IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kelvin Bell was a redshirt freshman defensive lineman at Iowa when football turned its back on him in 2001. A serious knee injury ended his playing career. “Coach (Kirk) Ferentz offered me an opportunity to be a student coach,” Bell said, “and I turned it down.”
Now, two decades later, Bell is in his ninth season on the Iowa staff and his third as the Hawkeyes’ defensive line coach.
Ferentz, in his 23rd season as Iowa’s head coach, loves to talk about the good stories that have unfolded under his watch. And Kelvin Bell is one of them.
He was going to put football in his rear-view mirror after his injury, pursue his B.A. degree in mathematics with a concentration in computer science, and move on to the real world. Bell, who came to Iowa from Olive Branch. Miss., and was in Ferentz’s second recruiting class, got that degree in 2005. During his senior year his younger brother, Scott, moved in with him and attended Regina High School in Iowa City.
“They didn’t have a strength coach, and I’d go up there and work out with my brother,” Kelvin said.
Before long, Bell was overseeing a strength program for 20 guys. Regina Coach Chuck Evans, who guided Regina to a Class 1A state title in 2005 and is the uncle of current Iowa defensive end Joe Evans, gave Bell an opportunity to be a defensive assistant on the freshman team. “I had the time of my life, just being around those young people,” Bell said. “That’s how I got into coaching.”
There was another reason his coaching career took off. Bell didn’t like the real world. “I had a taste of it and it wasn’t for me,” he said.
After leaving Regina in 2006, Bell took his turn at climbing the coaching ladder. His stops included Cornell College, Wayne State and Trinity International. He kept a phone number close by as he worked his way up the ranks.
“Through my whole coaching journey I always kept in contact with Coach Ferentz, and let him know where I was at every stop,” Bell said. “Not in anticipation of coming back here, but it’s about who you know. Coaching is a network and a business. I figured I could keep him in my pocket and maybe he could make a phone call for me here or there that would create an opportunity for me later on.”
When a second opportunity knocked at Iowa, Bell didn’t turn Ferentz down again. He accepted an offer to be a graduate assistant in 2012. He spent two seasons in that role, assisting on special teams. He took over as director of on-campus recruiting in 2014, and then became the recruiting coordinator and assistant defensive line coach in 2016.
Popular and productive defensive line coach Reese Morgan retired on March 6, 2019. Twenty days later, Bell was tabbed to replace him.
“Kelvin has done a great job in his six years in the program,” Ferentz said after promoting Bell. “He’s helped in a lot of different capacities. He’s a former player, so he has a unique perspective on our program from his angle and it also allows us to keep continuity in the staff. It’s been fun to watch him grow and I think he’ll do a tremendous job with this new opportunity.” Not everyone is faced with the challenge of filling the shoes of someone like Morgan, a staple on the Ferentz coaching staff for 19 seasons. But Bell has done so with distinction.
In his first season, he had to replace all four starters on the defensive line - Anthony Nelson, Sam Brincks, Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse. In 2020, end Chauncey Golston was the only returning starter. Gone were A.J. Epenesa. Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore. This season, Bell faces the challenge of replacing three starters again. End Zach Van Valkenburg is back. But gone are consensus all-America tackle Daviyon Nixon, tackle Jack Heflin and Golston.
“It’s not an overnight process,” Bell said. “These 15 opportunities that we have this spring are invaluable for this group. I can’t say enough about the attitude and effort. These young men bring energy and enthusiasm to practice every day, and it’s going to be needed. Because nothing great is going to be achieved without enthusiasm.”
Bell praised VanValkenburg, tackle Noah Shannon and end John Waggoner for leading the position room by example, and by voice.
“They’ve embraced that leadership role,” Bell said.
Two things give a glimpse of Bell’s approach to the game, and the relationship he builds with his players.
Before each day of practice, he gives the players a points of emphasis sheet. It includes an inspirational quote.
“They come from a lot of different places,” Bell said of the thought-provoking quote, adding, “It’s not all about Xs and Os. It’s not always eyes in the right place and pad level. You’ve got to relate to these kids on a personal level. That’s the reason for quotes every day. You can apply them not only to the game but everyday life. They inspire me, too.”
Relating to his players is another strength.
“Coach Bell, I wouldn’t be here without him to be honest,” Shannon said. Shannon views Bell as not only his position coach, but his mentor.
“He’s someone I can go to for anything,” Shannon said. “From having a bad day to getting a good grade on a test, I can come to him and tell him. He’s like a father figure to me here that I can look up to.”
In Bell’s world, coaching and playing a role in a young man’s life beats the heck out of life in the real world.
“I love this coaching thing,” Bell said. “I love being around young people. It’s an unbelievable platform to be able to mentor them, and I don’t take it for granted.”