Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
The story of Vonn Bell’s recruitment ended with the five-star safety putting on a Scarlet and Gray hat and telling a nationally televised audience he will be attending The Ohio State University.
Bell, a Rossville, Ga., native, held a press conference broadcast by ESPN in the Ridgeland High School gymnasium on National Signing Day, Feb. 6. With his family beside him and a sea of classmates in front of him, Bell announced he was picking the Buckeyes over the likes of Alabama and Tennessee, among other schools.
Bell’s justification for choosing OSU was fairly straightforward.
“I just felt more comfortable with coach (Urban) Meyer because I had spent more time with him and his staff,” Bell said.
OSU’s journey to get the 6-foot, 190-pound safety to feel that way was arduous in its task, but simple in its nature. The Buckeyes’ lead recruiter on Bell – co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers – just outworked his competition.
“I’ve seen some really good efforts,” Meyer said. “Everett Withers from start to finish, his effort on Vonn Bell, as good as I’ve ever seen.”
The tale of Bell’s courting begins a little more than a year ago.
Coming off a junior season in which he recorded 180 tackles and five interceptions, Bell was a hot commodity on the recruiting trail. His first scholarship offer came from the University of Georgia in early January 2012. After that, the offers started pouring in: Alabama (the reigning national champion). Tennessee (the hometown favorite). Florida. Notre Dame. Think of an elite college football team, and Bell likely had a scholarship offer from them, OSU included.
“Literally he would get four to five (offers) a day,” Ridgeland football coach Mark Mariakis said in an interview with The Lantern Monday.
The Buckeyes, though, didn’t become a serious contender until the hard-hitting safety visited Columbus over his junior year spring break, Mariakis said.
Bell spent a day with Meyer, touring the OSU football facilities and getting to know the Buckeyes’ program. The visit to Columbus was part of a double-digit school tour by Bell and his family. When the group returned home to Georgia after the trek, OSU’s appeal was clear.
“When he came back, (Bell and his family) realized that Ohio State was going to be in the forefront of the hunt,” Mariakis said.
From there, Withers took over.
The 49-year-old was like an “octopus” in his pursuit of the top-50 prospect, Meyer said.
“The recruiting process is about relationships. You are going to try to find out as much as you can – whether it be good or bad about a young man – you want to try to find it all out,” Withers said.
If there was a relationship to be made, Withers was there.
OSU’s co-defensive coordinator, naturally, started with Bell himself. The pair “hit it off right off the bat,” Mariakis said.
“They’re so like-minded,” Mariakis said.
From there, Withers moved on to Bell’s family and coach.
Withers talked to Bell’s mother, a teacher at Ridgeland, about what OSU could offer in terms of education. Withers connected with Bell’s father, a director of a few Boys & Girls Clubs in Northwest Tennessee, by discussing how to work with kids.
“I got to know the entire family, grandma, the whole deal,” Withers said. “Spending the time with them was really good.”
Withers might have burned the majority of his recruiting hours with Mariakis, who chuckled when asked how often he interacted with the Buckeye coach.
“Me and him talked numerous times every week,” Mariakis said. “That’s not a stretch, either. It was literally all the time.
“He’d call ‘How’s Vonn? How’s he playing? How’d the game go Friday?’ He took a real interest in him. If he could be here, what all the rules allowed him to do, he was here.”
Mariakis has been coaching for 28 years. He has had dozens of athletes go on to play high-level college football. He’s been through the recruiting process more times than he can count.
In his nearly three-decade long career as a high school football coach, the way Withers went about recruiting Bell is as good as Mariakis can remember.
“He took every opportunity he had to build a relationship with Vonn and his family, and with me. He never missed a phone call. If I called him, he’d either answer the phone or call me right back. In visit time, he came and visited,” Mariakis said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a recruiter do as good a job coach Withers did.”
The respect goes both ways.
“I would have to say in my 25 years of doing this, in this business, coach Mariakis and his staff at Ridgeland High School were probably by far the best group of people I’ve ever been around,” Withers said.
The days spent with Bell and those closest to him paid off for Withers in more ways than one. Yes, OSU got the recruit, but also, Withers is now familiar with some of the best aspects of Chattanooga, Tenn., a place less than six miles from Rossville.
“I have a new place in Chattanooga, Tenn., to get my haircut. I know where the best barbecue places are in Chattanooga, Tenn. I got around a lot of people,” Withers said.
Withers made the strongest impression during the recruitment, but Meyer made his presence felt, too.
When Ridgeland took on Sandy Creek High School in the Georgia Class AAAA State Championship Game Dec. 15, Meyer was in attendance. He sat next to Bell’s mother in the Georgia Dome stands during the game, and visited with Bell in the locker room after his team suffered a 45-10 loss.
“That was really impressive to me, to stay there and just be in the mix of our community and Vonn’s family meant a lot,” Mariakis said.
The story of Bell’s recruitment hits its climax the night and morning before Bell announced his decision.
Withers said he thought he would be made aware of what school Bell was going to sign with at about 8 p.m. Feb. 5. That didn’t happen.
Withers did receive an encouraging phone call from Bell’s father that evening, though.
“(His) dad told me at the end of the night, he said, ‘Coach, live on your body of work because you’ve done all you can do. Sleep well,'” Withers said.
Withers made a phone call of his own, too, with Mariakis on the receiving end.
“I had talked to coach Mariakis … I said, ‘Coach, if it’s going to be a good phone call, make sure coach Meyer gets it.’ I said, ‘If it’s going to be a bad phone call, just call me,'” Withers said.
The next morning, Meyer, Withers and the rest of the OSU staff were in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, anxiously waiting for what the equivalent of college football’s Christmas would entail for the Buckeyes’ program.
At one point, shortly after the sun had risen, Meyer said he couldn’t contain his nerves, or be around his assistants, any longer. He separated himself from the rest of his staff and went into a private room to work out on a stationary bike.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. Everett Withers was driving me nuts. I had to
get away from him,” Meyer said.
At about 9:50 a.m., 10 minutes before Bell was set to make his announcement on ESPN, Withers made his way toward Meyer. He heard a phone ring and Meyer answer.
It was Bell.
“You know I’m in, right?” Bell told Meyer on the phone.
Meyer’s response was simple.
“No, I didn’t know you were in. Congratulations,” Meyer said.
Withers’ yearlong stretch full of time and effort had paid off. Bell, one of the crown jewels of OSU’s 2013 recruiting class that ranks in the top-three nationally, should help the Buckeyes’ defense right away.
Bell’s decision to sign with OSU could also be a sign of more good stories to come for the Scarlet and Gray.
Going into the land of sweet tea and tangy barbecue and prying a recruit away from the strong clasps of the Southeastern Conference – winners of the last seven national championships – is no easy task in college football.
OSU did that with Bell in out-recruiting Alabama and Tennessee, Bell’s other favorites.
The Buckeyes might be one of the few programs north of the Mason-Dixon line that can keep on doing it, too.
“I think it goes back to the relationships that Ohio State staff is building,” Mariakis said. “When you get that combination of good football and the relationships with those kids, you’ve got something special.”