Keeping Score: The Bell finally tolls

Published: 11/12/2021 4:53:10 PM

Good morning!

Walt Bell walked the green mile on Saturday, his final trek from the UMass sideline to the locker room. The last offensive play he called was intercepted. The last game he coached was a 35-22 loss to a team UMass had beaten 49 times in I-AA.

Bell has told friends he earned his firing, and sadly that’s the truth. He had a worse record than Charley Molnar, and Molnar was 2-22.

Athletic director Ryan Bamford said firing Bell was in the best interest of the future of the program, but it was also in the best interest of Ryan Bamford. His savior-du jour is said to be Don Brown, who took UMass to the I-AA title game in 2006. 

Almost 30 years ago Brown was hired by Steve Bamford at Plymouth State, and now pops is helping out his boy in Amherst. Brown reportedly watched the Minutemen play Toledo on Oct. 2, but this smacks of the Mark Whipple hiring. If you can’t win the game, bring in a name.

Less than three years ago Bamford said of the man he chose to replace Mark Whipple: “Walt came in and had me convinced the first time I started talking to him. You get a feel for a person. It was just a good fit, a really good alignment with the things we’re all about here and the things that I wanted for our football program… Fantastic coach, terrific credentials…”

The Boston Globe called Bell “one of the most dynamic young recruiters and offensive minds in college football.”

Bell was an imposter. He was Chance the Gardner of “Being There” and Frank Abagnale Jr. of “Catch Me if You Can.”

Twice he had to call a timeout before the game started because he couldn’t get the play in on time. The quarterback just stood there, unable to understand Bell’s frantic gesticulations. 

He was timid, unsure of himself. Twice UMass had the ball at midfield in the closing seconds of the first half and he ran out the clock rather than get the ball close enough for a field goal try. The first time, against Boston College, the fans booed him.

His players were undisciplined. One of them, Tanner Davis, rang up three penalties against URI that changed the course of the game.

The first warning something was awry was when Bell canceled the spring game his first year on the job. Spring games mark the cornerstone of the new season and give coaches a chance to showcase their team’s talent, but Bell wanted nothing to do with it.

When it comes to football and basketball, UMass fans have always been neurotically optimistic. They wear tri-corner hats and maroon-tinted shades and buy into ready-made excuses. Bell didn’t have his full allotment of scholarship players, it’s young, it’s injured, it needs to learn the new offense.

Bamford bought into it, agreeing the roster needed a “hard reset” to get rid of the “bad character guys.” One of them, an offensive lineman named Ray Thomas-Ishman, had been shot five times on the streets of Philly in high school. Rather than counsel him through his anger issues, the B-Boyz kicked him off the team. He transferred to the University of Buffalo and helped the Bulls go 6-1 and win the Camellia Bowl.

One of the staunchest UMass fans whom I call Marty Maroon called me on his way home from Saturday’s loss and delivered a rant that was Mel Gibson worthy. Finally he collected himself and said, “The alumni don’t want this team embarrassing them anymore.”

When news broke the next day that Bell was gone, an insider texted, “The guy that scheduled Pitt, BC, Florida State, Coastal Carolina and Liberty should get a hard look as well.”

That would be Mr. Bamford, who pits UMass against Top 25 teams for the sake of million dollar payouts. It’s a disgraceful business model, turning UMass into Last Chance U for kids who risk life and limb for the chance at a scholarship.

****

The 135th gridiron meeting between Amherst (5-3) and Williams (8-0) is today at noon at Pratt Field. Admission is free. The series began in 1884, the same year Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Williams is favored by 12 points and it would be more if this wasn’t such a heated rivalry. The Ephs (for founder Ephraim Williams) are coming on strong having won their last four games by a combined score of 147-31, while injury-plagued Amherst is 2-2 and has been outscored 84-58 in its last four. 

Williams leads NESCAC in several individual offensive categories. Mario Fischetti averages 6.6 yards a carry, Joel Nicholas has scored 15 touchdowns, Frank Stola is averaging 21.8 yards per catch and Ivan Shuran is 7-for-7 in field goal attempts and converted 34 extra points.

The Ephs are quarterbacked by Bobby Maimaron; sophomore Brad Breckenridge will line up under center for Amherst.

Williams was established in 1793 on what today is a 450-acre campus near the New York border. Amherst was established 28 years later by a splinter group of teachers and administrators who left Williams because they thought the school would go belly-up. This afternoon, the Ephs will remind them that their forebears were wrong. Indeed, when the Lord Jeffs nickname was deemed unworthy, a snarky Eph suggested they change it to the Benedict Arnolds.

Williams SID Dick Quinn reminded me to mention four people he’s lined up for halftime interviews with Jacob Donnelly of the Northeast Sports Network. NMH math teacher Mace Foehl (as in sail) was a standout field hockey and squash player at Williams. She coaches the NMH golf team, plays to a six handicap and has carded eight holes-in-one.

NMH girls basketball coach Grace Rehnquist will speak of her Eph basketball career and her father Jim, who was considered one of Amherst’s all-time best basketball players. East Longmeadow native and NBC correspondent Ken Dilanian will recall his fumble recovery against Amherst that preserved the Ephs’ 1989 undefeated season, and Amherst attorney Don Allison will be interviewed about his days between the posts for Mike Russo’s soccer team at Williams.

**** 

The UMass basketball team will start 10-3, finish 17-14 and go 7-11 in the A-10, as per SI.com’s ranking of all 358 teams in Division I.

The Minutemen are ranked 135th and have 11 games against nine opponents ranked higher — St. Bonaventure (23), Rutgers (41), Richmond (46), Dayton (67), VCU (83), St. Louis (95), George Mason (107) and URI (118).

The season opener was Tuesday against the University of Maryland at Baltimore County before 2,903 at the Mullins Center. The Minutemen were favored by 10 1/2 points and won 77-60. The Retrievers are ranked 240th by SI.com. 

On the women’s side, 10 of the 13 players on coach Tory Verdi’s roster got playing time during Tuesday’s 87-50 dismantling of Central Conn. State. Five players scored in double figures, and the quick-glance stat of the game was 10 rebounds by sophomore Ber’nyah Mayo.

Last season the Minutewomen were 16-8 and ranked 86th of 343 D-1 women’s teams according to allmysportsteamssuck.com. If those rankings hold into this season, they could win 20-plus games. On Thanksgiving weekend they play UCLA at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Fla. The Bruins are No. 20 in the AP Top 25.

Three key home games will be against Dayton on Jan. 19, St. Louis on Feb. 5 and Fordham on Feb. 16.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet95@yahoo.com


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