UMass football officially introduces Walt Bell as 30th coach in program history
AMHERST — Walt Bell has not quite moved into his office at the Jacobson Performance Center. The new University of Massachusetts football coach, though, said he's more than ready to get rolling.
One of the top things on Bell's to-do list is recruiting, because the early-signing period is wrapping up.
"We're going to be really deliberate. Are we going to hit the road before the early-signing period? Yes. Am I worried about the early-signing period in terms of how many kids we sign? That's not the deal at all," he said. "The most important thing we do is that when we're done in February, the student-athletes that want to be here, have a chance to be successful here and can make our football program better for the long term. If that means we sign all of them Dec. 19, or we sign none of them there, when fall camp starts we have to have the right people there to do what we need."
Bell, 34, made his debut Wednesday afternoon as the 30th coach in UMass football history. Bell arrives here after spending the last season as the offensive coordinator at Florida State. He also spent two years as the offensive coordinator at Maryland and at Arkansas State. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Memphis, and also worked at Oklahoma State, Southern Mississippi and North Carolina.
The new UMass coach replaces Mark Whipple, whose second tenure as head coach ended last month. The Minutemen were 4-8 under Whipple for the second consecutive year. Whipple's Division I-FBS record was 14-44, and his overall UMass tenure was 65-70. That included the 1998 Division I-AA national championship.
Bell is signing a five-year contract for $625,000 annually. There are four retention bonuses in the contract, and also a number of bonuses tied to on-field and academic performance.
There will also be an increase in the pool of money for the staff Bell looks to put together.
While Bell applied for the UMass job this year, athletic director Ryan Bamford admitted that the new coach was on his personal radar for some time.
"Walt came onto my radar screen in 2014. I was at Georgia Tech. He was at Arkansas State. I heard through some folks at Georgia State and Georgia Southern who were in [the Sun Belt Conference] how impressive Arkansas State was offensively," Bamford said. "I had a chance to follow him from that point, from afar. You take note of new coaching talent. He was a 20-something year old offensive coordinator, and that was pretty impressive."
The new UMass coach is one of the youngest head coaches in Division I-FBS football. Unlike Whipple, Bell does not have any head coaching experience. That was something that did not bother Bamford.
"Honestly, he had the absolute best plan of attack. He was one of the only people who came in and said 'I don't care that we're an independent. I've looked at your schedule, I've looked at your roster, I've looked at where you have kids from.'" Bamford said. "He had it broken down by ratio, saying so-and-so is from here and we're getting so much percentage from Florida, Georgia, Washington, D.C., and all these different areas."
The Tennessee native, who graduated from Middle Tennessee State where he was a wide receiver, was asked about what stood out when it came to UMass and why he was ready to make the move from Florida to Massachusetts.
"Everybody else here is having some success," Bell said. "When I talked at the press conference about the momentum of the men's hockey team, men's basketball is improving, our university is improving. When they go from 52 to 26 in terms of the top public schools in the country. When your applications go from somewhere in the mid 20's to around 41 [thousand], there's great excitement.
"Rising tides elevate all ships, and hopefully, I can be a part of that."
As to what Bell considers success?
"A winning football program in terms of wins and losses," he said without hesitation. "We all know ultimately, we can have the greatest APR in the world, the greatest graduation rate in the history of college football, but if you don't win games, they'll pat me on the butt out the door. They might do it with a smile on their faces.
"To me, it's a winning football program and a culture that does things the right way."
Both Bell and Bamford were asked about one aspect of the new coach's resume — his two years under D.J. Durkin at Maryland. Durkin was fired this past fall in the aftermath of the death of 19-year old Jordan McNair. The offensive lineman died from heat stroke after a practice in May. By the time the incident occurred, Bell was already at Florida State.
"Here's what I can say about my experience at Maryland," the new UMass coach said. "Those kids that played for me there, they'll always know two things — I cared about them and I cared about them whether or not they did play. The biggest thing is that Jordan McNair, who I was partly responsible for recruiting, to me that's the part that makes the deal so tough. It's really important to understand that our kids are going to be taken care of."
Bamford was also asked about Bell's Maryland tenure, and the A.D. said that he talked to countless people about what transpired.
"Everybody I talked to, in and out of the program that I trust, even got connected to some current and former players and families, first of all, his name was nowhere in any of the reports," Bamford said. "I talked to media members that were saturated in that whole deal. I vetted that thoroughly and the family members and the kids that played for him said he was the one guy that most of us would run to. He was a guy who loved us. He was honest with us every day, even if we didn't want to hear it, but we knew he loved us."
Bell said he has an idea of who he wants to bring aboard on his UMass staff, but declined to name names.
He made his debut as the UMass coach resplendent in a maroon suit. Bamford joked that last year, basketball coach Matt McCall had introduced maroon pants into his coaching wardrobe.
As to the maroon suit? Bell said he didn't go out and get it just for Wednesday.
"The debate this morning was do you go presidential? Blue suit, white shirt, school-color tie," he said. "Or do you wear what you want to wear and have fun? I wore what I wanted.
"I was lucky it was in the wardrobe."
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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