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A tone of tradition

Champion Digital | Videos by Courtney Cronin | Story by Kayci Woodley

“It’s just as passionate and tension-ridden as any game you’re ever going to play in. It’s like playing in the Super Bowl. If you lose you’re labeled a loser and if you win you’re a world champion.”

That’s Wabash College graduate and former Buffalo Bills tight end Pete Metzelaars, who played in four Super Bowls, talking about a Division III game.

On the second weekend in November, two communities in west central Indiana collide in the oldest football rivalry west of the Allegheny Mountains. In its 119th year, the Monon Bell Classic extends beyond the campuses of DePauw University in Greencastle and Wabash College in Crawfordsville to transcend the sport itself.

The Monon Railroad donated a 300-pound bell in 1932 to serve as the trophy for the winner of each year's rivalry game. Since the induction of the trophy, Wabash leads the series 38-37-6.

Once connected by passenger cars along the historic Monon Railroad, DePauw and Wabash fight for the rivalry trophy: a 300-pound locomotive bell donated by the railroad in 1932. With tracks wrapped around both campuses, the institutions are constantly reminded of the tradition surrounding the rail line and a longtime rivalry separated by only 28 miles.

The rivalry begins in the recruiting phase, continues through college years and extends into the professional world. And on the final fall weekend before Division III playoffs, Greencastle and Crawfordsville experience the fortune that comes with a foe.

“We both respect what each brings to the table,” said Wabash Athletics Director and 1973 graduate Joe Haklin. “Last year DePauw President (Brian) Casey said, ‘Let us never forget how lucky we are to have each other and how fortunate to have this kind of rivalry that was built up long before any of us arrived.’ ”

With conference realignments and attempts to decrease expenses ruling the day, a guaranteed matchup each year is unusual in today’s college sports landscape. As Wabash prepared to join the North Coast Atlantic Conference, administrators couldn’t guarantee the Bell game for a specific weekend each year.

To keep the rivalry slated on the weekend before playoffs, the schools invited NCAC representatives to witness the storied tradition. Amazed by the atmosphere, administrators agreed the timing of the rivalry should remain and when Wabash joined the conference in 2000, a guaranteed Bell game was listed in the contract.

“Some people might assume these rivalries don’t exist in Division III or that they’re not as passionate as what you might see at another level,” said DePauw Athletics Director Stevie Baker-Watson. “In fact it’s probably more intense because what we really have is an entire campus buying into this rivalry.”

Both highly regarded academic schools, prospective students are often torn between DePauw’s liberal arts campus and Wabash, one of only three all-male colleges remaining in the United States. Wabash prides itself on school tradition and lives by the slogan “Wabash Always Fights.” A half hour south lies DePauw, with a nearly 70 percent Greek population chanting, “DePauw Never Quits.”

 

BELL OF THE BALL

"Ring the Bell for Wabash, ring for old DePauw
Ring the bell for victory in the last game ev’ry fall"
— Lyrics from the Ballad of the Monon Bell (1985)

While DePauw alums composed the music and lyrics of the Monon Bell ballad that references both schools’ slogans, Wabash’s lengthy fight song is recited each year at an event called “Chapel Talk” the Thursday before the Bell game. The weekly all-campus gathering is no longer mandatory, but most students are not willing to miss the reflective and passionate speeches given by the senior football captains and head coach Eric Raeburn. Chests out, standing tall, more than 700 students, faculty and community members belt out the lyrics with pride.

For 1966 Wabash graduate Cal Black, bellowing the fight song strikes a familial chord. His great uncle from the class of 1901 wrote both school songs, “Old Wabash” and “Alma Mater.” Black, who lives in San Francisco, was the 17th member of his family to have graduated from Wabash. Fifteen years in the FBI led to frequent moves across the country, and in 1974 he flew back to Crawfordsville for the Monon Bell game and hasn’t missed one since. He purchased a house in Crawfordsville, just to watch the Little Giants every fall Saturday.

“There was a period where I wasn’t able to get back here, and it drove me nuts,” Black said. “I just don’t want to be any place else in the fall.”

For the 100th anniversary of the Monon Bell Classic in 1993, Black wanted to do something special for the team. He raised enough money to get new uniforms with a centennial logo and distributed them not only to current players but to alumni.

Former Wabash head coach Greg Carlson wanted to surprise his players, so Black hid the uniforms at his house until the Friday afternoon before the game. He brought the uniforms over in his van, unloaded them and hung them in the locker rooms. Only the three captains were allowed in to put them on, and when they walked out to show their teammates what they would be wearing that Saturday, Black said the place erupted.

“I turned to Greg and said, ‘We just won the game,’ ” said Black. “We came out the next day at DePauw and our kids were absolutely sky high.”

The Little Giants did in fact win the 100th meeting of the Monon Bell Classic, 40-26, on the Tigers’ home field. On weeknights in the fall, Black can be found on the track at Hollett Little Giant Stadium, hands buried in the pockets of his bright red Wabash button-up jacket. The Blacks trade near-perfect Arizona weather for cold nights in Crawfordsville and Thursday morning Chapel Talks.

 

TIGER PRIDE

About 30 miles to the south, DePauw students prepare for the Monon Bell game with “Ring Sing,” an annual pep rally aimed to fire up everyone on campus. Individuals at DePauw typically define themselves by their sorority or fraternity affiliation, but during Bell week they come together as one.

As an admissions tour guide, DePauw junior Maryclare Flores always includes an interesting tidbit about the DePauw-Wabash rivalry and the historical Monon Bell when taking prospective students and their families around campus. At this year’s Ring Sing, her a capella group, the Keynotes, performed at the old-fashioned bonfire filled with school spirit. Flores comes from a city of 145,000, nearly 15 times the size of Greencastle, and was told by her mother, an Ohio State graduate, that she would never know what a “real” football game looks like.

“I said, ‘Mom, we’ve got Monon,’ ” Flores said.

“That’s all we need.”

As DePauw students make their way behind Blackstock Stadium, luminaries line the path to the intramural fields where Ring Sing is held. With handwritten messages on the bags like “Go Tigers” and “Beat Wabash,” students are led across the Monon Railroad tracks to the annual celebration.

This year the cheerleading and pom pom squads performed while students enjoyed hot cocoa and cookies. Applause spread as the football team arrived at the gathering, and the DePauw captains thanked everyone for their continued support, despite a rocky season.

DePauw's Naeem Muhammad never played football before his senior year. After months of preparation and support from his teammates as he learned the game, the defensive lineman was ready for his first Monon Bell game.

The Tigers entered the 2012 game 2-7 facing a Little Giant team that just missed this year’s playoffs with a two-loss campaign. But records don’t matter in the Monon rivalry – the stakes are always high.

Locals in Crawfordsville and Greencastle post signs around the towns as restaurant and bar owners eagerly await the Bell rush.

When the game is in Greencastle, Gail Smith, who owns a restaurant called “Almost Home,” puts on her catering hat for tailgating and postgame parties. Meanwhile, Jackie Hopkins, who took ownership of Moore’s Bar & Grill the Thursday before Bell week last year, looks forward to the big crowd every year.

“I’ve been here basically all my life, and this game really brings the community together,” Hopkins said. “It brings a lot (of revenue) to the businesses here, and a lot of opportunity for not just DePauw alums or students but also the Wabash people coming in. You get to meet a lot of different people.”

No matter where the game is played, Johnny Provolone’s Pizza in Crawfordsville doesn’t discriminate, sending flyers reminding fans they’ll deliver, even to Greencastle. And Jeremy Miller, who manages the Fluttering Duck, an eatery above The Inn at DePauw, recognizes familiar faces of alums who returned to reunite with friends before the Bell game.

“It’s such an old rivalry that for anyone who’s from the area, it’s almost like a holiday,” said 2007 DePauw graduate Mike Motch, who returned to the Fluttering Duck from Brooklyn. “It’s like a city holiday for Greencastle. It eclipses pretty much everything else.”

DePauw interim head coach Scott Srnka knows how important bringing back the Bell is to the people of Greencastle. When he first moved into town, his realtor told him they needed it back. Alums from both schools don’t care if their team is undefeated or makes it to the playoffs. A lost Bell is a lost year.

 

COMPLEMENTARY COMMITMENT

For the last seven years AXS TV has broadcast the Monon Bell Classic to a worldwide audience. Many DePauw and Wabash alumni host 'watch parties' together to celebrate the day that puts their alma maters in the national spotlight.

On the list of longest rivalries in college football, the Monon Bell Classic stands No. 12. Of the 11 others, only one series (Missouri-Kansas) holds a closer record than the four games that separate the Tigers and Little Giants. After a 23-0 Wabash victory on Nov. 10, the all-time series is at 57-53-9 in favor of Wabash.

While the traditions have remained the same, technology has allowed the rivalry to evolve. The Monon Bell Classic has been televised for seven years on AXS TV, formerly known as HD Net. Color commentator Paul Maguire, who did NFL games for NBC, has covered three Monon Bell games and shares his energy when talking about the commitment DePauw and Wabash have to one another.

“They somehow, some way, figure out how to fit this into the schedule every year,” Maguire said. “The most important thing is win or lose this ball game, you always have next year. It’ll be on the schedule forever.”

Former DePauw Vice President and Dean Robert Farber listens to every DePauw football game on the radio. The 1935 graduate served as a university administrator for 42 years and now resides at the Asbury Towers nursing home with his wife. When DePauw plays at home, the 98-year-old sits next to the window, hoping to hear a bit of the public address announcer and get as close as he can to the game played just three blocks away.

And in the Tuesday following the game, he has a chance to recap the contest with senior defensive lineman Naeem Muhammad, who chose to visit with Farber as part of community-service effort. The Bronx native cherishes the opportunity to give back to what he refers to as a nurturing community and the people who devoted their lives to DePauw.

“I’m just here to keep (Farber) and his wife company,” Muhammad said. “They did a great job for the university, and I want to help them the way they helped us.”

 

BELL BORROWINGS

While at the end of the day the two schools have a deep respect for one another, it’s the early morning hours leading up to the game when the relationship can be strained.

Students at Wabash College take turns ringing and guarding the Monon Bell 24-hours a day during the week leading up to the game.

The Bell has been successfully “borrowed” eight times, with many failed attempts, including one this year. The Bell rested in front of Wabash’s Pioneer Chapel the entire week leading up to the game. Guarded ’round the clock by pledges. DePauw students tried to take advantage of the Little Giants’ freshmen-led security system at 4:30 a.m. Thursday. Amid the scuffle, the Bell was dropped by Tiger faithful, the handle broken.

While the Tigers were unsuccessful in their attempt to steal the bell, it was the first time since the hallowed Halloween Heist of 1998 that an opposing school physically gained possession of the trophy.

Bell shenanigans occur almost every year. Among the most fabled thefts came in 1965 when a Wabash student posed as a Mexican dignitary interested in developing an exchange program at DePauw. In a meeting with the university president he asked to see the historic Bell. Following his visit to Greencastle, the student shared the Bell’s whereabouts that night and successfully stole the Bell in what is now referred to as “Operation Frijoles.”

One year later, DePauw students actually stole the Bell from themselves. After winning the Bell back, students “ensured” its safety by stealing it from the athletics department and burying it in the end zone of Blackstock Stadium where it stayed for 11 months.

In November of 1978, more than 200 Wabash students took over a sorority at DePauw, refusing to leave without the Bell and playing “Old Wabash” in the sorority’s lounge area. After being threatened with expulsion by the dean, the Wabash students left the sorority only to rouse the fraternity house that held the Bell. The DePauw president then intervened with the scuffle outside the fraternity, shooing Wabash students away and promised to return the Bell the next day to a public and neutral site: Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.

 

FORTUNATE FOR FOES

Not many college football fans would expect the hype of a Division I football game at any Division III contest. While the diehards arrived in Crawfordsville on Tuesday or Wednesday night to secure a spot in the less-than-spacious parking lot, the rest of the fans lined the perimeter of Little Giant Stadium to begin tailgating as early as 7 a.m. for the 1:07 p.m. kickoff.

A total of 8,791 fans gathered inside the stadium to watch the action while hundreds of others peered through the fences boarding the tailgating lots. A glance upward to the pressbox on the Wabash side revealed a sea of red and a rowdy rendition of “Wabash Always Fights.”

Across the way, DePauw students and fans from Greencastle poured into their section and remained standing to support their team even though the Tigers were shut out by a group of Wabash seniors who would claim their fourth consecutive Bell.

The largest official attendance for a Monon Bell Classic was in 2010 when 11,743 tickets were distributed. Wabash had to construct temporary bleachers to accommodate the thousands of people who showed up with a ticket.

Buffalo Bills tight ends coach and 1982 Wabash graduate Pete Metzelaars vividly remembers his last game in a red and white uniform. Wabash was ranked in the top five nationally but lost to DePauw in the Bell game. Metzelaars fumbled on a pass play, which resulted in a DePauw score.

“I just hated it,” Metzelaars said. “It was a chance for our team to go to the playoffs and it was huge for them to keep us out of it and kind of ruin our season.”

Metzelaars played in the NFL for 16 years and now coaches with the Bills. Often referred to as the “CEO Bowl” because of the business professionals DePauw and Wabash produce, Metzelaars draws a comparison between the Monon Bell Classic and playing in a world championship game.

This year's Wabash College seniors completed a clean sweep of the Monon Bell. The last time a senior class went 4-0 in Bell games was 1979.

“It is the game of the year. If you lose you feel horrible about it for a whole year, and it’s similar in that aspect to playing in the Super Bowl,” he said.

Wabash head coach Eric Raeburn knows what it’s like to win multiple Monon Bell games. But he’s also experienced one of the most devastating losses of his coaching career. Although Wabash went to the playoffs in 2008, the Little Giants lost the Big Game – a point that Raeburn’s son made visually by drawing a picture of the stadium with a sentence underneath that read, “Wabash lost the Bell game and I’ve never been so embarrassed.”

Raeburn got the point. From then on, the Raeburn family was all in when it comes to school spirit, including the addition of two fuzzy family members. One dog is named Bell, after the prized trophy, and the other is Rex 47, coined after Wabash’s 47-0 win two years ago.

“When we came here everybody had talked about the Monon and how big the game was and the stands and the people and the atmosphere,” Eric’s wife Liz Raeburn said. “We had played in some pretty big games before, so I certainly respected that they were excited. And now after having experienced my fifth Bell game, I can honestly say that there is nothing else like this in Division III.”