By Cort Reynolds
Ada Herald Writer
ADA - The end of a historic era in Ada school sports came to a close last week when Mike Fell, the highly successful Bulldog football coach over the last seven years, announced he was leaving to become the new coach at Lima Senior.
Last Thursday, the Lima City school board officially hired Fell to become Spartan head coach. There had been speculation that the Lima native might leave the Ada program for a bigger coaching job after his youngest daughter graduated in May of 2012, so the announcement was not totally unexpected, yet it was still met with sadness by most of the local sporting community.
ìI grew up in Lima and have coached around the area for the last 25 years,î said Fell. ìMy dad was assistant superintendent of Lima City Schools, too. I always had it in my mind that if I had the opportunity to coach Lima Senior, I would try to get that job.
ìIt has been a fantastic seven-year run here, and our family loves the Ada community,î he continued. ìI really appreciate the players, coaches, parents and fans I dealt with.î
But now just seemed the right time to make the jump.
ìThis past season we really overachieved (10-2), and I felt great about it,î he explained. ìAnd with Zac Dysert probably being drafted this year in the NFL, it seemed like pretty good timing.î
The Spartans have struggled since winning the Div. I 1996 state title, and the pull of a new challenge to rebuild the flagging program of his alma mater also proved to be too much to turn down.
ìThat's the whole part of it, the challenge,î Fell agreed. ìI have been in the NWC for 17 years at Grove and Ada. Lima Senior is in one of the top Div. I/II leagues in the state (Three Rivers Athletic Conference). Toledo Whitmer was the Div. I state runner-up last year, and Toledo Central Catholic was Div. II state champ. The competition will be great.î
Lima Senior was 0-10 in 2012, has won just one game over the past two seasons and boasts only 20 total victories since 2000, the last time they had a winning record. Fell will implement his potent spread offense system with the Spartans. ìThat's what we like to do. They had to have a phys ed job open up at the high school from me, and it just so happened that a guy retired,î he added.
The coach said that he was the only candidate interviewed for the position last week, and that he was offered it the same evening of Wednesday, January 30. He accepted and told the Bulldog team the next day of his decision to leave.
Fell graduated from Lima Senior in the late 1970s. He played one year of college football at Ashland before a neck injury ended his grid career. He transferred to and graduated from Ohio University.
Fell then began his coaching career at Lima Senior as a junior high coach for one campaign, and for three seasons as a varsity assistant under Leonard Rush from 1986-89.
Since Fell took over the Ada program, the Bulldogs never finished lower than second in the 10-team Northwest Conference standings. They won the title two times and finished second five other seasons, each time to Lima Central Catholic.
His Ada record was 69-18 overall, 59-11 in the regular season and 10-7 in the post-season. Ada made the playoffs in all seven of his seasons. Five of the 11 regular season losses were to LCC.
In 2007 the Bulldogs advanced to the state semifinals behind senior quarterback Zac Dysert, but lost an overtime heartbreaker to Hopewell-Loudon.
In 2008 and 2009, Ada won back-to-back NWC crowns with undefeated 10-0 regular seasons, but was eliminated in tight regional final battles each time by Delphos St. John's to finish 12-1.
In 23 seasons since becoming a high school head coach in 1990, Fell's record is 169-78. He was 75-25 in 10 years from 1990-99 at Columbus Grove and then 25-35 in six subsequent seasons at Celina before coming to Ada in 2006.
His initial Ada team went 7-3 in the season and made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, then lost a close first round game at Hardin Northern. It was the last time the Bulldogs failed to advance past the regional quarterfinal round.
In other local Ada rivalries, his teams held a 6-2 record vs. Hardin Northern, were 7-0 vs. Allen East, 6-1 vs. Bluffton and 3-0 vs. USV. Four of his last five Bulldog teams won at least 10 games and were a combined 53-9, including 46-4 in the regular season.
In NWC play, his record was 47-9 and overall Ada was a nearly unbeatable 35-4 at home, with three losses to LCC and one to Hardin Northern in his 2006 debut. Along the way his Bulldogs posted impressive win streaks: 29 straight wins in the regular season from 2008-10, 23 consecutive league victories from 2008-10 and 22 straight at home from 2007 to the end of 2010.
All three streaks were ended by a loss to LCC in the 2010 regular season finale, 35-21.
Perhaps the only other comparable era of sustained gridiron success at Ada before Fell came in the early 1970s under coach Gary Ricker.
ìI am happy for Mike and sad for us,î said Ada athletic director David Allen of the move. ìIt is a great opportunity for him at this point in his career. He has wanted to coach at a big school; I don't think he was looking to leave, but this was a perfect storm-type situation.
ìMike has done a lot of good things here at Ada,î Allen continued. ìHe will be hard to replace. I think it gives football a lot of credibility there now. He is a Lima Senior grad, a proven winner, and maybe some of the kids who have exited there in recent years won't want to leave anymore.î
St. Henry eliminated Ada 40-35 in Fell's last game as coach in November of 2012. In three of the Bulldog playoff runs, they were knocked out by the eventual champion, and once by the runner-up. The last five years, a MAC power eliminated Ada each time.
One Ada assistant coach reported that a day after the move was announced to the team, Bulldog players were ìdisappointed to hear the news (of Fell's departure), but it was settling in.î
Fell admitted that informing the players of his decision was difficult. ìIt was hard for me, especially since we love each other,î he offered. ìWe have been through a lot of tough battles. It's hard to leave kids you respect. I choked up a little bit...I told them I would meet with all of the returning players individually over the next few weeks.î
No replacement appears to be waiting in the wings, as Fell wants to have top assistant Frank Crea accompany him to Lima Senior as an assistant. The fiery Crea was formerly a head coach at USV and an assistant on the 1996 Spartan state title team.
Allen, head coach at Ada from 1995-2001, says he isn't interested in returning as a candidate to replace Fell. ìI wouldn't mind helping out as an assistant,î he noted. ìHonestly, I am sure we will have some good candidates. We just have to see who applies.î
Fell said his family will still reside in Ada. ìWe love the community. My daughters were both homecoming queen and valedictorians here, so it has been a nice ride.
ìWe had a great group of athletes and football players at Ada,î he summed up. ìLook at our hallway in the gym; we've had 21 all-state players in the last seven years. Every one of our five quarterbacks has been all-state.î
Fell noted that ironically his first game at Lima Senior will be on the turf of Welcome Stadium at the University of Dayton, where both of his daughters currently attend college. The contest will be a daunting one against highly-ranked Dayton Thurgood Marshall.
His Spartans also will face conference foe Oregon Clay and its new coach Mike Vickers, who coached Ada to its only non-Fell playoff appearance in 1994.
ìWe will try to get the kids out, excited and working hard,î he observed of the keys to a Spartan turnaround. ìThat's what we did at Ada, we worked hard. We will try to keep some of the kids there who have left not just for LCC, but places like Elida and other Lima schools, too.î