Were they the darkest of days around the Quincy University men's basketball program? It would be difficult to argue they weren't.
In the spring of 2003, on the cusp of six straight losing seasons, QU athletic director Pat Atwell decided to make a change. He fired Mike Foster as the head men's basketball coach and opened a nationwide search for his replacement.
On the surface, it looked like a great job. The Hawks played in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, one of the nation's top NCAA Division II leagues, and had made three NCAA Tournament appearances in the four years prior to the losing streak. However, QU hadn't won more than 12 games in any season during the streak and losses to NAIA teams such as Culver-Stockton College had given the program too many black eyes to conceal.
So Atwell took a chance on a career assistant, hiring Marty Bell, who at the age of 39 had been a collegiate assistant coach for 19 seasons.
"Pat Atwell, God bless the man, gave me an opportunity here and I felt a huge indebtedness to him to not fail and work my tail off, which I knew I would do," Bell said. "It was like every other journey I had, but this time I was responsible for everything. I was at the top."
On top is where he is leaving the program 14 years later.
On Thursday, the school announced Bell was retiring as the basketball coach and devoting his attention full-time to his role as vice president of intercollegiate athletics. At the same time, Ryan Hellenthal, a 37-year-old career assistant coach, was promoted to head coach and given the task of pushing the QU program forward.
He finds the program in a much better place than Bell did.
The Hawks are coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons and one of the best seasons in school history. Last winter, the Hawks went 25-7, won the Great Lakes Valley Conference West Division title and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The 25 victories are tied for the second most in school history as well.
These aren't dark days any longer.
"It was really important to me that I felt like I left the program in a great place for the next person and put it in a better place than it was when I got here," Bell said. "The closure piece for me is knowing that I accomplished that.
"For any coach, when they step away, you want to be able to look back, not today but 10 years from now, and say, ‘I did it at the right time. I didn't stay longer than I should have.' I'll be able to do that and know I left the basketball program in a good spot."
That he has.
Bell finished with a 240-186 record and the second-most victories of any of the program's 14 head coaches. He led the Hawks to five NCAA Tournament appearances and five 20-win seasons.
He also saw 55 of the 56 players who completed their careers at QU also earn their undergraduate degree. That's the most impressive winning percentage any coach could have.
The numbers don't define Bell's career. The turnaround does.
He took a program that had fallen to new depths -- Bell's first year ended with an 11-17 record, giving the Hawks a program-worst stretch of seven straight losing seasons -- and carried it to new heights.
The challenge now is to lift the entire athletic department as high as possible.
"I have unfilled parts of my life on the the athletic administration side that I would really like to devote my time to so I can walk away from that one day with the same feeling I have today," Bell said.
Why is he so passionate about seeing QU succeed?
There's one very important reason.
"The people," Bell said. "They are passionate and they care. That made the job great. It's tough to work at a place where you have to work your tail off and no one cares. This place cares."
Even those who leave still care.
Bell received congratulatory messages from coaching colleagues and former players, including the point guard on his first team in Jamal Thompson and the point guard on his last team in Herm Senor II.
"From the first year to the last year and everything in between," Bell said with a smile.
His eyes got a little watery at that point and again when he talked about being at peace with his decision to retire as a basketball coach.
Bell poured his heart and soul into helping his players mature as young men and developing a program that could compete on a national level today, tomorrow and in the future.
Consider those missions accomplished.
Here is a look at five of the top games in Marty Bell's coaching career at Quincy University:
Nov. 17, 2003 -- Quincy 72, Truman State 71. The first of Bell's 240 victories came on the road against a traditional rival. With two of his forwards on the shelf -- Guy Saragba was sidelined by an emergency appendectomy and Phil Gettinger was out with an eye injury -- Jon Krumtinger emerged with a 21-point, eight-rebound effort at Pershing Arena. Truman State had an opportunity to win the game in the final 10 seconds, but misfired on a pair of 3-point attempts.
Jan. 13, 2007 -- No. 10 Quincy 76, No. 5 Southern Indiana 74. The Hawks erased an 11-point second-half deficit to force overtime and won the game on Joel Box's putback basket with 7.9 seconds remaining in the extra period. Played in front of a crowd of 1,912 at Pepsi Arena, it was the first meeting of two top-10 teams at Pepsi Arena since QU made the jump to NCAA Division II. Box finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, and he blocked a shot by USI's Melvin Hall with six seconds left in regulation.
March 14, 2010 -- Quincy 66, Bellarmine 61. The Hawks secured the program's first Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Division II national tournament by making six consecutive free throws in the final 34 seconds to knock off the second-seeded Knights in the Midwest Regional semifinals. Billy Baptist, who had 20 points and four assists, blocked the shot of Bellarmine guard Jeremy Kendle with 15 seconds remaining that preserved a three-point lead at the time. Josh Edmonds went 4 of 5 from 3-point range and added 14 points for the Hawks.
Jan. 7, 2012 -- Quincy 86, Indianapolis 83. Despite being 2 of 10 from 3-point range, Marshawn Norris took a game-winning 3-point attempt as the clock expired, hitting nothing but net for an overtime victory at Pepsi Arena. The Hawks forced the extra period when Justin Brock tipped in a Courtney Belger miss with four-tenths of a second left in regulation. Brock led QU with 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Norris had 17 points and four assists.
March 11, 2017 -- Quincy 78, Kentucky Wesleyan 75. What turned out to be Bell's final victory featured clutch moments from point guard Herm Senor II and a tide-turning run. After falling behind 21-5 in the opening round of the NCAA Midwest Regional, the Hawks went on an 18-0 in which the Panthers had seven turnovers and seven missed shots. Senor then provided the exclamation point, hitting a clutch 3-pointer with 1:12 remaining and making three free throws in the final 19 seconds.