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Kerwin Bell, last Gators QB to play Miami every year, reflects on rivalry

USF’s offensive coordinator made his first collegiate start against the ’Canes in Tampa in 1984.
Florida Gators quarterback Kerwin Bell is sacked by the Miami Hurricanes defense in this Sept. 5, 1987, file photo. (Tampa Bay Times) [STAFF  |  St. Petersburg Times]
Florida Gators quarterback Kerwin Bell is sacked by the Miami Hurricanes defense in this Sept. 5, 1987, file photo. (Tampa Bay Times) [STAFF | St. Petersburg Times]
Published Aug. 20, 2019

TAMPA ― The night before his first collegiate start, against the reigning national champs before an ESPN audience, Kerwin Bell tried taking his mind off things by watching some TV in his hotel room.

So the Gators freshman quarterback ― a 19-year-old from a dry county in rural north Florida ― flipped it on manually, only to have roommate Neal Anderson flip it off with a remote he was concealing. A bit puzzled, Bell turned it on again. Anderson clicked it off.

And so it went.

“And basically, he got on his back like a mechanic and got up under the TV,” recalled Anderson, then a junior tailback. “He was trying to figure out what was going on with it, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally just had to show him the remote.”

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Twenty-four hours later, this lanky bundle of naivete and nerves had transformed into a model of poise and proficiency.

Elevated to starter only four days earlier, when senior Dale Dorminey suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice, Bell had UF on the cusp of a colossal triumph against Miami before a Tampa Stadium crowd of 72,831.

USF offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell speaks to coaching staff after a spring game on Saturday, April 13, 2019 in Tampa. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times) [ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times]

“Sometimes people can be poised and they can be a great practice player, but in the game, the butterflies just don’t seem to get in formation,” Anderson said. “But he was different. He got in the game and his just kind of flew in formation.”

The specifics of that contest, on Labor Day weekend in 1984, have been well-chronicled.

Bell’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Neal with 41 seconds to play gave the Gators a one-point lead, but Bernie Kosar and Co. rallied with two scores ― including a pick-six on the final play ― to escape with a 32-20 triumph.

“As a walk-on, I established myself enough to say, ‘Hey, give this guy another week, give this guy maybe another two weeks,’ because of that game and the way I sort of was able to bring us back,” recalled Bell, who finished 15-for-30 for 159 yards that night.

“That was something that sort of defined my career at that time.”

We rehash this 35-year-old classic as a reminder of a bygone era, when UF-Miami was a rite and not a rarity.

The teams’ meeting Saturday at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium will be their first since 2013, and only second this decade. But before the SEC stretched its league schedule (from six to eight conference games per season), they met every year from 1944-87.

Bell, now the offensive coordinator at USF, is the last Gators quarterback to play Miami all four years of his career. In three of those seasons, the Gators opened with the 'Canes.

UM’s record in those four seasons: 41-8.

“Man, we had a tough schedule,” Bell said Monday following the Bulls’ morning practice. “But we knew we had to get ready early every year because Miami, at that time, was really starting to play.”

In Bell’s first two years, the Gators played right with them.

After that defeat at Tampa Stadium, UF didn’t lose again in ’84 (finishing 9-1-1) and opened the ’85 season with a 35-23 triumph against the 'Canes at the old Orange Bowl in Miami.

With Miami bent on stifling the Anderson-led rushing attack, Bell compensated with one of his most crisp collegiate performances (20-for-28, 248 yards). Two of his four touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter, which the Gators entered with a 21-20 deficit.

In that final period alone, he completed 10 of his 11 attempts for 137 yards.

“We had a lot of balance and they knew it,” said Anderson, who became a four-time Pro Bowler during an eight-year career with the Bears. “They knew the running game that we had, so I think they felt like they had to test Kerwin.”

Kerwin Bell during his Florida Gator playing days. (Times, 1987) [Tampa Bay Times]

From there, the crippling effects of UF’s three-year probation (for violations uncovered by the NCAA during the Charley Pell era) coincided with Miami’s evolution into college football’s resident dynasty of the era.

In ’86, the 'Canes sacked Bell six times and forced four Gators fumbles in a 23-15 victory on a searing Gainesville afternoon. The following year at the Orange Bowl, he was harassed even worse, tossing three picks and getting sacked five times in a 31-4 loss.

The Gators’ only points came on a pair of safeties resulting from two high snaps on UM punt attempts.

“After the ’86 game, I got hit so much, it was so hot, I think I lost 12 pounds,” Bell recalled.

“And after I was doing interviews in the locker room, I had to go to the hospital. And then down in Miami in ’87, same thing. They took me in just to check me out, as far as for a concussion and stuff.”

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Yet a generation later, Bell’s eyes betray a glimmer when reflecting on his part in the UM rivalry ― good, bad and ugly. He understands why the series went away, and why it no longer may be logistically practical to resume annually, but he can always yearn for yesteryear.

Like many in his age bracket.

“I loved it,” Bell said.

“I loved as a player playing in those big games, and I know all the players want to do that. They want to play in those big ones against Miami, against Florida State, against Georgia. I’m sure they’re looking forward to it this weekend.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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