Meet local coach Jeff Bell

A life of church, gym, & farming leads to a storied hoops career

Meet local coach, Jeff Bell

Story and photo by Michelle Ince

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A rural farm just outside of the small West Texas town of Dimmitt may not sound like the most conventional place for one of the winningest coaches in Texas high school basketball history to come from, but that’s exactly where Jeff Bell found not only his passion for the game, but his drive to win, too.

“My dad was a farmer,†Bell said, adding that it was on that farm that he learned the meaning of hard work.

“We had seven plots of land,†he said. “It was hard work.â€

Bell had two older brothers, and he said it wasn’t until later that he realized they always gave him the worst jobs.

From changing the irrigation system around to being on a tractor all day, Bell said it instilled in him a work ethic like nothing else could.

He also recalled that his father was very particular.

“My dad was picky,†Bell said. “You had to go up and down those rows just right. I think that’s why I’m picky on things.â€

Farming, however, was not where Bell’s heart was. Dimmitt in the ’60s and ’70s was known as a basketball powerhouse, and he said that’s when he fell in love with the game.

Bell fondly remembers his mother rebounding for him for hours on a homemade basketball goal his father made for him.

“That’s when I was about 4,†he said. “I always looked up to those older guys. I went to every game, and we never missed a game. So that’s what made me want to play. We would work on the farm all day and then head to the gym and play for three to four hours.â€

He said life for him in those days was church, gym and farm, and he added that he’s proud of where he grew up because it allowed him to absorb basketball.

“Back in those days, our big rival was Morton,†Bell said. “In those days only one team made it to playoffs, and either Morton was ranked No. 1 or Dimmitt was ranked No. 1, so whoever won the playoffs would end up going to the state tournament.â€

He said Dimmitt had been to the state tournament more than any other team in Class 3A at the time, and the coach, Ken Cleveland, became Bell’s hero.

Cleveland also happened to be the first one to see coaching potential in a young Bell. It was Cleveland’s encouragement and mentoring that started Bell on a storied hoops career that includes 953 career wins and four state championships along with a Texas Cup.

After graduating from high school in 1978, Bell started his college career at Lubbock Christian University, where he played basketball. LCU wasn’t a great fit, though, so Bell moved on to Abilene Christian University, where he focused on finishing his degree and becoming a coach full time.

It was at ACU where Bell met and fell in love with his wife, Jennifer.

“I just took one look at her, and I knew,†he said.

“We had one date and never dated anyone else,†Jennifer Bell added. “We knew each other for one month and got engaged.â€

By that spring they were married, just in time for her husband’s graduation.

Compared to farming, Bell found coaching to be easy, but it wasn’t because of what he learned in college.

“When you go to college, you think they’re going to teach you how to coach, but they don’t,†he said.

What he did know about coaching he learned back in high school by watching Cleveland, Bell said.

“I really watched my high school coach a lot,†he said. “His values were the same as mine. He would always say, ‘Do what’s right.’ He was my hero.â€

Cleveland was 57 when he died after being struck by lightning.

“I hated when I beat his record,†Bell said. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to surpass his legacy.â€

Lorenzo, Texas, was the next stop for the newly married coach and his wife, but that assistant coaching position only lasted a year before Bell took a job in Smithville as the head coach there.

“The season before, they only had six wins,†Bell said.

Under his guidance, Smithville reached the regional tournament for the first time ever, and it was from there that Bell’s legacy began to grow. Making the playoffs, no matter where he went, became the norm for his teams.

Bell eventually landed at Brock, where he won his first Class 1A state title. By the next year, Brock had grown to a Class 2A school, but that didn’t stop his team from clinching back-to-back state championships.

Being successful propelled Bell to other districts, and he credited his wife with being the rock that helped him live out his basketball dreams.

“She was always willing to follow me and let me get to have this experience,†Bell said.

His wife laughed upon hearing him say that.

“I went,†she said, “but sometimes it was kicking and screaming.â€

As an educator herself, and later an administrator, Jennifer Bell said it could be very hard at times to leave friends and go start over, but she did it even while raising three boys along the way.

“Being a coach’s wife has a reputation,†she said, laughing. “Coaches’ wives and preachers’ wives … they don’t have a name, and they’re expected to support everything.â€

After leaving Brock, the Bells found themselves east of Dallas, away from their sons and their families. It was during this time that Graford found itself without a head coach, and Bell saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime.

“This is a ‘bucket list’ job for me,†he said. “This is the closest thing to ‘Hoosiers’ I’ve ever seen. The crowd, the fans, they’re something else.â€

“Coach Bell has brought home what this community has been wanting since 1965, which was our first taste of a state championship run,†school board member Jeff Lemley said of Bell. “He has brought this community together like we haven’t seen since Charles Hearne, and he will always be able to call Graford home.â€

Two of Hearne’s teams played in the state semifinals.

“It’s an honor to have Coach Bell leading our young men on the basketball floor as well as molding their lives in a positive way,†said fellow school board member Travis Rogers, who also was a state qualifier under Hearne. “His style of basketball is exactly what ex-players like me think of when we think of Graford basketball, which follows a very close path to Coach Hearne, who we hold dear to our hearts.â€

When asked about his coaching style, Bell replied, “I coach by feel. I thrive on pressure. I love the playoffs. I love that feeling when everything counts.â€

He said he really doesn’t draw up plays, either.

“I see what’s happening and how we need to adjust,†Bell said.

A big part of Bell’s style is his relationship with his players. Jarod Westmoreland is Bell’s assistant coach, and he said what makes Bell so special is his innate ability to motivate his players.

Said Bell: “Every player is different, and you have to know how to motivate each one differently.â€

“There aren’t many coaches left in the whole country that are like him,†said Graford junior Brad Lemley. “Coach would push us past our limit every single day during practice in order to get as close as possible to guaranteeing victory every time we stepped on the court, even if that meant he had to hurt some feelings.â€

Practice is critical, Bell said, adding that his practices are hard because he wants the games to feel easy after that.

“Besides the success we’ve had the past two years, the biggest impact is how passionate Coach Bell is with practice,†Westmoreland said. “I always enjoyed coaching during practice, but watching him fired up during practice is unmatched.â€

Added Lemley: “Every time we entered the gym (during practice or on the players’ own time), we were on a mission. He had the whole team convinced we could accomplish anything through hard work.â€

Bell said his Graford players love the game, and they’re willing to work hard to be successful.

“These boys will be in the gym on their own time for hours,†he said. “Not because I ask them to, but because they want to.â€

After winning the state tournament last season, Bell lost four starters to graduation, and many wondered about Graford’s chances for back-to-back championships, but Bell said he never had any doubt.

Added senior Colin Roberts: “Coach gave us spring break off, and then he texted and wanted to know if we wanted to do it again.â€

Bell said what he sees in players is potential, and there are some players on rival squads that he watches and thinks, “I’d like to have that kid on my team.†But he added that knowing how to motivate the young men he has is what makes leaders on the court.

“We were down by seven at one point in the state final,†Bell said, “and one of my players came up to me and said, ‘We’re going to win.’ These kids here, I can’t describe how good they are and what they mean to me.â€

“This team this year did everything by the book,†he added. “I never had to worry about them doing dumb stuff. When you have players who are coaches, you’ve got a team that’s special.â€

With four returning starters, Bell said he’s excited about what lies ahead for his squad next season.

“He is truly greatness and dedication personified,†Lemley said. “As players, we all love and respect him for all that he has done for us.â€

When asked if he has any plans to retire, Bell replied, “When I lose that fire, I’ll know it’s time to move on. I look forward to practice. It’s just an indescribable feeling.â€

Bell said he still receives at least 10 text messages a day from former players, and he added that he makes it his mission to reach out to at least one former player a day.

Bell’s wife, meanwhile, is hoping for retirement at some point.

“We’ve only ever been on two vacations,†Jennifer Bell said. “There’s spring league, fall league, TABC camps. There’s always something.â€

As far as the community of Graford is concerned, though, Bell has a job for life.

“To be in my shoes the last couple of years watching Coach Bell has been special,†Westmoreland said. “He is an unbelievable basketball coach and man of faith.â€