Back in 2005, when Grantis Bell decided to quit coaching football at Coconut Creek High, he was leafing through a magazine one night looking at an article about part-time jobs.
Second or third on that list was football officiating, Bell recalled, and he told his wife that becoming a football referee might be a cool way to make a little extra cash. Little did he know that nine years later the part-time job he was considering would become a part-time, full-time job as a football official in the Southeastern Conference.
This year will mark the first full season of SEC games that Bell will work.
“We’ve got to perform,” said the former Mountaineer wide receiver. “We’re going to make mistakes because we’re human, but nobody is making mistakes intentionally.”
Much like his playing career at West Virginia University that culminated in 1988 with the Mountaineers’ run to the national championship game against Notre Dame, Bell’s officiating career has been a series of successes.
|Grantis Bell returns a punt against Pitt in 1986.
|WVU Athletic Communications photo
He began by calling pee-wee and little league football games in 2005, and a year later he was doing high school junior varsity games. The next year it was high school varsity football and then Division II games in the West Virginia Conference a few years later.
“I lost money but I had to get the experience because there is no Division II or Division III football here in South Florida,” Bell explained.
Two years of working West Virginia Conference games, along with some Arena Football League work, opened the door to Sun Belt and Southland Conference games, which then led to some American Athletic Conference (the former Big East) opportunities.
Last year, Bell became an SEC alternate official but did not work any games.
That changes this fall.
“People don’t understand the preparation that we have to do,” Bell explained. “Next week is our clinic in Birmingham and right now there isn’t a day that goes by that I haven’t spent at least one to two hours looking at video, reading rules, going over test questions or running.”
Running was certainly something Bell did extremely well at West Virginia as a wide receiver on the football team and sprinter on the Mountaineer track team.
Bell’s four-year career totals include 46 catches for 819 yards and six touchdowns as a flanker, and 38 returns for 353 yards as a punt returner. During his senior year in 1988, he shared time at flanker with Reggie Rembert, catching 15 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns. Six of Bell’s 15 receptions went for 30 yards or longer.
When Grantis first met current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen down at the 2012 Orange Bowl in Miami, he joked that Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey caught more passes in a single game than he had in a whole year. That’s because Don Nehlen preferred to pound teams with the running game and then throw the ball down the field.
“Coach Nehlen knew exactly what he was doing,” said Bell. “I’m not going to say I modeled my coaching (system) after him, but I didn’t have to curse. I didn’t have to yell and scream at guys and Coach Nehlen didn’t have to do that. He let the other coaches do that, but you knew when he spoke that you better stop, you better listen, and if you didn’t take his advice then you were probably going to end up going the wrong way.”
The right way or the wrong way for West Virginia when Bell played usually revolved around the Maryland game, which was typically played during the third week of the season. Beat the Terps and the Mountaineers were headed to a nice season; lose to them and it usually meant just an ordinary year.
“Maryland always was a thorn in our side,” said Bell. “It was usually the third game of the season and we’d be 2-0 and that Maryland game was going to dictate whether we were going 11-0, 8-3, 7-4 or 4-7.”
During a 1987 game at College Park, West Virginia jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two rapid-fire touchdowns to start the game only to lose, 25-20. That was the game when Undra Johnson’s fumble near the Maryland sideline mysteriously stopped dead six inches from going out of bounds and the Terps were able to pounce on the ball.
The following year, in 1988, Maryland jumped out to a 14-0 lead and it looked like another promising season for the Mountaineers was headed down the tubes. “We were like, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’” said Bell. “Then we rolled over them.”
West Virginia rolled over everyone that season, including annual nemesis Penn State.
“That wasn’t a typical Penn State team and we knew before we played them that we were going to handle them that year,” said Bell.
After completing his eligibility and playing a little professional football, Bell began coaching and teaching in Florida. When he was at Coconut Creek he had a couple of big-time players, one, Darrell McClover, who played at Miami and later for the Chicago Bears, and Hanik Milligan, who starred in college at Houston and later excelled in the pros with the San Diego Chargers.
None of Bell’s players ended up at WVU, however, because of an oversight by a former Mountaineer assistant coach. During his rounds through Florida, the assistant visited Bell’s staff at Coconut Creek and made the mistake of not knowing who Grantis was. He had embarrassed Bell in front of his staff by asking him where he went to school.
“I’ll never forget that,” Bell chuckled. “I was pretty mean back then and I was like, ‘You don’t have a clue?’”
Today, there are dozens of former Don Nehlen players working in the Florida high school system and fortunately for WVU, Dana Holgorsen’s assistants know who all of them are.
“Whenever I think of West Virginia football I think of Don Nehlen. Period,” said Bell. “I don’t think of anybody else. It’s Don Nehlen.”
These days, Bell, now a guidance counselor in the Broward County school system, spends at least an hour or two each night looking at video, studying for tests or planning for the weekend game. He says it can be a grind.
“I try to take one night when it’s just me and the family, but generally on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday night when everybody is in bed I am watching video,” he said. “I’m watching the previous game report to see what I did right and what I did wrong or going over test questions to be ready for when we get to the school site on the weekend.”
From April to January, it’s all football on the weekends for Bell.
“I’ve got to be at the site by 5 o’clock because we all want to go to dinner together,” he said. “After dinner we’re going to go look at film and then go over our weekly test. After that we go to bed, wake up the next morning at whatever time your game is and then we’re going to look at more film and go over all of our responsibilities. We get to our site three hours before the game and we’re ready to go.”
And when the game is over, it’s right back into the film room.
“We’re going over all of the files, ‘OK, there was a defensive holding call in the second quarter with three minutes left.’ We look at it. Was it a good call? Was it a bad call? We do that for about an hour and a half after the game,” Bell said.
After catching a flight back to Florida and once work is finished early Monday evening, Bell’s mind is right back on football.
After all, he has another game to get ready for.