The second Saturday every November usually means one thing for those graduates of two small schools in west-central Indiana: “The Battle for the Monon Bell.” The DePauw University Tigers of Greencastle and Wabash College Little Giants of Crawfordsville will renew their on-field rivalry for the 124th time on Saturday. It’s the second oldest college rivalry west of the Alleghany Mountain range and the eleventh most played in college football history. The game even has its own theme song (that’s yours truly at 2:42).
Division Three football is not what many would consider “big time.” Schools do not have access to athletic scholarships and so those who play must do so for the love of the game, their school, their teammates, and their fellow students/alumni. At DePauw and Wabash, they play not only for those prideful things, but a three hundred pound bell donated in 1932 by the Monon Railroad Steam Engine # 99. The municipalities are now only connected by a twenty-eight mile stretch on rustic U.S. Highway 231.
During the game, the bell rings constantly as a reminder of who currently “owns” it and at the conclusion, the winning team gets to run across the field – sometimes into the teeth of the opposing fan base – and grab it back. The team who “owns” it the following year gets to paint the inside of the bell and the handle in their team color: Red for Wabash; Gold for DePauw.
And, through the years, the Bell has been the subject of attempted and successful thefts from the other school. One such theft, known as Operation Frijoles, involved a Wabash student posing as a representative of the US Information Service in Mexico City to learn – and eventually steal –the bell from DePauw in 1965. Another involves DePauw students who were so afraid of it being stolen, they stole it from themselves, carried it over to Blackstock Stadium, digging a deep hole in the north end zone, and burying it. The Bell was last stolen in 1998, but has had several attempted heists since then including just this year when Wabash students wore President Trump and Obama masks. It’s begun to be called by the two schools the Bipartisan Attempt.
Gentle ribbing between the schools is common place too. Wabash students are known colloquially as Cavemen (since it is an all-male school) or Wallies after their mascot Wally Wabash. DePauw students are known as Dannies (for a variety of reasons, but was popularized after Vice President Quayle – a DPU grad – misspelled potato). History even shows that this back-and-forth goes back to the beginning of the series when the DePauw newspaper posed: “Is there a college in this State by the name of Wabash, and has it a foot ball team?”
In 2005 it was voted the “Best Rivalry in Indiana” at ESPN.COM. The poll, which also had the likes of the Hoosier/ Boilermaker basketball rivalry, garnered thirty-five percent of the vote. The game has produced multiple books and has regularly been featured on ESPN, ABC, AXStv, and this year on Fox Sports.
So what is it about this game? What is it about these schools? What is it about this type of football?
I asked DePauw University’s Executive Director of Media Relations, Ken Owen, to get that answer. Owen has spent numerous years producing video catalogues of almost every tilt which he’s entitled “Monon Memories.” He said this:
“I think that while the game of football has changed a great deal since 1890, the DePauw – Wabash rivalry is a reminder of what makes a sporting event special. Here you have two schools, separated by 28 miles of roadway and with not a single athletic scholarship on either roster. They’re playing for the love of the game and the outcome matters deeply. Throw in the back stories [including heists of the trophy] and you have something you certainly couldn’t manufacture from scratch.” He continued with a very prescient point in today’s world, “As a nation, and certainly a sports culture, we’re much different than we were in 1890, but in many ways the Monon Bell is suspended in time and a reminder of who we were and who we are.”
As someone who has been peripherally involved in the game, Owen is spot on. Going to this game transports you to a time without cell phones, jumbo-trons, or big flashy digital scoreboards. A time when everyone was transfixed on what was happening on the field rather than a two or three inch screen in your hand. A time and place when you were expected to elbow your seat neighbor about a good block rather than texting someone far away. A time when all that mattered was spending a Saturday afternoon with friends and family yelling in favor of your team hoping you get to ring the bell at the end of the day.
So, if you can, tune in. Enjoy. Or, if you can, travel down to Greencastle on the 11 and watch young men battle for the simple glory of being the winners of the 124th installment of the “last game every fall.”