The five-star prospect had sliced his recruiting options to the Buckeyes, Crimson Tide and Tennessee, and Meyer was putting together a vision of his program being at the level to compete with an Alabama team that won three national titles in a four-year span.
So in Meyer’s mind, Bell was gonna be on one of the two sidelines when the two schools finally met. Would he wear crimson or scarlet?
“Me and Coach Meyer, we had a deal,” Bell said Tuesday in New Orleans. “He said, I’ll either see you on that sideline or with me. He reminded me of that on the bus coming here. I’m blessed to be a part of it. These teams recruited me, and I was blessed for both programs to do that, so words can’t describe this feeling right now.”
Meyer’s vision has come true. The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide will battle tomorrow in the Sugar Bowl for the right to move into the first College Football Playoff title game, and Bell took to the Superdome field for practices and Media Day this week in OSU’s white practice and game jerseys.
It wasn’t necessarily the line that drew Bell to Ohio State. But this week, it’s the perfect anecdote about how Meyer’s plan bring forth his vision has come to fruition.
“I slept on it, and I did my homework,” Bell said. “I went back to my drawing board and I think it was (an important draw). I made the right decision.”
A Long Road
The Bell family is honest – it didn’t know much about Ohio State when the safety prospect first burst onto the national scene while starring Chattanooga, Tenn., and then at Rossville (Ga.) Ridgeland High School.
“I never thought of Ohio State,” Bell said. “Being from down there, they overlook Ohio State.”
Bell’s father, Vencent, told BSB in 2013 after Bell’s commitment that the family assumed he’d end up at an SEC school when his recruitment started to explode. But Ohio State put together a relentless, aggressive recruiting approach led by Meyer and then-safeties coach Everett Withers, who became a near constant presence in Chattanooga, where the family lives.
“I have a new place in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to get my hair cut,” Withers said on National Signing Day 2013. “I know where the best barbecue places are in Chattanooga. I got around a lot of people.”
The persistence of Withers led to the Bell family stopping at Ohio State for a visit in the summer of 2012, and it was so impressed that the Buckeyes were firmly in contention from there. The steps started coming together from there – Ohio State went 12-0 in 2012, showing Bell that Meyer was well on his way to putting together a nationally elite program. Withers and Meyer made Bell a priority, putting together a whole crew that tripped to watch his state title game in Atlanta that even included Meyer’s daughter, Nicki.
A family atmosphere? Check. An elite program in the making, one fully ready to bounce back from NCAA sanctions and a 6-7 season in 2011? Check. The ever-important comfort and relationships? Check.
“You’re talking about pulling a kid out of the South, taking him to the North, and you’re trying to tell us or want us to believe that the Big Ten is better than the SEC?” Vencent said. “We needed some winning over. We need you to show us that what you are trying to do at Ohio State was going to position (Vonn) to be on a national championship team in another year.”
The only thing missing was Bell himself.
The Finishing Touches
Bell made an official visit to Columbus in January, with mild temperatures greeting him and other standout members of the 2013 class. It was a class the Buckeyes were counting on to change the dynamics of the program, and with Bell ranking 25th in the country among all prospects, he was one of the centerpieces.
Bell finished his visits, then returned to Chattanooga. He prayed about his choice, talked to his family, and on National Signing Day donned suspenders, dark-rimmed glasses, a cream-colored shirt and a brown tie before putting on a scarlet Ohio State ballcap.
“It’s really about the connection you build with the team,” Bell said in November. “It’s really about how you feel and how your family feels about the situation.”
It’s all worked out the way it was supposed to. An ever-confident, cool customer, Bell is second on the OSU team with 78 tackles as a sophomore starting safety and added five interceptions, including key picks vs. Michigan and Wisconsin. He coined the Vonn Bell Academy for playmaking, encapsulating the swagger and joie de vivre that has come to mark this surprising Ohio State team.
Now, the showdown is finally here. It’s Ohio State vs. Alabama on the field after a couple of years of build-up off of it, with Vonn Bell right in the middle.
“It’s the best team in the North playing the best team in the South,” Bell said. “People have waited to see this game for years.”
Especially Urban Meyer.