There have been some legendary high school soccer coaches in Hamilton Township, such as Bob Pivovarnick, Mario Laurenti and Paul Tessein, to name a few. All three won state titles.
But none ever held the unique distinction that Jack Bell has.
Bell not only won a state crown, but is the only man to serve as boys’ head soccer coach at all three Hamilton Township schools. He made a positive impact at each institution and for that will be justifiably rewarded.
On March 10 at the Pines Manor in Edison, Bell will join an elite club of Garden State soccer luminaries when he is inducted into the Soccer Coaches Association of New Jersey’s Hall of Fame.
It’s an honor his former players applaud with zeal.
“I’m thrilled that he’s been selected,” said Bob Smetanka, a Hamilton West All-State performer who played for Bell from 1978-80 before earning a full scholarship to Temple. “He’s put his entire life into it. No one is more deserving. His success speaks for itself and there’s not a better person out there.”
Sean Griffin and Quincy Hendryx, who played at Nottingham for Bell from 1984-86, both called the honor “overdue.”
“I’m very happy and excited for him to receive this honor,” Griffin said.
“It’s so humbling to say the least,” Hendryx said. “He is so deserving of this honor and I’m glad that I’m able to be here to witness it.”
Those comments have been echoed by countless friends, colleagues, players and anyone else who knows Bell. He will be introduced at the luncheon by former Steinert great Dan Donigan and Smetanka.
“I’m honored and humbled to be asked to introduce him,” said Smetanka, who actually had Bell introduce him when he got into the West Hall of Fame. “He’s a super-popular and well-respected guy so it’s totally my honor and privilege.”
Bell, who lives in Florida, admitted he was surprised to get the honor now, after being out of coaching for nearly 20 years. He looks upon it as being rewarded for having fun.
“I loved my job,” he said. “I made lifelong friends through coaching and through playing. I just loved sports and I still do. My (late) wife (Kathy) used to say, ‘You can’t remember to take out the garbage, but you can remember the score of every game.’”
But it wasn’t the scores and results, as much as it was the relationships Bell forged with players, their parents, his assistants, his peers and, yes, even officials. Many of those bonds are still strong today.
It’s not surprising, as Bell is as much a part of the township fabric as Kuser Mansion, Veterans Park and the Memorial Day parades. Aside from playing, coaching and teaching in Hamilton, he was a township councilman for eight years.
Bell began appearing in newspapers playing youth sports and remained a media darling for over 40 years. Playing at West from 1962-65, he became the first Hornet to earn nine varsity letters (soccer, basketball baseball) and score 1,000 points in basketball; and the first Mercer County player to score 50 points in a game. He was All-State in soccer and led the county with 27 goals his senior year.
Bell stayed home for college, starring in soccer and basketball at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) from 1965-69. He played on the NAIA national champions in soccer and scored 1,000 points in hoops. During Bell’s freshman year, TSC beat Duke and North Carolina in soccer.
“They never played Trenton State ever since,” Bell said with a laugh. “Almost our whole team was from Mercer, and we could really play.”
After graduation Bell embarked on a phys-ed teaching/coaching career at his alma mater and was named head soccer coach in 1976, which was the peak of the Hamilton Township soccer’s glory days. Steinert won state crowns in 1975 and ’77 and Bell guided the Hornets to state title in his first season. Spartan-Hornet games were sheer happenings, with the crowds swelling to four and five deep around the entire field.
“It was an exciting time,” Bell said. “We both started getting prepared ahead of time, Steinert prepared for us, we prepared for them. At that time were the bridesmaid, never the bride, but we won it in ’76 and had some great players.”
Bell remained at West until 1981, winning two more sectional championships and reaching the state finals again his final year, along with winning the Mercer County Tournament crown.
“As a coach he was old school, no democracy, he was in charge!” Smetanka, a retired New Jersey Department of Transportation employee, said with a laugh. “He was knowledgeable, and a great teacher. His confidence, leadership, fairness and ability to bond with his players was second to none. Whether it was a first-team All American or the last guy on the bench he commanded respect and responsibility from all. Obviously, you don’t win that many games by not being competitive. He did not like to lose.”
David Alito, whose brother Rich was an All-American on the 1976 team, played for Bell from 1976-79. He felt one of his best attributes was not to over-coach the players. When Bell knew he had talent, he let them play.
“I couldn’t say it any better than that,” said Alito, who was an All-State performer and played with Smetanka at Temple. “Coach Bell had passion to do the best he could every day for each of his players, both as individuals and the team. He always had his door open for you to talk; whether about a game, school or just as a kid to coach, he was always open and available.”
Bell’s interaction went beyond the playing field.
“In the summer months he afforded me opportunities to make money helping him out in the summer soccer camps he taught,” added Alito, whose twin sister Joan was an All-County performer for the girls’ team. “He would bring other high school kids he was coaching at the time to my Temple games to watch me play. He did it for two reasons—for the kids to see what college soccer was like, but also for me. It was always nice to see coach Bell during these times. He gave that reassurance and confidence that a young college soccer player needed.”
In 1982, Bell was offered a promotion as head of health and physical education at the new Nottingham High School. He was also asked to build the soccer program, but would have no upperclassmen for the first two years. He labored over the decision before his dad convinced him to accept the challenge.
Five years later, Bell guided the Northstars to the first sectional title in school history when they won the 1986 Central Jersey Group III crown.
“That was really something special,” Bell said. “It was pride in a different way from winning a state title, because you built something from the ground up.”
Hendryx and Griffin were both senior standouts in on that team.
“Coach Bell had a history of winning at Hamilton West, and I believe he brought those high expectations and desire to succeed to Nottingham,” said Griffin, who works for the New Jersey Department of Human Services. “He created a philosophy and environment in practice and games that empowered us to have confidence no matter who we played. Because of his extensive knowledge and coaching ability, he always knew our potential as players and a team and had patience during tough losses. For those games when we should have won, I was one of those players who paid the price during the next practice and became re-determined to giving it our all.”
Hendryx felt Bell was more than just a coach.
“He wore multiple hats—father figure, friend, role model, disciplinarian, commander and chief, and coach,” said Hendryx, now a Hamilton Township police sergeant. “He had a way of getting things done the way he wanted it done, but always for the better of the team. He was a true leader and was well respected by all and he cared about each player as if we were part of his family. He made us bond like one big soccer brotherhood. As a sophomore I was treated like an upperclassman and no different from the rest of the players. He worked me just as hard as the rest and mentored me as well.”
Bell completed his hat trick in 1988 when he took over the driver education program for all Hamilton high schools and re-located to Steinert. He inherited the soccer program from Tessein, won a Mercer County Tournament title and stepped down in 2000.
Mike Hastings, an English teacher and the Spartans girls’ soccer coach, played for Bell from 1991-93 and admitted his reputation preceded him.
“We knew the legend of Jack Bell,” Hastings said. “We saw it as a challenge to impress him. He was tough on us, had the old-school mentality. He wanted us to be better than we thought we could be and demanded us to rise up. Even at that point in his career he hated to lose, but more importantly he hated when we didn’t play our best.”
Coaching aside, probably the best thing about Bell is the lasting impact he made on his players, as witnessed by the successes so many of them have made of their lives.
“Coach Bell gave life lessons, whether in the classroom or on the soccer field,” said Alito, a senior vice president at Harvard Protection Services. “He treated his players like the young men we were. Certainly there were times when we needed a strong voice, others just a pat on the back. He did that and more.”
“My relationship with him today is even closer than it was as a player,” Hendryx said. “As life went on we always kept in touch and shared many talks about the thing called life. He continued to mentor and be a role model to me. I thank God for letting him see my talent as a soccer player and putting it to use. I also thank God for our bond as a player, coach and friend.”
Smetanka felt Bell is “the best role model around . . . a lifelong friend of the entire Smetanka family.” Hastings said Bell has influenced him as a coach, to try and get across the point, “That it’s more than soccer we are preparing them for, it’s life we want them to eventually succeed in.”
As much as his players loved and respected him, Bell returned that admiration 100 percent.
“I was blessed with great, great players and I had a good rapport with the kids,” Bell said. “I had great assistants, with guys like Mickey Kessler, Tony Potenza, Richie Giallella. I’ve made lifelong friends playing and coaching. I just loved it. I had the best job in the world.”
And he provided the best guidance his players could have ever hoped for.