After his first-period class ended on a late November morning, Ronnie Bell received a message from his high school football coach: the University of Michigan was interested him.
Bell, one of the top basketball recruits in the state of Missouri, laughed off the inquiry, certain that Josh Hood organized an elaborate ruse. But Hood was persistent — the Wolverines were calling, and it wasn’t John Beilein who was interested.
Park Hill's Ronnie Bell catches a touchdown pass during a game last season in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Star/John Sleezer Enlarge
“I was very surprised,” said Bell, who had been committed to play basketball at Missouri State. “I went through the entire football season, and it wasn’t until a month after football season ended [that Michigan reached out]. Mentally, I was like, ‘Dang, football isn’t going to happen.’ I can’t even explain how surprised I was. I was like, ‘What?!’ I thought for sure I was being pranked.”
It was no hoax. First, director of recruiting Matt Dudek contacted Hood to gauge the receiver’s interest — through the roof would be an apt descriptor — then Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton got involved. Because of the unusual circumstances of Bell already signing a national letter of intent for another sport, the coaches were not able to contact him directly.
When Bell edited his Twitter bio to read “University of Michigan commit,” reporters and fans were left asking, Who?
“When you see the film and you see all the things he did and what opposing coaches say about him, it became a no-brainer for Michigan,” Hood said. “We wondered where everyone else was during the process.”
After Bell caught 89 passes for 1,605 yards and 21 touchdowns, part of a senior season that included 2,347 all-purpose yards, he still didn’t receive any Division I football offers — not even from local schools Missouri, Kansas State, or Kansas. Bell, who attends Kansas City (Mo.) Park Hill, was honored with the Simone Award, presented to the best player in Kansas City.
Ronnie Bell (55) of Kansas City's Park Hill High School was committed to play basketball at Missouri State before being notified that Michigan's football team wanted him, as well.
Kansas City Star/Allison Long Enlarge
Once Michigan latched on to Bell, Notre Dame, Penn State, Nebraska, and Kansas State became more interested. But they arrived at the party just as the music ended.
“Even if I made official visits to other schools, I knew I would fall back to Michigan,” Bell said. “So I didn't see any reason to even mess with it and go visit. Staying committed to Michigan was probably the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
Missouri State basketball coach Paul Lusk graciously released Bell from his scholarship.
“Ronnie is a winner,” Lusk said. “Whether it’s on the football field or on the basketball court, he competes at a special level.”
An added quirk to Bell’s commitment was his inability to sign a national letter of intent during the early signing period. Athletes are prohibited from signing more than one per year, so Bell will sign Feb. 7. In December, he signed his financial aid agreement with UM.
At Michigan’s signing day press conference, a funny moment occurred when Harbaugh said to a reporter, “You didn’t mention Ronnie Bell.” The assembled media, surprised, then asked if he had signed his letter of intent. When sports information director Dave Ablauf confirmed he had not, it drew a chuckle from reporters and a grin from Harbaugh. By rule, coaches cannot discuss a player who hasn’t signed.
The Kansas City media was critical of the lack of interest from Missouri, Kansas State, and Kansas. Bell also said a slight from Missouri receivers coach Andy Hill, who called him too slow, provided constant motivation.
Bell is a two-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, and a three-star as evaluated by 247Sports.com. He operated under the radar largely because he didn’t attend camps, which are college football’s version of AAU basketball, where coaches flock and offer scholarships like Lloyd Christmas hands out $100 bills. Instead, Bell allowed his game tape and work ethic to showcase his skills for coaches.
“When that first offer hit, it was going to be big,” Hood said. “And he never got the first offer he wanted. That’s when he took his second love, basketball.”
Northwest Missouri State, a Division II powerhouse, extended a two-sport opportunity to Bell. But he declined, saying he didn’t see how it would work. The sports overlapped and classes added to the workload, Bell said.
After a productive summer on the AAU circuit, Bell opted to commit to Missouri State for basketball. But college football always occupied a part of his possible future.
“When [Michigan] came in, Ronnie had a breath of fresh air because that’s what he wanted to do — play Division I football,” Hood said. “Michigan went straight to the top of the list. The actual school itself was shocking. Not because of the size of the school, but just because we hadn’t had traction from them on Ronnie. The fact that he was getting attention from that level was not surprising. We’d seen what he could do and what might be on the horizon.”
Hood marvels at Bell’s football IQ, crediting Bell’s father, Aaron, who coached at Division II Missouri Western. Bell would examine plays on the sideline on an iPad with Park Hill’s quarterback and the offensive staff, and he routinely attended coaches meetings on Sunday, the only player Hood can recall being so active in game planning.
Perhaps most startling is Bell’s penchant for embracing contact, not exactly the norm for a position known for prima donnas. Bell had 19 pancake blocks his senior season. His leaping ability and route running also earned positive reviews.
“I feel like I’m a player that does it all,” said Bell, who will arrive in Ann Arbor in June. “I’m very physical from a blocking standpoint. That’s something I take a lot of pride in. Shoot, I’ll catch anything that’s thrown to me. Once it’s in my hands, I feel like I’m good at making plays.”
That’s no joke.
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