Grass fields and a dream
When Bill Bell set foot on Liberty Baptist College’s campus as its new soccer coach in 1980, it was nothing like what he expected. A former professional soccer player in the top flight of the English Football League (the predecessor to today’s English Premier League), Bell had played and coached against the best of the best across the Atlantic.
But after a phone call from Liberty’s dean, Bell flew to America with his wife to visit the school’s campus to consider coaching Liberty’s soccer team. He had played for world-famous teams like Leeds United and represented his country of Scotland – now all he was staring at was a grass field and a dream.
“When I got on campus, I thought, ‘What kind of place is this?’” Bell said. “I thought we’d at least have some facilities.”
After hearing a rousing sermon from Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr., however, Bell and his wife, Mary, decided to buy into the dream anyway, knowing that Bell’s task would be essentially building Liberty’s team from scratch.
When he retired from coaching Liberty 21 seasons later, he had done exactly that, recruiting players from all over the world and leading Liberty from the NCCAA all the way to NCAA DI soccer. Now a member of Liberty’s Hall of Fame, Bell’s name is synonymous with Liberty soccer’s history. But back when he was playing against the likes of Pele in Europe, he could never have imagined that his career would bring him to Lynchburg, Virginia.
Originally from Johnstone, Scotland, Bell grew up with dreams of playing professional soccer, he wrote in his memoir “The Light at the End of the Tunnel.” After turning down an offer to play for Stoke City, a professional English team, Bell played at the amateur level for a few years before Leeds offered him a contract in 1960.
“Soccer was everything to me,” Bell wrote in his memoir. “Ever since I was a small child, I had dreamed of playing for professional clubs. Every evening, my dad would have to come looking for me, as I would be outside somewhere kicking a soccer ball under the street lights after dark.”
He had his opportunity, and he took it, making over 200 appearances for Leeds before finishing out his 10-year professional career at Leicester City and Brighton & Hove Albion. Bell brushed shoulders with legends of the game – Bobby Robson, Sir Alex Ferguson, even Pele himself in a game for Scotland. He even managed for a few years for English clubs Birmingham City and Lincoln City.
But when he was fired from his role as manager of Birmingham City in 1977, he knew something was missing in his life.
“One of the most consistent things in the game is this: coaches get fired,” Bell said in a 2017 interview with GameOn. “When I lost my job, that’s when I sat down and thought, ‘What have I done with my life?’ I’d almost neglected my family – the game takes over your life. And that day I accepted the Lord as my savior. From that point onwards, my life had completely changed. My priorities had changed. It was the Lord, my family and then the game.”
Becoming a Christian transformed the way he viewed life – and it would soon move him across the ocean, all the way to a small Christian school in Virginia. When the story of how the Bells became Christians was printed in a Christian magazine in England, Liberty Dean (and part-time soccer coach) Ed Dobson read the story and concocted a plan to bring Bell to Lynchburg.
“He had watched me play, and as soon as he read the magazine, he went to Dr. Falwell and said, ‘He’d be good to start (my soccer program),’” Bell said.
Bell’s decision to take charge of Liberty’s budding soccer program came with a set of challenges totally different from what he faced in England. At the time, Liberty was playing in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) and looking to enter the NCAA. Bell did not even have scholarships for his players.
“I depended on walk-ons,” Bell said. “I didn’t know many schools or contacts in America – I had one or two contacts in England, but I was depending on God bringing (players) in.”
Bell said he used College for a Weekend as a prime recruiting period for walk-ons, and before long, Liberty was in the NAIA and then NCAA Division II.
But he knew that to make the move up to Division I, Liberty would need to expand its recruiting base. After a conversation with Liberty’s athletic director, the first destination was set: Ghana.
Bell flew into the capital city of Accra and immediately set to work. Hunting through contacts for potential players, he knew that there was a wealth of talent waiting to be discovered. Many young players had top-tier skills, but there was no infrastructure to give them a chance, Bell said.
“If they were in England, professional clubs would just grab them,” Bell said.
After jumping through endless bureaucratic hoops, however, he came back with four recruits for the recruiting class of 1982. They would become the core of his new roster that included future All-Americans Paul Annan and Samuel Johnson.
Bell’s players quickly found their feet on the soccer field, helping Bell build a program to start moving toward Division I status.
Annan reached DII All-American status for the first of three times in 1984 – the first Liberty student-athlete to ever receive the status. Annan and Johnson would both go on to find their places in Liberty’s Hall of Fame, and their team’s success would start to popularize the team around Liberty’s campus.
“Everyone wanted to love soccer,” Johnson said in his 2020 Hall of Fame interview. “Any time that you walked around campus, people would recognize you. We started having a lot of fans watching the soccer game – it wasn’t like that before. … We felt we could beat anybody.”
And those players ultimately helped Bell build a legacy at Liberty that has lasted long after his retirement.
Liberty posted a winning record in 12 of Bell’s 21 years at the helm – and his playing expertise commanded his players’ respect as he coached. Jeff Alder, one of Bell’s players who eventually took over for Bell as head coach in 2000, was often shocked by Bell’s prowess in little moments on the training field.
“When we would do demos, (Bell) was better than anyone on the field. He wouldn’t even warm up, and he’d get a ball and drive it 60 yards onto a guy’s foot, and everyone would just look at each other like, ‘Oh okay, that’s how I’m supposed to do that.’ But nobody could do it,” Alder said in a 2017 GameOn interview.
In Bell’s 10 seasons in the Big South conference once the school moved to DI in 1991, the Flames reached three championship games, with Bell receiving the Coach of the Year award in 1992 and 1999.
As much as he loved building a successful team, however, Bell ultimately wanted to reach other teams with the gospel through the sport he loved.
Telling stories about playing on the same field as Pele grabbed the attention of his opponents, paving the way for more meaningful conversations, Bell said. After one game against bitter rivals Radford University, Bell came to speak to Radford’s players in their locker room and started sharing his experiences – and then shared his testimony.
“I was finished, and I said, ‘Did anybody here accept Christ?’” Bell said. “And the whole Radford team put their hands up.”
For Bell, success was crucial – but those moments were what coaching at Liberty was all about. He had traveled all the way around the world playing and coaching soccer, but soccer was just a means to an end – sharing the gospel, no matter the situation.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been able to play at a different level. I’ve been there,” Bell said. “Young coaches get all wrapped up and depressed and go home – I’ve been through all that as a professional when my job was on the line.”
Bell’s legacy since that moment he set foot on Liberty’s campus points toward that reality. He certainly built a name for Liberty soccer, but for Bell, keeping his faith at the center of his coaching was his primary goal, no matter the situation.
“Win, lose or draw, we still had the Lord,” Bell said.
John Nekrasov is the graduating Sports Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @john_nekrasov.