Neighboring Indiana teams in a little, big rivalry

The students at Indiana's DePauw University and all-male Wabash College won't have to be coaxed out of the library Saturday. Their football teams take the field in the oldest continuous rivalry west of the Alleghenies, uninterrupted since 1910.

These schools normally attract 3,000 or 4,000 spectators per game, but when they battle for the Monon Bell in the season finale, the crowd is twice that size. A ring of humanity presses along the sidelines to see which tiny fortress of academia will possess the 350-pound locomotive dinger until next year.

The rivalry had been brewing for several decades when the Monon Railroad (now the L&N) decided to introduce the bell as a focal point. It's a fitting trophy for schools connected by the line, the tracks running from Greencastle, the home of DePauw, 30 miles due north to Crawfordsville in west-central Indiana. The train chugs by the Wabash practice field and every now and then an errant kick finds its way under the clacking wheels.

Tradition alone makes the Monon Bell game a very special event, as does the record. Wabash leads this incredibly even series by just one victory, 40 to 39, with eight ties.

Both teams could be winless entering the contest, and the intensity of an Ohio State-Michigan or Army-Navy clash would still exist. True classics always stand on their own, yet recent records make this year's matchup all the more tantalizing.

The Little Giants of Wabash just happen to own the longest unbeaten streak in the country - 24 games. The only scuff mark during this period was last year's 22-22 tie, inflicted by DePauw. A draw never stung so much, as it kept Wabash from its first perfect season ever and a Division III, or small college, NCAA playoff berth. (The record books show Wabash with a 4-0 mark in 1910, a season curtailed after a Little Giant player was fatally injured.)

Though DePauw scored the tying touchdown and two-point conversion with 67 seconds left last year, both teams struggled valiantly to break the deadlock in the waning moments. ''No coach plays for a tie in this game; that would be grounds for getting fired,'' says Ted Katula, a DePauw assistant coach for many years and now the school's director of student activities and associate director of alumni relations. (Wearing many hats is standard at Wabash too, where athletic director Max Servies also is an assistant football coach and head wrestling coach.)

Tom Mont, DePauw's athletic director, knew just how distasteful tie games were from his many years at the Tiger helm. In 1960, all DePauw had to do to retain the bell was kick a tying extra point, possession of the trophy falling to the previous year's winner.Instead he turned to the crowd, gesturing for them to decide, and the emphatic reply came back, ''Go!'' Which Depauw did to win 14- 13.

In pointing for this year's renewal, Wabash took last week off after running its 1981 record to 8-0 and and securing the No. 2 spot behind Widener College (of Pennsylvania) in the Division III rankings. DePauw, which plays such common opponents as Hope, Rose-Hulman, and Albion, has done nearly as well. The Tigers also are playoff candidates at 8-1, their lone loss to last season's small-college champion, Dayton.

Though DePauw fielded an undefeated, unscored upon squad in 1933, a victory Saturday would give the school its first nine-win season since 190l. That year's lengthy schedule saw the Tigers defeat Wabash twice, while also fattening up by beating an Indianapolis high school team. Their losses came to Purdue, Indiana, and the alumni team.

Today, the thought of DePauw, with its 1,500 students, or Wabash (750) taking on major football-playing institutions is laughable. But it wasn't in the early decades of this century, before athletic factories were hatched. Both schools battled Notre Dame on at least one occasion, plus other emerging local powers. The courage of the Wabash players, in fact, is what inspired one reporter to write, ''. . .they tackled like Little Giants,'' a nickname quickly adopted.

Similar footnotes and lore cloak the football histories of these neighbors, enriching their rivalry.

The bell itself, however, has become the symbol of their competition. As happens so often in these situations, cunning, conniving students get into the act trying to wrest the trophy out of enemy hands. One year, a Wabash undergrad passed himself off as Mexican reporter to the DePauw president, who divulged the bell's hiding place. That evening the bell was gone. Later, it was buried in the end zone of DePauw's Blackstock Stadium. When the time arrived to unearth it, the ground was frozen solid and students frantically tried to dig it out before the game ended.

The proximity of the two campuses helps to fuel this rivalry. It allows Wabash men to date DePauw women, a flash point of sorts between male students. Those at DePauw called their Wabash counterparts ''Cavemen,'' who have returned the favor by coining DePauw men ''Dannies.''

A commonality of purpose and locale has made for an underlying friendliness. ''I like Wabash,'' Katula says unabashedly. ''It's a super school with a great bunch of people. But during the second week of November the truce is off.''

A sure sign that it's open season on one another are the joint alumni roasts that precede the big game. One mixed affair is held in Chicago, followed by verbal barbs being hurled soon after at a stag dinner in Indianapolis.

Over the years the DePauw-Wabash rivalry has not gone unnoticed. CBS newsman Charles Kuralt has reported on it, ABC televised it regionally, and Sports Illustrated has written about it at great length.

Regardless of Saturday's score, the two schools will once again be out to prove what college football is really all about - spirited competition just for the fun of it.

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