Sam Bell, design and photo courtesy of USTFCCCA.org
Sam Bell was a giant among track coaches. A track & field coach who could and had coached each and every event in track & field, Sam Bell was one of the last of a generation of coaches, like Bill Bowerman, who could coach any of the disciplines in our sport.
Here is a warm tribute from several of his athletes and admirers, including his athletes, Terry Brahm, Jim Spivey and Charles Marsala, as well as IAAF president Sebastian Coe. Special thanks to Jeff Benjamin for compiling this series of comments on Coach Bell.
If there has ever been an American Track Coach in recent memory whose influence and impact not only affected his athletes but crossed over into all realms of the Sport, Sam Bell fit that bill. Bell, who passed away this past week at the age of 88.
Here is how Sam Bell was described in the USATF Hall of Fame listing (he was inducted there in 1992):
The long-time head track and field coach at Indiana University, Sam Bell developed a reputation as not only an outstanding coach but as an excellent meet director. While at Indiana from 1970 to 1998, he produced teams that won 23 men’s and 4 women’s Big Ten titles. On 18 occasions, Bell’s teams placed in the top 10 in NCAA championships. His cross country teams won two NCAA individual titles. Individually, he coached more than 90 All-American athletes, including Olympians Bob Kennedy, Jim Spivey, Mark Deady, Sunder Nix, Terry Brahm, Robert Cannon and Albert Robinson. At the same time, he was meet director or technical director of some of the top meets in the world. He was a U.S. Olympic team assistant coach in 1976 and was the head coach of the 1979 World Cup team. After earning his M.S. in physical education from the University of Oregon in 1956, he entered the college coaching ranks two years later at Oregon State University. In 1961, his Oregon State team won the NCAA cross country title. In 1965, he became the head coach at the University of California and was there four years before moving to Indiana. Bell also has served on numerous AAU and TAC committees. As chairman for the Men’s Olympic Development Festival from 1976 to 1980, he developed the festival’s format for track and field.
The reactions from a few across the spectrum who were made better by his friendship, leadership and support throughout the decades without a doubt reflect the legacy left behind by the Hall of Fame Coach.
Staten Island’s greatest High School Miler Charlie Marsala went to Indiana where, under Bell’s guidance would become Big 10 Steeple Champion, and finish 2nd (1st American!) in the 1988 NCAA Outdoor 1500 meters. In 1987, the Hoosier would surprise many with an outstanding last 200 meter sprint in the 1987 USA National 1500, finishing 3rd right behind Jim Spivey and Steve Scott.
” Today I was saddened by the news of coach Sam Bell’s passing”, said Marsala. “Even though I’m 51 now I still addressed him as coach because that’s how much respect I have for him. He was a throwback coach- no nonsense hard but fair. He was able to push all the right button with me and made me a better runner and person, said the 3:37 1500 runner. “I will always be grateful to not only Coach but Mrs. Bell for all their generosity and faith in me. He will be missed.”
Marsala’s teammate Terry Brahm echoed the same sentiments. “I can talk about Coach Bell all day long,” said the 1988 Olympian at 5000 meters. “I ran 4:12 as a Junior in High School so I wasn’t heavily recruited, but Coach Bell came to see me run at a Cross-Country meet and came to the house and met my parents, and my decision was made.” Not that he was limited to only coaching the middle-distance runners. “Coach Bell coached everyone,” said Brahm. “We’d be doing 800 repeats and Coach would be at the start and finish with a stopwatch in both hands, and while we’d be running he’d go over to the high jump and pole vault pits and work with those guys too. He multi-tasked very well.”
When it was time for the pressure and preparation for the 1988 Olympic Trials, Brahm once again relied on his Coach. “Coach Bell was also the meet director that year in Indiannapolis,” said Brahm, who was entered in the 5000. “The day of the final, we had breakfast together and I was nervous about my chances, but Coach said, “You’ve been in the top 3 in every event in America so far, so just be yourself and you’ll be fine” and it worked,” said Brahm, who qualified for the Seoul Olympics. Brahm also talked about Bell’s style and his mantra that, “he’d always say, “I want to share a few things with you” to the team, and he also said to everyone, Be yourself, but be your BEST self.”
For legendary York High School Cross -Country Coach Joe Newton, Bell’s passing hit hard as well. “I owe so much to him,” said the 87 years young Newton, who’s shooting for his 29th State title this Fall. “He was a mentor to me, and once he was a friend he was your friend for life!”
Jim Spivey was greatly influenced by Bell as well. “He was always encouraging, and he was always setting for you higher goals,” said the legendary IU NCAA Champion, 3:49 miler and 3-time Olympian. “In 1979, Coach Bell was also very instrumental in taking authority from the Amateur Athletic Union and giving it to The Athletics Congress (Now USATF).” Although it was a little jump, Spivey also stated how due to the change, American Track and Field athletes began getting cash payments, albeit into a bank fund, at the behest of Coaches like Bell, something not done before. “Before that, athletes ere just cashing in their extra plane tickets,” said Spivey. Spivey also discussed the influence that the Coes had on Bell as well. “I remember that Coach Bell visited England and sat with Seb and Peter. When he returned in the Winter of 1981 he told us we were going to start a new workout of 6 X 800s in 2 minutes each, because he saw that it payed off for Seb, and it also paid off for us as well!”
What’s interesting is that Bell’s influence was felt outside of America as well and at the Sports’ highest level. “In the summer of 1986, I went overseas to compete in Europe,” said Brahm. There wasn’t a meet anywhere where someone didn’t know Coach Bell.” For Brahm, the pinnacle for him that Summer was meeting Sebastian Coe. “Here I was, talking with Seb Coe, the world mile record holder and 2-time Gold medalist and the first thing that comes out of his mouth is, “How’s Coach Bell doing?” Brahm had found out that Coe and his Father/Coach Peter Coe had a long friendship with Bell. Newton echoed that as well. “If it wasn’t for Sam Bell I never would have met Peter and Sebastian, and Sebastian would not have stayed at my home in the summer of 1984 to train for the Olympics.” (Here’s the story on Seb Coe and his 1984 success, from our archives: https://www.runblogrun.com/2014/09/the-resurrection-of-sebastian-coe-with-a-little-help-from-his-american-friends–30-years-ago–the-19.html)
Earlier this morning Coe, who now serves as the President of the IAAF, released the following statement–
“With the passing of Sam Bell the sport of track and field athletics has lost an inspirational figure. Sam, a renowned middle and long distance coach, unselfishly devoted his life to mentoring athletes. Head coach at Indiana for three decades and the US team coach for men’s middle distance running at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Sam always demanded the best. A long list of successes at state, national and international level including many Olympians, one of whom was Jim Spivey who I raced against in the Olympic 1500m final in LA 1984, stands testimony to his outstanding coaching reputation. He was a close friend of my Father and coach, Peter Coe. They both shared the same vision of athletics and athlete performance. He will be sadly missed, but his legacy will last long.”
Back here in the States, those sentiments have indeed been echoed by many.