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QUARTERBACK WORKED WAY TO TOP : BELL OF THE BOWL : He Led Florida to 2 Great Seasons, but Few Football Fans Saw Them

December 20, 1987|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

There have been no bowl games in the tobacco field-to-football field success story of popular University of Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell, the guy known to his teammates as Country.

When he left the farm to try his luck as a walk-on football player five years ago, he embarked upon a storybook adventure that has brought him everything but bowl games.

Bell was voted player of the year in the Southeastern Conference in his freshman year, after leading the Gators to a 9-1-1 season and their first conference title. He was a Heisman Trophy candidate after his stunning sophomore year, another 9-1-1 season. He was reaching legendary status after his junior season. They were writing country-western songs about him.

Now, he holds the career passing record not only for the school but for the SEC, having passed for 7,585 yards.

Victories, records and awards galore. Fame and adulation. Along the way, he married his high school sweetheart, Cosette Odom, who was also a Gator majorette. (The ushers wore blue, the bridesmaids wore orange in a ceremony in their hometown of Mayo, Fla.)

He has won games and hearts.

But no bowl games.

Bell will be playing in his first bowl game on Christmas Day when he leads the University of Florida against UCLA in his last game as the Gator quarterback.

The spoiler in this rather happy tale is the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., which put Florida on probation just as Bell was establishing himself as the knight in shining armor.

As Bell put it earlier last week: "After the first couple of games I played, the sanctions were upon us."

The sanctions were upon the Gators for a long list of violations that included spying, ticket scalping and paying players out of a slush fund. All those violations occurred before young Country ever stood in line for one of the hand-me-down jerseys left for the walk-ons.

The sanctions, announced in October of 1984, cost the program a chunk of money and kept the Gators out of postseason games and off TV the next two years.

The years in question--1984 and 1985--turned out to be two of the best in Florida football history and two outstanding years for the walk-on who became a star quarterback.

When Bell walked on at Florida, after a successful career at tiny Mayo-Lafayette County High School, he was considered the No. 8 quarterback in camp, behind five scholarship players and two other walk-ons.

During his redshirt year, he worked his way past the other walk-ons. And by the time the No. 1 quarterback, Dale Dorminey, wrecked his knee before the '84 opener, Bell was next in line. That was when wide receiver Ricky Nattiel told Bell: "Country, you're going to have to grow up fast."

And he did. As a freshman, Bell completed 98 of 184 passes for 1,614 yards and 16 touchdowns. He led the Gators to their first conference championship, but that title--and the right to play in the Sugar Bowl--were negated by the sanctions.

As a sophomore, Bell completed 180 of 288 passes--that's 62.5%--for 2,687 yards and 21 touchdowns. Again, no bowl game.

And no national television audiences for those incredible seasons. Hard to win a Heisman Trophy with nobody watching. Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier won the Heisman in '66 with numbers that Bell has long since topped.

His junior season, when there was a chance to play in a bowl game, the Gators were 6-5. This season, the Gators were 6-5 again.

The sanctions figure into the drop-off in success, too. The scholarship limitations were starting to be felt.

Florida Coach Galen Hall said of Bell: "Here is a person who did not have anything to do with the sanctions, who has suffered more than anyone else. He's had to play his last two years with young people. If he didn't have the sanctions, it's hard to tell what he would have done.

"Kerwin Bell probably had about the same year he had in '84 when everyone talked about what a great player he was. But we don't have as good a team this year. We dropped 20-some passes."

The dropped count generally is at 23, including half a dozen touchdown passes. In his first couple of seasons, Bell was passing to the likes of Nattiel, now with the Denver Broncos, and Frankie Neal, now with the Green Bay Packers.

But Bell is not one to make excuses or complain. He just explains, in that slow, country way of his, that these young receivers will be good someday.

Too bad for him they weren't that good this year.

Maybe he should have walked his talent onto a different football field?

Bell says not.

"If I had a chance to do it over, I'd make the same decision over," he said. "I've enjoyed my time at Florida. It's been a great career."

This season, there was another star on the Florida team. Freshman running back Emmitt Smith burst upon the scene in his first couple of games the same way that Bell burst upon the scene in his debut. Smith was talking multiple Heisman trophies early on. But, at no point, was there a power struggle between the two stars.

"Kerwin was the team leader all year," Smith said.

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