Inside look at Wheaton, North Central athletic culture

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Whether you are a student-athlete or not on North Central College’s campus, you know that there is something big about game days against our neighbors seven miles down the road: the Wheaton College Thunder.

“This is the longest-standing rivalry, institutionally, and it’s not just because of location,” said North Central College Athletic Director Jim Miller. “So much has to do with the fact that our schools were two of the first members of the CCIW (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin), going back to 1946. We have been playing Wheaton in college athletics since intercollegiate athletics started at both schools, and, even though Wheaton is very conservative, we have a similar type of school as far as we are both good academically and from a standpoint of athletic success.

“In the last six of the eight years, we have won the most conference titles. North Central has placed in the top 25 percent in the Directors Cup for national success, but Wheaton has been 1-2 with us right there throughout,” said Miller.

Miller has first-hand experience with this rivalry. As a former athlete coach for both North Central College’s football and wrestling teams, Miller has had countless experiences with Thunder athletics.

His relationship with athletic faculty at Wheaton also shows that this rivalry isn’t a nasty one, even if it doesn’t seem that way on game day.

“The coaches that I have always interacted at Wheaton College have been terrific and have been supportive, both to me as a young coach and as an athletic director,” said Miller. “They encourage and respect the athletes and the effort it takes to play the sport they play. We understand that we are all putting forth the same effort. They are so encouraging, and yet, when it comes time to compete, both of our teams will get after it.”

Recently, Cardinals sports fans have seen this rivalry unfold first-hand. On Jan. 22, the Cardinal wrestling team beat Wheaton in a tight last match, taking the victory 24-23. The following weekend, the men’s basketball team hosted the Thunder at Gregory Arena, clinching a 63-62 victory in the final seconds of the game.

It’s those close games, the ones that have fans on the edge of their seats or on their feet, that fuel the rivalry.

Of course, with the tension and the heightened competition between these two schools, one cannot forget about the Little Brass Bell, a Cardinal football tradition. While it was first used by North Central in the football series of 1946, the bell’s history extends beyond athletics.

The bell became a symbol of the political battle over the location of the DuPage County Courthouse between Naperville and Wheaton. Even when Wheaton started a successful 10-year stint to gain leadership of the courthouse, Naperville refused to turn over the records to its new owner.

In retaliation against Naperville, Wheaton residents raided the courthouse in July of 1857, taking documents and a little brass bell with them.

The bell was never returned to its rightful owner and soon found its way into the hands of a farmer living between city lines. He had two sons, both of whom wanted to attended college, and a flipped coin decided which would go to Wheaton and which would go to North Central.

After the father’s death, the son attending North Central inherited the bell, which became a symbol of campus loyalty instead of political unrest.

Of course, being college students, the bell became a hot commodity and a target for night raids and college shenanigans. After many years of traveling back and forth between the two schools, the bell was designated as the trophy for the annual football game between the Cardinals and the Thunder, where it serves as symbol of a historic rival between the schools.

In the series’ history, Wheaton has claimed more Little Brass Bell titles than North Central, but the Cardinals have held onto the prize eight of the last ten years. Although Wheaton took the title in 2014 and currently holds The Bell, the Cardinals are ready to bring it back to Naperville in 2015.

While Wheaton does have the upper hand in sports such as women’s basketball, swimming and diving, tennis and softball, the Cardinals remain dominant in football, wrestling, baseball, track and field, cross country and men’s basketball.

“Pick any of the games in the last decades in football or basketball and it was a huge game,” said Miller. “We were either playing for the conference title or playing to share it.

“Everyone knows our cross team is great, and now our football team is great. It sets the tempo for athletics for the years to follow.”

Being able to have a healthy and competitive conference rivalry adds a great deal of depth and tradition to North Central College’s athletic culture. Everyone is waiting for that big game and waiting to see what is going to happen next.

“You know this big game is coming up,” said Miller. “You are emotionally and mentally preparing. Once you are in physical condition, there is only so much you can do; it really is the emotional and mental approach and dealing with the adversity that comes with it.”

As with any close game, when the stakes are high and the tension is building, there is bound to be some chirping from the fans and maybe a few more fouls. Miller believes that it’s not dirty play, but good competition and a major part of Cardinal athletics.

“Because we have this longstanding rivalry, it is very healthy,” said Miller. “This is not Hatfield and McCoy with bitter feelings—it’s nothing like that. It’s not even close.”

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Emily Zadny is the Sports Editor for the Chronicle/NCClinked.

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