As he enters his eighth year as President of the University of Alabama, Stuart Bell is looking ahead at a bright future, not backward toward what his legacy might be during his time at the Capstone.

Eight years may not seem like a long time, but depending on how and who you count, only three or four Presidents in the school's history have served in that capacity for 10 years or longer. Even Robert Witt, the President most responsible for the University as it is today, only held the title for nine years.

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Bell succeeded Judy Bonner as president in 2015 and is already one of the longer-serving leaders at the University's helm.

Still, Bell said in an interview with the Thread Thursday that his eyes are fixed firmly in front of him.

"Whether we're talking about the enrollment growth that we've had, the facilities we're intro-ing, the athletic pieces, the research -- we are truly, I would say, about halfway through the things that we established, even in 2015, that we were going to achieve," Bell said. "We're not close to being done with what we set out to do seven years ago, but we're making incredible progress."

That's a big statement, considering the all the good fortune Alabama has enjoyed under Bell's direction -- three college football national championships, record enrollment numbers, countless new or upgraded facilities and unprecedented funding and advancement of critical research efforts, just to name a few.

"That's what excites me every morning," Bell said. "To get up and say 'Man, today we've got another day to move the experience forward for our students, to move the experience for the campus, our alums, our fans.'"

"By the way, I've [already] got the National Championship game on my calendar," Bell continued. "The goals we set are, I guess I would say they're not pipe dreams. These are things we really plan on achieving."

Bell said 55,000 students applied to be in the University's freshman class for the upcoming academic year, which officially begins this week -- again, that's the freshman class alone.

The University's "curb appeal," its athletic successes and academic triumphs mean more people than ever want to study in Tuscaloosa, Bell said, which in turn allows the University to be even more selective with the students it enrolls.

"We had 55,000 applications for the freshman class this year," Bell said. "55,000 applications. It's the highest we've ever had by far -- that's a lot of young people."

The cream of a crop that large is bound to be impressive, and Bell said this year's class is no exception.

"We broke a record last year, for incoming freshmen [who are National Merit Scholars]," Bell said. "We're going to break that record, I project. This year we're going to have around 1,000 National Merit students on our campus this Fall which will be among, if not the most, of any public or private university in the United States."

Those students have a way of "infecting" others around them, Bell said, of driving everyone to be better students and citizens of this community and of the world at large.

Bell also said student population growth like what is projected this academic year can't continue without subsequent growth at the University and in housing options for those students, but said that's a pretty good problem to have, all things considered.

"I will say, I was worried about finding beds for all the kids coming in this freshman class because we've got a big number coming." Bell said. "If we replicate that, there's no way we would not continue to grow."

Bell also touched on alcohol sales at UA's athletic venues, research priorities, efforts to improve diversity and inclusion and more, some of which will be broken out in standalone stories on the Thread.

For more coverage of news coming out of the University of Alabama, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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