Chris Bell: Many deserve credit for championship
December 08, 2010 - By Joe St. Henry
Special to the Review
Please forgive Lake Orion varsity football coach Chris Bell if he looks a little weary these days. A whirlwind of accolades and activity has overwhelmed him and the Lake Orion Dragons football program since the team won its first state title less than two weeks ago.
Judging by his packed email and voice mail boxes, a lot of people around Michigan were thrilled to see the football program finally reach the top. The congratulatory notes and messages came from former coaching colleagues and current rivals alike.
Family, friends, former players and other well-wishers from the Lake Orion community also have seized his attention. Media have been calling, too. Multiple Coach-of-the-Year honors came streaming in last week, capping off an incredible four months.
"When you win a championship, the stars align, you get the right match-ups and there's some luck involved too with memorable plays you'll never forget," he explained. "We've been on the other side and lost in the playoffs in the past, so I know it's not easy to get there."
Typically low-key, Bell has appreciated all of the attention, but he knows so many more people deserve recognition for the football team's title run.
Sitting in his office after a long day as one of the high school's assistant principals, he still had plenty of energy to profess his own admiration for the hard work of others who contributed to the team's success.
"Our coaching staff, the athletic director, the administration, parents and the players themselves are the ones that make this football program special. They deserve as much credit as I for this season."
He was quick to point out the years of hard work put in by his coaches, led by Dave Tooley and John Blackstock, both of whom have coached with Bell since he took over the program 13 years ago. Tooley and Bell played football together at Albion College and were roommates. They married cousins.
"Dave and I would sit in our dorm rooms and draw up schemes," Bell said. "Our goal was to coach together after college. I'd run the offense and he'd run the defense."
The head coach said Tooley and Blackstock are the ones who should be credited for Lake Orion's stellar defensive play this season, particularly in the playoffs. Together, they have evolved the defense into one of the fastest and hardest hitting units in the state each year.
"If you're playing Lake Orion, you better be ready to get hit," Bell said. "Those guys have tweaked the defense over the years to what it is today. They find the right group of guys each year to play tough and together. And you better like to run to the ball if you play defense for us.
" We may not always match up well size-wise with other teams, but our speed and defensive schemes have enabled us to outplay more athletic teams over the years," he added.
Bell credits the entire staff, which also includes Eric Jennings, Brad Fischer, Mike Heath, Jay Cohoe and Kevin Misiak, with running practices, breaking down film, putting in countless late nights and extra effort to get the team ready each week. Every coach, including those running the junior varsity and freshmen programs, has an ownership stake in the team's success, he stressed.
"The smartest move I ever made was to surround myself with great coaches and this staff has great chemistry," he said, admitting that they sometimes disagree in meetings and games. "We don't just bring guys in - they have to fit. They are my second family. We spend a lot of time together and our wives and kids are close."
Despite the program's long-time success, nobody has grown complacent on the staff either. They will again be attending coaching clinics and meeting with college programs this winter to absorb new ideas for continually refining how the team practices and competes.
"Our goal every year is for the team to be the best it can be," Bell said. "Then we'll see just how good that is when we play the games."
The head coach also recognizes the role Bill Reiss, Lake Orion's athletic director, has played in the football program's success during his tenure.
"Bill wants every season to be as special as they can be for the athletes," Bell said. "He wants to make every game memorable for the players and show the community we run a first-class athletic program at Lake Orion - not just football, but all sports."
Bell pointed out that this includes taking care of details - from extra footballs to a third bus for away games to arranging indoor practice facilities when needed. Those are the things that make Reiss one of the best ADs around, in his opinion.
The ongoing support of the school district's central administrators and his bosses at the high school, Principal Sophia Lafayette and former Principal Todd Dunkley, have not gone unnoticed by Bell, either.
"I want to thank the central office and the school board for thinking outside the box and letting me be both a high school administrator and varsity football coach," he said. "We work hard to develop the kids into responsible young men. I think they recognize this and have always been very supportive of the program's needs."
Since being named principal at the high school last year, Lafayette has received a crash course from Bell and others on what to expect once football season started.
"Having experienced this season, I think Sophia now fully understands what this program means to our community," he said. "She would get nervous and excited before the big games just like everyone else. I really appreciate how she took the time to speak to the players before our games."
Another key to the team's pre-game preparations during the season was the hard work of Lake Orion's PEPP Club parent volunteers. In addition to various fundraising activities, many of the group's moms organized and served the team meals before contests. Bell knows feeding the team was no easy task each week.
"The PEPP program enables parents to get as close to the team as possible," the coach explained. "We used the pre-game meals to review our game plans in detail with the players and cover the keys to winning, and the moms were right there, listening like they were suiting up."
Arguably the most important mother of Lake Orion's program is Bell's wife, Christy, of 17 years. She grew up with a football coach father and understands the demands of running a high-profile varsity program. Bell was quick to point out his wife has missed only five games in 19 seasons - three to give birth, one to stand up in a girlfriend's wedding and another to tend to a sick child. Her husband said Christy not only understands the game, but she also is his biggest cheerleader.
"I'm my own worst critic and after games at home there have been plenty of times when I've questioned a play I called or second-guessed a decision," Bell said. "I know I'm a bear when we've lost and she's loyal to a fault. She's always been there to provide a voice of reason, never letting me get too high or too low. I obviously couldn't have coached this long without her unconditional support."
Bell also knows his five kids - Kyle, Katie, Jamie, Lauren and Sydney - have sacrificed time with their father over the years. But his son, a freshman football player at Lake Orion, has grown up on the sideline with his dad, charting plays for the team. In addition, his job is to pull dad back by the shirt tail way when he starts to get in trouble with a referee.
"When the final whistle blew at Ford Field, the first thing I did was turn to my son and gave him a huge hug," he said. "Christy made her way down onto the field, but I had to work my way up into the stands to see the girls."
Given the flow of the game - there were plenty of tense moments in the second half - the reality of finally winning the championship was kind of anticlimactic for the coaches.
"It was an emotional draining experience. I was exhausted, like I had just played in the game," Bell said, noting the coaches all focused on treating this state final like any other game, rather than get caught up in all the hoopla - a lesson learned from 2008. "The momentum shifts take their toll."
The head coach makes it a point to not talk about his playing days at Lake Orion with his players. But, he always has professed the importance of living up to the legacies of other former Dragon gridiron heros and their hard work and toughness that have been earmarks of Lake Orion teams for decades.
"I want all the players who suited up for Lake Orion in the past to be proud of what today's teams are accomplishing," Bell said. "We tell our players they have a standard to live up to each season, one passed down from other great teams who also enjoyed success."
The coaching staff also pushes its team each year to live up to the expectations of the Lake Orion community, for they all know this is truly crazed football town.
"We challenge the kids to be worthy of all the attention they receive," Bell said.
With the school's first state football championship in hand, there is no question the 2010 varsity football team did that and more. Nobody is prouder than the assistant principal who loves to coach.