On one Saturday each November, DePauw University and Wabash College meet on the gridiron in one of college football’s oldest and most colorful rivalries. The two west central Indiana schools have faced each other 122 times with Wabash holding a 60-53-9 lead. Since the Monon Bell entered the rivalry in 1932, Wabash leads the series, 41-37-6.
The teams not only play for pride but also for possession of the 300-pound Monon (pronounced MOE-non) Bell; the trophy that goes to the winning team.
Since 1890, the teams have battled each other making the series the oldest small college football rivalry west of the Alleghenies amongst schools that have met at least 100 times. The two schools have met each of the last 105 years dating back to 1911. Only during 1897-1899, inclusive, and in 1902 and 1910 have the two schools on the Monon Railroad Line (now L & N) failed to play one another.
The three years in the 1890s during which games did not come about, the schools simply didn’t schedule each other for unknown reasons. The teams didn’t meet in 1910 due to the death of Wabash’s star halfback Ralph Wilson. Wilson died from a concussion suffered in a game against St. Louis.
The actual bell entered the famed series in 1932. According to the DePauw record books, the bell’s debut went something like this:
"In a chapel pep session the day before the 1932 DePauw-Wabash game, the Monon Bell was presented by Russell Alexander, the DePauw publicity director, as the official DePauw-Wabash trophy for football. It was to be presented every year to the winner of the traditional battle. In case of a tie, it remained with the previous year’s winner. The 300-pound bell was a gift of the Monon Railroad, taken from one of the railroad’s locomotives.
The idea of a trophy originated in a letter sent to Mr. Bill Fox, (then) sports editor of The Indianapolis News, from DePauw alumnus Orien Fifer of the class of 1925. The 1932 game was played on a field covered with ice and snow, the snowfall during the preceding few days being so heavy that it was necessary to clear the field with roadscrapers. The gamed ended in a scoreless tie."
Since the schools are only 28 miles apart, the adversaries in the game are often brothers, cousins, high school classmates or good friends, adding to the rivalry’s intensity. The bell has been stolen at least eight times from its temporary owners, but the most famous "thefts" may have occurred in the mid-1960s.
In 1965, a Wabash student appeared on the DePauw campus posing as a Mexican dignitary and interested in developing an exchange program with DePauw. While meeting with the University president he asked to see the bell. After learning of its whereabouts, the student returned with friends later and stole it.
DePauw got the bell back in time for the game which the Tigers won 9-7. DePauw students, hoping to keep the bell safely under wraps, stole it from their own school the week after the game and secretly buried it for 11 months in the north end zone of Blackstock Stadium. Only a handful of DePauw students knew of its location. But an unexpected problem arose prior to the big game. The ground froze that week in Greencastle, and the students were barely able to recover it in time for the Wabash team to claim it as the game ended in near darkness.
The Monon Bell game is more than just a game. The week preceding the annual contest has included shared activities between the two schools, such as concerts, debates, an intramural all-star football game, an alumni football game the morning of the varsity contest and other events.
In 1985, Jim Ibbotson, a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a 1969 graduate of DePauw, arranged and recorded "The Ballad of the Monon Bell" which was written by 1968 DePauw graduate and football player Darel Lindquist. Nancy Ford Charles ’57 wrote the original music for the ballad. A video was also produced with "The Ballad".
The media have long understood the special nature of this famous small college battle. In addition to Sports Illustrated’s extensive coverage in 1973, CBS-TV’s Charles Kuralt did a feature on the game during his "Sunday Morning" show in 1979, ABC-TV aired it as a regional telecast in 1977 and the Christian Science Monitor praised it in a 1981 feature. The November 13, 1987, edition of USA Today highlighted the rivalry in a feature story in its sports section and in 1988 the CBS Radio Network aired a feature on the rivalry throughout the nation. The 1998 contest was covered as a feature in the Wall Street Journal and the 1999 contest was feature on Fox Sports Net’s weekly show, The Slant. The centennial game also was featured in the November 22, 1993, issue of Sports Illustrated.
The game is regularly telecast live to combined alumni meetings of the two schools in cities across the country and on networks including on ABC-TV in 1977, ESPN2 in 1994 and AXS vTV (formerly HDNet) in 2003 and 2006 through 2015. The 2004 and 2005 games were telecast nationally on DirecTV.