Ringing the Bells: The Bell family never veers far from China Spring

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Mark Bell never missed a game. Not as a coach, or a dad. The long-time head man of China Spring would coach his Cougars on Thursday or Friday night – usually to a win – and then catch the first flight, usually out of Dallas, on Saturday morning to attend whichever football game his two sons – Shawn and Brian – were playing in that weekend. Shawn is roughly eight years older than Brian, so the games never conflicted.  

Some of those games presented unique challenges. Shawn, who was a quarterback at Baylor, once played an early morning game in Kansas. That forced his parents, and a couple of Mark’s friends, to load up into a car on Friday night directly after a China Spring football game to drive straight through the night to attend an 11 a.m. kickoff. He did the same for Brian when his youngest son played quarterback at Sam Houston. 

“Once, we even paid the local YMCA five bucks or something to let us shower,” Mark remembered with a laugh. “Going to those games was a priority for us. We never wanted to miss a moment because we know how precious those are.” 

Tragedy struck the Bell family in the 1990’s when Mark’s daughter, Lindsay, died in an accident. Shawn was 10. Brian was 2. Mark was a young head coach at Clifton High School trying to keep his family together through the toughest loss imaginable. He says he’d still be in Clifton if not for the constant reminders of his daughter. 

“I saw her everywhere I went,” Mark said. “We tried to make it work for another year and a half, but there were too many shadows.” 

The family required new surroundings, and after a brief stop in Lampasas, the football-centric crew found a home in China Spring prior to the 1997 season.  The Cougars had struggled in their early years as a Class 3A program going 4-24 in the three seasons before the Bells came to town. He’d retire from coaching 21 years later with a 171-79 record over that time, making the playoffs 18 of those seasons. The pinnacle of his run, at least on paper, came in 2007 when the Cougars went 14-2 and reached the state championship game. 

His boys were by his side through all the success. The two grew up in locker rooms and on practice fields and in coaching meetings. Once they were in high school, both started at quarterback for multiple seasons. The perks to being a coach’s son is lifelong access to football knowledge. The downside involves criticism and a constant need to prove that the starting job wasn’t handed out on a silver platter over a summer dinner. 

“Every person that came through China Spring would tell you that I was tougher on my boys than any other player in the program,” Mark said. “. I could get the attention of the whole team by chewing out Shawn or Brian. But I could fix it at home and make sure they knew what I was trying to do.” 

The expectations and pressures and occasional butt chewings never fazed Shawn or Brian. They knew the deal. From early on in life, both Bell boys knew they’d follow their dad’s footsteps into the coaching profession. They saw his impact on young people and the community. They shared his passion for competitiveness and athletics. And they shared a love for each other that was forged in good times and in bad. 

“As much as I love the game of football, being like him was as much of a factor as the game itself,” Shawn said about going into coaching. “I always saw the impact my dad played in the lives of his players, and I wanted to do something important like that. I wanted to be just like him.” 

Faith, family, and football – literally 

Mark knew Shawn was destined to be a football coach when he noticed that his oldest son was drawing up football plays on the church bulletin board. All passes, of course, as Shawn marched towards a playing career at quarterback. Mark even used one in a seventh-grade football game while subbing in for a missing coach, or at least that’s what he let Shawn believe at the time. 

“I felt like I hung the moon when he called that ‘reverse-toss pass’ and told me it was my play,” Shawn recalled. “He may have drawn it up at halftime or something like that, but he made me feel special. He always made sure we knew that we were involved.” 

Football wasn’t the expected path for Shawn as he grew up despite his penchant for turning church into early chalk-talks. He was an excellent baseball player who helped China Spring win a state championship as a sophomore as a pitcher and a short stop. He went 2-for-3 and scored one of China Spring’s two runs in a 2-1 win over Forney in the 2000 UIL State Baseball Championships. 

It'd be the last time he ever played baseball. With a future as a quarterback at nearby Baylor, Shawn wanted to concentrate more on baseball. He continued to play basketball and run track in the offseason, but his main goal was to get bigger and stronger. His father was shocked, but Shawn was determined. He was in love with the game of football, and specifically with the quarterback position. And not for the glamour, but for the guts. 

“When we won a state championship in baseball when I was a sophomore, I was the starting shortstop and I think I touched the ball once on a relay back to first and I batted three times,” Shawn explained. “I touched the ball every play as a quarterback. I like the pressure and expectations of playing quarterback. There’s no greater position in sports.” 

Playing quarterback and being the best big brother possible for Brian were the main priorities for Shawn in high school. Throughout his baseball career, Mark noticed the Shawn did something with his bat in the dirt before stepping into the batter’s box. He later learned that Shawn was outlining the initials “LB” for his late sister Lindsay Bell on the dirt before each at bat. 

Brian remembers his older brother doing everything possible to make him feel special. Shawn, the starting quarterback at China Spring and a local hero heading to play quarterback at Baylor, would swing by the elementary school each May 24 to check Brian out of school for a boys’ trip to Peter Piper Pizza. Twenty-plus years later and Brian still lights up when reminiscing about those times. 

“For Shawn Bell to walk into your second-grade class and pull you out of school for pizza made me feel like the luckiest kid in the world,” Brian said. “e’s always made me a priority and taken care of me during different situations in my life. We’re more best friends than brothers. It is a special bond.”

That bond grew further when Shawn returned to China Spring as an offensive coordinator for the 2008 season. Mark was the head coach. Brian was the quarterback. And for the first time in his life, the patriarch of the Bell family could watch both his boys work on the same field on the same night of the week. No early morning flights or late-night hauls. It was the best year of his professional life, he says. Even more so than the year before when China Spring reached a state title game. 

“Shawn is incredible leader and he had me feeling like the best quarterback in Texas every single Friday night of that season,” Brian said. “I played with a lot of confidence, and we had a good season. From that point forward, I knew I wanted to play college football.” 

Ringing the Bells

Brian became the first coach in history to win a state championship at the high school level and win a Sugar Bowl as an assistant coach in the same 30-day span. He took over for his dad as the head coach of China Spring four years before and led the Cougars to new heights and their first ever state title with a win over Gilmer on Dec. 17. 

China Spring captured the title on Friday night. On Sunday, during a family dinner, Brian received a call and headed outside. It was Baylor head coach Dave Aranda, who happens to be Shawn’s boss. Aranda offered Brian a job as an analyst, which is essentially the same opportunity Shawn was provided by Matt Rhule back in 2017. Shawn is now the quarterbacks coach at Baylor and on his way to eventually becoming an offensive coordinator. Most coaches, including Texas Tech’s Joey McGuire, feel like Shawn is a shoe in to become a head coach one day at the college level. Now, Brian holds that same opportunity. 

It was a whirlwind week for Brian. He won a state title on Friday. Was offered a new job on Sunday. He was at China Spring telling his players of his departure on Monday, and then was at Baylor bright and early on Tuesday to help with Sugar Bowl preparations. And while it was the best week of his professional life, Brian had mixed emotions leaving China Spring. After all, he attended every grade of school there and returned to lead the Cougars to the mountaintop.

“Standing in front of them to tell them I was leaving three days after winning a state championship was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Brian said. “I hope in 10 or 15 years they can look back and know that I was trying to make the best decision for me and my family.” 

Even with Mark and Brian no longer leading China Spring on Friday night, the town is never far from their hearts. Mostly because they’re never far from China Spring. The family still lives in the area. Shawn could’ve picked anywhere in the Waco area to live after becoming an on-field coach for the Bears and he picked a place a block and a half from his parents so that his kids can attend China Spring. Brian’s kids will likely do the same. China Spring adopted the Bells during a tough time, and the family will never forget that grace. 

“China Spring was a great place for us to mold and build our family,” Mark said. “They embraced us at a time in our lives when we were trying to put our family back together. They took us under their wing, and they helped us get through some times.” 

With both of his boys set to coach at Baylor in 2022, Mark and his wife can now do something that always seemed impossible: Enjoy some trips in the fall. For years, eight to be exact, Mark juggled coaching high school with attending his son’s college football games. He’d arrive to road games on Saturday and return early Sunday. Not this year. In 2022, the Bell parents plan to arrive to road games such as BYU on Wednesday and not leave until Monday. 

And while he’s excited to sight-see and relax, he’s also happy and proud that his sons are outpacing him as football coach. Shawn is rising through the college ranks. Brian is attempting to do the same after winning a state title. Every dad’s dream is to watch his son(s) achieve more than he did. Mark is living that dream. 

“They are 50 thousand times the coach I am, or I was and I’m not embarrassed to say that,” Mark said. “I’m proud to say that. I want them to be a ton better than I was.”

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