THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Jerry Bell was just shy of his 16th birthday as a sophomore football player at Whitmer High School in 1988 when he first formulated his dream career.
Bell, who was a senior two-way starter for the Panthers two years later, made it a goal that sophomore year to one day become a teacher and Whitmer's head football coach.
The first part of that goal was reached shortly after he graduated from the University of Toledo, and these days Bell is a social studies teacher at Jefferson Junior High, one of Whitmer's two feeder schools.
The second part had to wait a while — 16 years to be exact — as Bell toiled faithfully as a loyal assistant.
Assessing his rookie campaign as head coach, Bell now knows the best things in life are worth waiting for. Getting his dream coaching job has coincided with a dream season for the Panthers.
Whitmer (13-0), Ohio's third-ranked Division I team, will play in its third straight state semifinal at 7 p.m. Saturday against seventh-ranked Mentor (12-1) at Arlin Field in Mansfield.
For his role in that success, Bell has been named coach of the year in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference, and on the Division I all-district team.
He is also the 2012 All-Blade coach of the year. Bell got the nod for the Blade honor over several other worthy candidates.
That group includes Greg Dempsey of Division II state semifinalist Central Catholic, which Whitmer beat for the TRAC title. The others were Tory Strock of Napoleon, Kevin Kline of Bryan, Ken James of Northwood, and Kris Alge of McComb, four teams which produced unbeaten regular seasons and league championships. McComb remains alive in the D-VI semifinals.
Some might assert that taking over a program that had gone 25-3 the last two seasons and reached two state semifinals, wouldn't be a job with a high degree of difficulty.
After the 2011 Panthers graduated six players who moved on to Division I college programs, Whitmer was picked by TRAC coaches to finish third this year. The 2012 Panthers also had new offensive and defensive coordinators. Considering all that, Bell has done a masterful job.
"We have an unbelievable coaching staff, and our kids have bought into the program we run," Bell said. "So, the transition for me was simple. I already knew all the kids, and I'm a community guy.
"We just went about our business, ran our program, and prepared for our season. That's what led us to where we're at today."
Bell has direct ties to Whitmer's previous four head coaches, and to all five of the Panthers' state semifinal appearances.
A 1991 graduate, Bell was a freshman and junior varsity player when head coach Pat Gucciardo, Sr., guided the Panthers to D-I semifinals in 1987 and 1988.
As a varsity player (1989-90), Bell's position coach was Jeff Robbins, who succeeded Gucciardo as head coach. Bell also served under head coaches Dan Fought and Joe Palka before being appointed head coach last winter. Bell's only time away from Whitmer was in 1998-99, when he was an assistant coach at Libbey under Terry Jackson.
"Jeff Robbins was my position coach, and so was Greg Kubicki," Bell said. "Both were very influential in my life. When I was a sophomore I had a goal of being the head football coach at Whitmer.
"I thought the only place I'd ever be a head football coach was here. That was my dream, and Jeff and Greg were extremely influential in me getting there."
Getting there took time, and plenty of effort.
"I did anything and everything I needed to do as an assistant, the so-called dirty work," Bell said. "I wanted to get my hands on everything to learn as much as I could about the game, and about handling things.
"Joe Palka knew I wanted to be a head coach, and he took me under his wing. He had me do a lot of things behind the scenes, and I loved doing all that."
Despite coming off back-to-back trips to the D-I semifinals, Whitmer and Bell actually flew under the radar early in the season.
Having graduated players like All-Ohio first-teamers Chris Wormley (now at Michigan), Jody Webb and Storm Norton (Toledo), and Mark Meyers (Michigan State), it was easy to assume Whitmer would experience a dropoff.
"Our philosophy over the years has been ‘Next man ready,' " Bell said, "and that's if the guy in front of you gets injured, or the guy in front of you graduates. You're working hard all the time honing your skills."
What does Bell see as his chief strength as a head coach?
"I allow my coaches to coach, to do their job," Bell said. "The other thing is that I'm a player's coach.
"The kids know I love them and I care about them, but I'm going to push them to compete and to win, and to play at higher level than they normally would."
Playing to a high level, with only one Division I college recruit (defensive tackle Marquise Moore, committed to Toledo) on the 2012 roster, is why Whitmer's otherwise anonymous senior-dominated team is the last remaining unbeaten team among Ohio's upper three divisions.
"This has been unbelievable," Bell said. "We've worked so hard to get where we're at. We're now in the 14th week of the season, and we're so close to our goal.
"It's been a great ride, but in our minds we have some unfinished business. It's time to push over that hump and get into that state title game."