There's a deep connection between Gainesville, Fla., and Cullowhee, N.C. — one that spans decades.
Wait a minute — what?
In the same fashion that Florida Gators fans rooted in 1996 for the Marshall Thundering Herd, many Florida faithful — with an idle home team — will be paying attention this weekend to the biggest game in years at FCS-ranked Western Carolina. The reason is that beloved former Gators quarterback Kerwin Bell is working his offensive magic as the third-year head coach at Western Carolina. His program has been aided greatly by a massive contingent of Florida natives on the roster and on staff, along with the usual WCU recipe of local Carolina and Georgia talent.
"You know, I can't say that I knew that one day I'd be in Cullowhee, coaching at Western," Bell told FanBuzz. "But I'm glad I am, and we love it up here. It is beautiful, and it is amazing how many Florida Gators I run into up here also. Hopefully, we have them on our side, too."
This week, Western Carolina (5-1) plays host to Furman (5-1) in a Southern Conference showdown that ranks as the best Football Championship Subdivision game in the country. Both ranked FCS programs have lost only to SEC teams, with WCU falling to Arkansas and Furman to South Carolina.
Both look like potential FCS top 8 seeds, and both want the bonus that comes with a seeding: a first-round bye that allows the option to go home to have Thanksgiving dinner with family — as opposed to having to practice 48 hours prior to a big playoff game. The other bonus is actually bigger: a second-round home game.
Before they can dream about all of the above, the Catamounts must get the job done this weekend.
This is the best start to a season for WCU since before the FCS existed. The Catamounts began 9-1 as an independent nearly 50 years ago in 1974, and not even the FCS/I-AA national runner-up WCU team in 1983 got off to this kind of hot start. In a program that has won only 362 of its 918 all-time games dating back to 1931, this season so far has been a source of pride for WCU fans.
E.J. Whitmire Stadium, with its gentle Appalachian Mountain backdrop, will be packed to its capacity of nearly 14,000 fans on Saturday. That is not surprising at this school, which routinely has one of the Southern Conference's top average attendance figures, regardless of team performance.
Back in Florida, thousands more will be paying attention and potentially tuning in to see coach Kerwin on ESPN+ at 2:30 p.m. ET.
In 1996, the year Florida won its first national title, Gator fans talked about how Marshall — with former Florida assistant Bobby Pruett at the helm and former Gator backup quarterback Eric Kresser throwing darts to a guy named Randy Moss — won the I-AA/FCS national title.
Florida fans adopted Marshall and joked that it was like a two-for-one title deal that year. Well, WCU has similarities to Marshall, with Bell running the show and Gainesville native Cole Gonzales — son of Florida receivers coach Billy Gonzales — under center. According to the WCU roster, more than 40 players hail from the Sunshine State — with a large contingent coming from the well-known national talent hotbed of South Florida (Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach). Most are underclassmen.
"It's funny you say that about Florida fans because this past weekend I went to the South Carolina-Florida game (Oct. 14) since we were off," Gonzales told FanBuzz. "I sat down in the stands and there were a lot of Florida fans who seemed to know I was Coach (Billy) Gonzales' son. They were stopping me left and right and saying that they were keeping up with what we were doing (at Western Carolina)."
The younger Gonzales has thrown for 1,532 yards and 14 touchdowns (and just two interceptions) in six games.
Billy Gonzales has been at Florida three separate times going back to his time coaching under Urban Meyer. His quarterbacking son was even born in Utah when the Meyer-Dan Mullen-Gonzales staff coached the Utes and had quarterback Alex Smith to work with. That was before two national titles at Florida with Tim Tebow leading the way.
In this world of transfer portal craziness, NIL (name/image/likeness), and what is perceived to be the diminishing importance of high school recruiting, WCU seems to still enjoy going the old-fashioned well and signing high school seniors. The program does add transfers, but it leans toward just starting them in the WCU program from Day 1.
Bell and his staff, which includes his son, offensive coordinator Kade Bell, said his philosophy is simple when it comes to identifying high school talent.
"I don't care about how big he is; if he can play football, I want him to play for us," the older Bell said. "We have guys who fit what we do and what we're looking for."
One player who fits that criteria perfectly is sophomore running back Desmond Reid, who hails from — you guessed it — Florida. His hometown is Miami Gardens, and he played at Miramar High School, which is in the vicinity of Fort Lauderdale. Reid is an example of what Bell talked about, standing 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds. Just halfway through his true sophomore season, Reid is No. 2 in the FCS with 847 yards rushing (with 12 touchdowns), and he was a serious candidate for the Jerry Rice Award last year, given to the level's top freshman.
"There are a lot of Florida kids who weren't highly recruited but have great skills, and (WCU) has brought a lot of them in," Reid told FanBuzz this week. "We're trying to turn Cullowhee up. We're just trying to make something special up here. ... A lot of kids down there (in South Florida) are not getting recognized because of their size.
"But Coach Bell doesn't care about size, and there are a lot of people wanting to come up here and play for us because of that."
Gonzales and Reid have led an explosive offense that leads the FCS nation with 531.8 yards per game and averages 41.5 points per game — good for No. 5 at this level. Both swear it's because of the offensive line, which is good form for young players at running back and quarterback. Linemen Christian Coulter, Tyler Smith and Blake Whitmore were returning starters, and Derek Simmons and Xavier Graham have been key additions.
That quintet is getting a lot of credit for the explosive offense — one that has scored 178 points in just the past three games coming into the Furman matchup. For Gator fans, that may evoke memories of the Steve Spurrier days when he'd hang "half a hundred" on SEC opponents and think nothing of it. Seeing as though Bell began his coaching career with Spurrier as a grad assistant at Florida in 1990, that would seem to fit.
Cole Gonzales Named SoCon Offensive Player of the Week - Western Carolina University. https://t.co/cKoXxOyIOV
— Coach Billy Gonzales (@CoachBillyG) September 25, 2023
Bell, who had been drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1988 after throwing for nearly 8,000 career yards at Florida, injured himself off the field prior to the 1990 season and decided to try coaching while he healed. He did go back to pro football after 1990, but mostly in the Canadian Football League, where he threw for nearly 20,000 yards and 101 touchdowns. Bell credited being on Spurrier's staff at Florida for fueling his interest in coaching and for a high-octane offense, which he and his staff employ in their pro spread attack.
Fans may not be calling WCU the GatorMounts anytime soon, but there's no denying that this interesting connection has helped build the WCU program and make this week what it is. It all comes down to a philosophy that has its roots in Florida's first Heisman Trophy winner back in the 1960s, with the initials SOS.
"KB (Kerwin) is a player's coach," his son Kade Bell told FanBuzz. "He almost treats his team like an NFL team. If we win, we're off on Sundays. He has that Spurrier mentality, that we're going to work hard and put our time in, but when we're done, we're going to go home to our families. And it makes everyone come to work ready to work. All of that stuff matters, and that culture isn't just with the coaches.
"We're going to compete and try to dominate people ... but we want these kids to have fun playing football, too."
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