Few people outside the Marion football family would have envisioned the Giants standing where they are today: one win away from playing for a Class 4A state championship.
Numerous graduation losses on both sides of the football, a surprise departure by beloved head coach Craig Chambers and most of his staff late in spring and a summer with zero football activities thanks to COVID-19 all seemed to conspire against the Giants entering the fall of 2020.
But out of the chaos arose a calming presence with a booming voice along with lots of life and football wisdom.
Giants’ coach James Bell was already familiar with the players and program, having worked alongside Craig Chambers for the past few seasons. When Chambers departed to take the head coach job at Arsenal Tech, a 6A in his hometown in Indianapolis, Bell and his nearly 40 years of coaching experience was a natural selection to step into the role at Marion.
It turns out that Bell has been a perfect fit for the Giants.
“It was very important. A lot of us seniors were confused about how the route would go, how the season would go,” said Johnny Davis, one of 22 seniors that help make up Marion’s roster. “When he got the head coaching job it was tremendously important and significant. He’s a leader and a great guy.
“He helped us understand it’s more than football. Football is just a game and at the same time it’s life and we’re growing to be young men.”
Bell played football and basketball throughout high school and admitted he likely had better opportunities to play college hoops than football. However, he followed an older sister to Central Arkansas, an NAIA school known best for being NBA Hall of Fame member Scottie Pippen’s alma mater.
Bell walked on the football team and became a four-year starter at defensive back.
“When I was in ninth grade, I knew what I wanted to do,” Bell shared before putting the Giants through a light practice Monday night. “I bought my first pair of coaching shoes and used to wear them to school.”
Bell finished his playing career and degree at Central Arkansas then started applying to be a football coach at junior high schools around the Little Rock area. The opportunity he found was much better than where he’d started looking.
“My college head coach, Ken Stephens, said ‘Hey I want you to come be a GA (graduate assistant) for me,’” Bell said. “I started coaching in the spring of 1981, been at it ever since. When he left Central Arkansas and took that (NCAA) Division I job at Lamar University, I was a Division I coach and I was 23 years old.
“Ken Stephens got me started, believed in me,” he added. “Told me I could be good recruiter. Told me I would do well as a college coach. He told me that I went to coach for him.”
Bell’s career has included stops in Houston and Dallas, where he coached high school football. He was the first minority hired in the athletic department and as a professor at Northwest Missouri, where he was a defensive coordinator. Bell worked at Louisville under Howard Schnellenberger, at Indiana under Cam Cameron and at Wake Forest under former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell. Bell was also a head coach at Taylor University.
“All the coaches I’ve worked under have put an impression on my career,” Bell said.
He also naturally understood why Chambers decided to take the job at Tech.
“I know how it is when you have to make decisions concerning your family, I’ve done it many times,” Bell said. “Had chances to go to the NFL, had chances to go to bigger schools with a lot more athletic players.
“I chose to go with people who were more like me, had that faith and really cared about kids. That’s my number one purpose, I want to make sure the kids become men.”
Understandably, with a change in coaches and putting several new players on the field who had limited or no varsity experience, the Giants started slowly with losses to county-rival and 2A-power Eastbrook along with a top-five 6A team in Lawrence North, who plays in MIC, one of the toughest conferences in America.
Under Bell’s guidance, things quickly started improving. The growth was tangible from week-to-week, sometimes even quarter-to-quarter.
“Coach Bell is a different type of teacher. He teaches us like we are a college team,” said senior Josh Balfour. “He wants to help us understand for the next level. He wants us to be already prepared.
“He pushes us more. He’s tough but he’s still a lovable guy,” Balfour added. “He still lets us joke around every little now and then, but it’s about business at the end of the day. It’s kind of fun, but he gets us ready.”
The Giants followed the season-opening losses with three-straight wins before falling to another top-five 6A program in Lafayette Jeff. Though disappointed with the outcome, the Giants emerged from the game with the belief that big things were achievable.
“That was a dog fight. I remember every play from that game,” Davis said of the Lafayette Jeff game. “It hit us that if we’re competing with a team like this, we’ve got a real shot, real potential. That game and the game against McCutcheon we came together as a team and we fought play-after-play and quarter-after-quarter.”
After Friday’s 28-20 regional win at East Noble, the Giants carry a seven-game win streak into the 4A Northern Semistate at Hobart.
What once seemed improbable is now very possible. It’s a credit to Bell, his assistant coaches and the buy-in from every player on the Giants’ roster that’s led to their opportunity.
“Football is an 11-man sport. You’ve got to trust the guy next to you,” Davis said. “You’ve got to rely on each and every single one of your teammates, from the starters to the one that doesn’t play. Every person on the team counts. It’s all preparation. Everybody is part of the process and everybody is part of the reason we keep winning.”
Bell said he couldn’t put into words what this season has been like for the Giants and how they’ve risen above the adversity they’ve faced.
But he definitely sees the growth and beams with pride when talking about the effort the team has given.
“I told them from the beginning of the year, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Bell said. “…The kids bought in, that’s the bottom line. If your kids believe in you, they buy in, then I guarantee you’re going to have some positive results. That’s really it.
“We had to do a better job coaching this year because we don’t have some of the key spots we’ve had in the past,” he continued. “They believe in one another and that’s what you want, for them to believe in one another.”