do [when] they know you’re truly invested in your kids and helping them grow toward maturation. That’s a big part of it. And of course, Luke is a close friend of mine. When you’re doing things the right way, people respect that, and you’re doing it at a high level and doing it consistently. Those things are probably the reason he said what he said.”
A lot remains to be seen about Bell and Florida. Though the Gators do have plenty of talent remaining in the secondary, it is a unit that may wind up losing four first-round defensive backs and a number of other accomplished players to the NFL in a span of just two years. He will immediately be faced with coaching up a number of young players in that position group and continuing to recruit the secondary at a high level out of South Florida and beyond.