O. C. Bell, Coach between the Old Football and the New

[this is the full text of the article summarized in the Monmouth College alumni magazine]


By William Urban


            The years 1905-1906 were marked by intense discussions—hardly a college faculty or high school board was not divided by accusations that the sport had grown too brutal and retorts that manliness was under yet another attack. The sport was coached by professionals only at the largest universities, with small colleges and high schools still making do with volunteer faculty, some of whom were more acquainted with the ever-popular game of baseball and newly-introduced basketball. At Monmouth College this changed during the two years that Oscar Clifford Bell was athletic director.

When Bell was born in Biggsville, Illinois, March 15, 1880, there were few rules for football other than not to gouge out an opponent’s eyes while he was trapped in a rugby-style pile, and throwing a ball forward was worthy of a referee’s stern reprimand. Over the years agreements were reached on how to mark a field, on limiting slugging, lessening interlocked blocking and low tackling, and use of the flying wedge.  As the years passed, football heroes made the sport more popular, until almost every high school and college was fielding a team. As participation grew, so too did concerns over the safety of the players.

Bell’s parents, William[1] and Sarah Martha,[2] do not seem to have had any particular athletic ability—his brothers entered the work force early, his sisters were talented in music. But Cliff Bell was an extraordinary sprinter, who together with one other runner brought the 1899 and 1900 state track title home to their little high school; this stunned the large schools which had expected to dominate as usual—Bell bought back gold in the 50 yard, 100 yard and 200 yard dashes each year.

Outraged competitors attributed this to the two star trackmen being 23 and 24 years of age, a charge that census records prove false. Bell was twenty in 1900, his companion twenty-one—not unusual in an age when boys worked in the fields spring, summer and fall. But the big city athletes beaten in 1899 were so angry—according to the Chicago Tribune—that they tore up the railroad cars they were riding in, and an investigation was launched. All that came from the furor was a ruling that future participants could not be above the age of twenty-one.

            Cliff Bell entered the University of Illinois in the fall of 1900, playing football as a reserve halfback for one season—the Chicago Tribune referred to him as “the Biggsville sprinter.” According to the Tribune, he was elected captain of the track team after the 1901 season.[3]

After earning his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1903, he became principal of the Belmont School.[4] In the Spring of 1905 he accepted an offer to coach track at Monmouth College, which, according to the Ravelings (the college yearbook) was the largest college in the state.[5] But his principal motivation was probably to be with his family—his father was dying and his mother and two sisters were still living in the house at 416 S. Fifth.[6]

His track team lost the first meet to Illinois College, but beat Knox and Lombard. In the words of the Oracle (the monthly student newspaper) of May 1905, “He has the men training and working hard every day and his coaching is of the right kind, for he understands ‘how it is done’.” It was an omen of things to come.[7] President McMichael, a former Monmouth College athlete himself and thus able to judge talent quickly, offered him a contract to coach football, basketball, baseball and track for the 1905-06 year.

            Happily, the Ravelings of the next years contained detailed descriptions of each sport and often each athlete,[8] and the local paper, the Monmouth Review, covered each game in detail. 1905 was also a good year for Monmouth College, which had a new high in enrollment;[9] and for the community—the interurban to Galesburg and to Moline were almost finished,[10] construction was about to start on the Colonial Hotel, and the first Kindergarten was being organized.

            It was, however, not a good year for football. Critics pointed to the rising toll of players who died or were injured, with teams deliberately maiming opponents’ key players and adding non-students to their own rosters. Such criticism had been growing for years, but it had no focus until President Roosevelt’s son announced that he would play football at Harvard. TR immediately realized that Kermit would be singled out for rough treatment unless something was done. Not a man to stand back when it came to taking a stand, TR immediately called the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House; soon afterward the American Football Rules Committee was established, leading to the sports association that evolved into the NCAA. It was not that TR was a sissy—a college boxer, western rancher, New York Police Commissioner, and head of the Rough Riders in the Spanish war, he believed in the strenuous life, but football, like politics, had to be made safe for gentlemen.[11]

This would have its impact on all Illinois colleges and high schools, but especially so on Monmouth College, which was proud of its football history—though the rivalry with Knox College was scarcely appreciated at the time, the series of games that started in 1891 (actually 1888, but there was no team fielded in the two years to follow) would become the oldest rivalry west of the Appalachians.

Football was evolving rapidly, led by the large university programs, but followed enthusiastically by a multitude of small schools that had not yet realized the need for extensive recruiting, training, and publicity.[12] Certainly small colleges could not recruit players beyond the personal contacts of the coaches, the alumni of the college, and the enthusiastic support of local newspapers; facilities were primitive, but stretched each college’s limited budget significantly; and a significant percentage of faculty and clergymen in the denomination believed that the sport was dangerous, wasteful and teaching impressionable young men all the wrong lessons.

Even scheduling games was far from a science. Teams promised to appear, then begged off. Students promised to play, then did not show up. Athletic facilities varied in quality—usually from bad to worse. The Monmouth College Catalog warned, “There shall be no match game played on the Park or any ground whatsoever during recitation hours, without consent of the faculty,” and “We seek not to make athletics so prominent as to interfere with mental work, but to direct this necessary adjunct of college life that it give recreation and vigor of body and mind to the student.”

And that was the heart of the matter! Was Christianity the realm of the mild and gentle Jesus or the vigorous religion of Theodore Roosevelt? Was a denominational school to turn out “namby-pambies” or models of manliness that would attract youthful males into the churches and colleges?

If the intent of the Monmouth administration—just recovering from the financial crisis of 1898-1901—was to minimize the enthusiasm of the students for sports, it was no more successful than the strenuous efforts to eliminate consumption of alcohol, smoking and playing cards. It was, after all, one of Monmouth’s most revered professors who adapted this favorite song from the popular Bingo repertoire:


Here’s to Monmouth College,

With her wisdom and her knowledge.

Drink her down, Drink her down.

Drink her down, down, down.


Still, admission standards were stiff—at least one year of Latin, Algebra, Geometry, English, History, Geography, Physics and Biology. That explains why 266 students were in the Music Conservatory and the Choral Society rather than in the preparatory and collegiate divisions. Inevitably the 94 freshmen would dwindle down to 32 seniors—and juniors and seniors made the best varsity material. For the Conservatory only a belief in one’s musical talents was required—the Music faculty was very good at turning out splendid choir groups, quartets and individual performers, but not running backs. The college buildings were few in number—Old Main (burned 1907), East Hall (now Austin Hall, named in honor of Bell’s contemporary, the director of the Conservatory), the large Auditorium, the tiny gymnasium and the heating plant (long managed by a genial “Master of Bituminous Combustion.”[13]

There was more interest in the annual Pole Scrap between the freshman and sophomore classes than in intercollegiate athletics.[14] Students participated in debates, plays and concerts; and the spring celebration in Valley Beautiful with the May Pole, dancing, singing, and faculty acting in farces, was a high point in the college’s social life. Women wore long dresses and big hats; men wore jackets and ties. After “recitation hours” students walked the six blocks downtown to the ice cream parlors, clothing and shoe stores, the restaurants, the new department store and the cigar factory. They studied at the Warren County Library, paid to see theatrical and musical groups, and gawked at the newest cars—in 1903 local businessman Fred Pattee bought a car in Chicago and drove it home in only two days; most students could handle a horse and buggy, but since keeping a horse was expensive, they usually took the trolley to campus.

Although small groups of non-athletics followed the football games closely, school spirit was not high—there were complaints about apathy aplenty, plaints best expressed in The Football Player’s Soliloquy: “When all is said and done, did it pay? What has been gained by it in any way? Wasn’t the old fellow right, who came around with his long pious face declaring us all little better than brutes and wondering what the world was coming too (sic), that a christian college would allow such a return to barbarism?”[15] Several pages later he became a philosopher: “What of the joys of victory and the sorrows of defeat? Well, it’s sort of fine to be a hero in the winning game, but there is a lot more strength in being able to take defeat like a man.”

Bell would have none of that. He announced at the beginning that he intended to win the state championship in football.[16] His staff was small—as assistant he had the coach of the previous two years, and a very efficient student manager who took care of equipment.[17] His captain, “Pete” McMillan, hailed, as he did, from Biggsville. Captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams, McMillan assured that the players took the game seriously. The field was east down Broadway, a large area on 12th street surrounded by a board fence to assure that spectators paid; the stands ran along the straightaway of the track. If admissions fees were supposed to cover most expenses, that was one more reason to have a first-class team.

Although Bell managed to talk the athletic board into buying new uniforms, those were probably only for the starters—“scrubs” would wear the cast-offs. There were no numbers, few pads, and the tight-fitting helmets protected the ears more than the head. The flying wedge had been banned in 1894, but blocking from behind and other rough tactics were still legal. Since starters played both offense and defense, physical conditioning was essential. The single wing formation lent itself to fake handoffs, reverses, power sweeps and trap plays.[18]

            The warm-up football games in 1905 against high school teams were counted in the season record—with good reason in an era when boys went to high school into their twenties (remember the complaints about Bell being 23) and were toughened by hard physical labor on farms and in factories.[19] In most sports high school teams held their own against college men. The college usually made up for this by audaciously scheduling university squads—in 1903 Monmouth lost to the University of Chicago 0-108,[20] in 1907 to Missouri 12-6; eventually ended the long series with Northwestern at 5-7.

Next week’s 40-0 loss to Iowa University was followed by a Review headline, “Crippled Team Goes to Keokuk,” but the squad still won 49-0.[21] Early concerns about the backfield (“Coach Bell would give a good deal right now for a fullback”) ended with the Sept.26 headline, “Return of Old Men Cheers Coach Bell.” Those three lettermen gave him two complete backfields. Soon his relentless practice drills began to pay off. From fundamentals—starting, dropping on a ball, and running—he proceeded to lightning swift attacks featuring precision teamwork. The subsequent routs of collegiate opponents were impressive. After the 35-6 win over Lombard College in Galesburg, the Review reported that “lots of money changed hands after this game.” The Iowa Wesleyan game was played in a hayfield that had not been harvested, and the Iowa fans were so upset at their loss (22-0) that the game almost disintegrated into “a rough house.” The Ravelings noted that on October 11, Bell “made his debut as a lecturer—on of those ‘heart-to-heart’ talks.” In preparation for the Knox game he held secret practices, telling the Review reporter that he would rely on “speed and snappy plays” to offset the weight disadvantage; after the 12-6 victory, the players were carried off the field on the shoulders of the fans. It was the “fastest and best exhibition of football that has been witnessed in many a day.”

The next week he made a special visit to Peoria to arrange a game with Millikin College for the championship of Illinois, then watched his team slaughter Coe 62-5; the Review commented that, “the precision which characterized the execution of every play reflected credit to the team’s enthusiastic trainer, Coach Bell.” The Millikin game proved a surprisingly easy 35-0. The Review commented that, “’Hurry Up’ Bell wore a smile all through the game.” (772 yards of offense—all running plays—versus 83.) And that “the rooters root for him almost as much as for the eleven.” No wonder an earlier article had said, “Coach Bell is already a favorite.” As the 1907 Ravelings noted, the players were “men with brains as well as brawn. The team was perfectly balanced in weight and the men were fast.” Fast, undoubtedly, and tall, but the heaviest two players weighed only 190 pounds, the next 175, and the rest much less.[22]

            Illinois College fell 22-0, leaving as contender for the state championship only Lake Forest, a team that had narrowly beaten Monmouth in 1902 and 1903 and had tied the previous year. Anticipation of the big game on Thanksgiving Day inspired this poem,[23]


The dull, cold day sends through my bones a dread of tables turned.

Let we should lose the championship, now so nearly earned.

Through the season we have come, nor suffered one defeat.

The roaring bleachers now affirm, today we will not be beat.

And I will play; aye, play!

Must, on me depends the game.

Well I know that every man regards it just the same.

What bumps and breaks await me there,

Now gives me no concern,

One thing alone I know or care;

‘tis “Honest Victory Earned!”

I’ve played it all while waiting here, and now must play again.   

For there sounds loud the call of Bell, “game’s called my hearty men.”


The last practice was a “Forty Minute Grind,” but it paid off in a 23-0 victory over Lake Forest.[24] The football banquet in the spacious downtown Armory featured 200 guests, with Prof. Graham, the faculty member of the athletic board, proposing “giving the ‘socker’ game a try.” Bell “responded in a very pleasant style.”[25] When a whistle was blown, the players dove into the splendid meal—at last released from the coach’s strict dietary rules.[26]       

            Immediately Bell was at basketball practice—the first game had been held on Nov. 30, apparently under the guidance of the student manager. The team lost the first three contests, but won the remaining ten. The Ravelings gossip calendar noted that on January 7, “Millie says that she has gone to dinner with two famous men in her day—Capt. Hobson and Coach Bell.” (Whatever that meant is lost in the mists of time.) On January 9 there was a formal award of “M” sweaters to the football team—a gigantic M on a turtleneck—and on January 27, after a 27-13 victory, “Cliff Bell severs all athletic connection with Augustana.”

            The Ravelings summed up the year with a spoof of faculty minutes that reported, “Prof. Bell called attention of the faculty to the fact that he is making good. Reports that the student body has not yet gotten next to the fact that he is planning for essential complete control of Monmouth athletics.” His photo shows a handsome, thin man in an elegant suit.[27]

            By the end of the season it was clear that football would be different in 1906. The reforms had been announced—stronger rules against roughness, no more “hurdling” (throwing a small player over the scrimmage line holding the ball), better pads, legalizing the forward pass (but under restrictions that included, in the case of an incomplete pass, giving the ball to the other team), requiring teams to make ten yards instead of five to get a first down (in three plays instead of four) and ending the practice whereby a punt was a free ball for anyone who could land on it or wrestle it away from an opponent.[28] The game was also shortened from seventy minutes to sixty, with the ten minutes allotted to a half-time break. Still, if the referees were any good—a doubtful prospect—the game would be less violent. More significantly, the game boded to become too sophisticated for a student or volunteer faculty manager. The professional coach appeared—a man who would command, not cajole. Cliff Bell was a prototype.

            But 1906 was not an easy fall for O.C. Bell. His father had died in June, then his sister Olive dropped out of the Conservatory to marry and move to Kansas.[29] Cliff and his sister Pansy remained home to take care of their mother. But those events were anticipated. It was the football season that had one unexpected crisis after another.

In spite of the enthusiasm of the students and the high hopes expressed in the Monmouth Review of Sept 6th, the “Bell Machine” almost didn’t appear. In fact, the season was one long series of crises, beginning with his inability to meet the new students because he was involved in the registration process. Then several key lettermen began skipping practice—one had a sprained wrist, another had already played “four or five years” and was tired of the sport, a couple needed to study, and one was the lead orator in the debate contests.[30] After attendance had fallen so low that Bell could barely field two squads, he invited the local high school to scrimmage in practices; then on September 18th he warned the student body after chapel that unless the players came to practice, he would cancel the next game—the vote to continue the sport was unanimous, and the students ended the session with spirit-raising yells. Few, however, took up his offer to let them try out for the team.

            The next bad news was from the universities he had hoped to play—Iowa and Purdue had no room on their schedule. Then Knox and Lombard dropped football, Knox to take up soccer. Then Rose Polytechnical cancelled. Bell had to scurry to find opponents. But that was not his greatest problem—by the middle of the month a scrimmage against the high school squad was so unsatisfactory that Bell spoke to President McMichael, who called a student meeting after chapel the next day. The president asked, “Are we to have a football team which will be a credit to the institution or shall we quit the came altogether?” After saying that “if there was to be a team, it should be a representative one, made up of the best material which can be found at the college.” He then turned to Coach Bell, who “put it to the students even stronger than the preceding speaker.” A few players explained their reasons for not appearing, one saying that he “could hardly find the time to practice.” The question was put to a vote, with the students again unanimously backing a football season. Presumably the students then put pressure on their friends to go to practice.[31]

The first game—October 1st, was only a thirty minute contest against Biggsville High School. A win, 17-0, it was the college’s first game when a forward pass was allowed.[32] However, the Review noted because of lack of practice, “few of the fancy plays allowed by the new rules were executed.” The equally short game against Monmouth High School was hardly better—they were familiar with most of the trick plays.

A week later most of the missing players were back. The game with Illinois College resulted in a large headline, “Red and White an Easy Victor.”[33] Because “speed, dash, energy and determination marked every man,” it was no surprise that the score was 61-0, even with the second team playing much of the second half, because the previous year the score had been 75-0. It was more important, as the Review noted, “the game proved beyond a doubt that the new rules have done much to make the sport more open and much safer for the players.”

Desperate to find an opponent, Bell scheduled the community team of Kewanee. As it happened, news of the rule changes hadn’t reached Kewanee, because those very large and rough players “refused to be penalized.” To allow the game to proceed, Coach Bell had to ask the referee to go by the old rules. It got worse when Bell’s trick plays were frustrated by the crowd surging onto the field, and drop kicks were impossible because the ball was so soft and dead; even punts hardly went any distance. Two long runs won the game, but Bell said, “It was the worst gang of rowdies and ruffians that I ever got up against.”[34] Old-time football died hard.

The Millikin fans were much better. 200 Monmouth students took the train to the contest. Billed as a “championship game” of undefeated teams, it was “not a walkaway.” Downright miserable, in fact. There was a “cold raw northwest wind blowing down the field that chilled both players and spectators.” Nevertheless, “the game was played in Monmouth’s usual whirlwind style, little time being taken out.”[35] Monmouth students joked that the opposition should have been named “Mili-kan’t.” That was unfair—Millikin had scored in the closing minutes, but 25-9 was a decisive win.[36]

Awkwardly, Illinois Wesleyan cancelled the next game, saying that its team was too crippled to play. But obviously the word had gotten around. Des Moines (Drake) had expected to lose, but not so badly as 51-0. The Review of November 13th commented on the game, “the locals again brought the smile which comes to Coach Bell’s face only when they play winning ball.” The losing coach said that his boys “laid down,” but the reporter thought it was more that they were “run over.”

The upcoming Lake Forest game was commented on by all but one Chicago paper, and the alumni were expected to turn out in force. It was a mud-match, with no touchdowns—the closest Monmouth came was the one-foot line, where a fumble was lost. But “with a terseness that would have shamed even a Spartan, Coach Bell wired the Daily Review the story of the 12-0 victory over Lake Forest in Chicago.” Students then built the biggest bonfire in the history of the college. The team’s picture appeared in the Chicago Tribune.[37]

At the end of November there was a “Battle Royal” on the field down Broadway—the game against the champion of Wisconsin and Michigan, Beloit College, with the “biggest crowd ever at a local football game.” (Four men missed the game because they were downtown, thought it too far to walk in the bad weather, and had only a nickel for the trolley.) The Review reporter wrote that “mud saved Beloit” (from a worst beating); he added that “at a late hour in the afternoon it is reported that three of the Monmouth players have gotten off enough dirt and mud to be recognized,” and that “players would slide through the mud belly-buster, cleaving the slime with their feet straight out.” Some girls on the sidelines were splattered with mud as well. The yearbook summarized the game as “Mud! Mud! Mud!” Final score 10-0—that is, two touchdowns with no extra points kicked.[38]

It was a short season, only eight games (counting the two high school contests), but only Millikin had managed to scare against Bell’s Machine. As the 1908 Ravelings noted, “Before other teams had delved into the intricacies of the ‘forward pass’ and ‘onside kick,’ Coach Bell had them working smoothly and effectively. Speed and teamwork were the team’s main strength, but given the continual rainfall, they could not be relied upon. Passes were thrown, but only occasionally. The games were still being won by the linemen.

            No doubt that Bell had done marvels with the football team. The Ravelings reported, “Coach Bell directed all his energies toward perfecting the smoothest going, swiftest, most perfectly balanced western football team outside of the big nines.” He was ably assisted by A. J. Taft, but he was fortunate that, in Bell’s words, “Captain McMillan is without question the greatest all-around athlete that Monmouth College has ever had.” Moreover, Walter Wilson McMillan (’07) was a natural leader.[39]

            The new football rules were universally popular. The number of fatalities declined, markedly in college ball. The Chicago Tribune’s headline of November 25 read, “FOOTBALL SAFER; LESS MEN KILLED. Record of 11 Dead and 103 Injured Is Marked Decrease From The Carnage Of Last Year. New Rules Save Lives.”[40] The president of Notre Dame said that the effect of the new rules was to “encourage the open style of play as against the battering ram style to which most of the internal injuries of players are due.”[41] Coaches were enthusiastic—as one might expect—the emphasis on speed and teamwork giving them more to do than to encourage a brutal struggle at the line of scrimmage.[42]

Little is known about Bell’s private life.[43] The 1908 Ravelings joked in November of 1906, “Bell and Fawn buy peanuts at Smyth and Herse and charge them to Buck.” The Peanut Night party was the greatest social event of each season, with students first banqueting, then being entertained by faculty and musical groups, then eating peanuts out of barrels and stomping on the shells until they were practically dust.)[44] There was a cartoon of the rotund business manager (elsewhere described as “a device for extorting money”) seated at his desk, saying, “It is true that Prof. McMillan and Prof. Bell differ on religion but the difference is in emphasis, phraseology and interpretation. Their ideas are all alike in spirit.”

            The community was stunned January 15, 1907, to read on the front page of the Monmouth Review that Coach Bell had resigned. He was “loath to leave Monmouth,” but the athletic board would not match the $1500 that Missouri State Normal was offering. Monmouth had been his home, and it was the home of his mother and sister. He would stay through the end of the basketball season and prepare the track team for the next coach, then he would take his mother and Pansy to Kirkville.

            He was as good as his word. Bell is pictured with the 1906-07 basketball team that won its first six games before losing two in the final seconds, then defeated Macomb Normal (now Western Illinois University) 46-12.[45]

            There was a farewell party on February 28th. After several speeches praising his coaching skills, the students presented him with a gold signet ring, saying that they hoped he would “accept it and keep in as a reminder of his Monmouth associations.” He “received the token of friendship—very gracefully.” Then, “in a few well-chosen words, he re-called the many pleasures that had been his during his terms as coach of the institution.” He credited his success to the support of students and faculty, and that of people who wished to advance the interests of the college. He urged everyone to support his successor. The whole ceremony was one that, in the opinion of the Review, “will long be remembered by Coach Bell.”

            That morning A.G. Reid had arrived by train, in time to attend chapel. It is not known whether or not he met Bell before train No.13 left the next day. The 1908 Ravelings praised Reid for ably taking Bell’s place after his resignation.[46]

Bell coached Missouri State Normal (now Truman State) football for three seasons, but his teams had no consistency. The 1907 squad lost the first two games, then won the last two. In 1908 they won seven, lost none, giving up only six points in the first game. In 1909, however, his team went 2-5, scoring seldom and giving up many points. He gave the team the nickname Bulldogs after describing his players as such, but left when discussions began about canceling football throughout the region. Probably his track teams were better, but the statistics are not available for any sport except football.[47]

In sum, in his two years at Monmouth “O.C.” Bell’s football teams had an 18-1 record., his winning percentage is unlikely to be surpassed—only perhaps approached in our own day.[48] Had he stayed longer, with Missouri, Northwestern, Illinois, and Illinois State on the schedule, it is unlikely that he would have gone undefeated.

            His specialty was track, and he coached baseball as well. The 1908 Ravelings commented that “no one in the history of the college has put forth more effort, been attended by more success, or raised athletics to a higher standard.” His method was that “he exercised rigid discipline and got more from his men than they thought possible.”


            Roosevelt approved of the changes: “It is to my mind simple nonsense, a mere confession of weakness, to desire to abolish a game because tendencies show themselves, or practices grow up, which prove that the game ought to be reformed…. But there is no  justification for stopping a thoroughly manly sport because it is sometimes abused….”[49]     


Bell did not appear in the Census of 1910, but by 1911 had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to become teacher and coach at East Technical High School.[50] He began the practice of law in 1914, in the office of Judge J. M. Shallenberger, returning to Monmouth only for the funeral of his mother in 1915.[51] In 1916 he became coach at West Technical High School, where he also instructed civics and business law.[52]

The census of 1920 found him in Cleveland, single and employed as a teacher, but about that time he met Mabel A. Holland, a teacher at West Technical High School. She was the daughter of John W. Holland of Sandusky, Ohio, and a graduate of the Woman's College of Western Reserve University. They were married September 17, 1921.

Shortly afterward he became chief examiner of the Cleveland City Civil Service Commission, then chief police prosecutor of the Municipal Court. In 1923 he was elected Municipal Court judge, a position he held for the rest of his life.[53]

He was active in civic affairs—a member of the Cleveland Bar Association, the Big Ten Club, the City Club and the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The Census of 1930[54] found him a municipal judge in Cleveland, age fifty, with his wife Mabel, age forty-nine,[55] and their six-year-old daughter Thalia; they had a Negro servant living with them, a common practice for the time, when labor-saving devices hardly existed.

            August 1, 1936, he and his family landed in New York harbor aboard the Queen of Bermuda from a vacation on the island. He playfully listed his birthplace as Pigskill, Ohio. When he died August 17, 1943, his passing went unnoticed at Monmouth College. No one remembered that he had been coach in the most decisive years of modern football; in fact, his fabulous record remained forgotten until a few years ago when everyone began assembling athletic records. A won-loss record of 18-1 should have caught somebody’s eye, but 1905-1906 was a long time ago.

            With proposed football reforms once again in the news, maybe it is time to remember. Meanwhile, there were multiple turning points in the past of any sports history, some—like major universities’ teams—well researched; others—like those of small colleges—virtually unknown. Indeed, many of the small colleges of that day are now defunct, their demise partly due to the fact that they could not attract male students, perhaps because they could not afford programs that would attract male students. And one rule of thumb here (or ring finger) is that “no boys, no girls.” Similarly, in an era without dormitories, cafeterias, and student unions, students needed multiple events on campus to fend off boredom. Visiting lectures, debates, musical programs and YMCA events were enjoyable, but hardly exciting. Sports provided that outlet for youthful energies and the drama that daily life so obviously lacked.

            The history of the small programs, more so perhaps than even that of the larger programs, is the story of individuals who worked with limited means to produce winning teams. Bell, for instance, traveled almost exclusively by train—thus, it was impossible to visit many high schools and speak to players; in an era when sectarian identification was important, Monmouth being Presbyterian was a mixed blessing—the historical denomination was comparatively large, but Monmouth was Associate Presbyterian, a relatively small body which divided its young people between six colleges. Community support was strong, but more people followed high school football than the local college team.

Lastly, there was the expense. Monmouth could not afford to meet the salary offered by a second-tier university. In fact, the very survival of the college was sufficiently in doubt that the fire which destroyed Old Main in 1907 came so close on the heels of the financial crisis of 1898-1903 that one might credit the successful football program for making the denomination’s churches, the alumni, the townsfolk, and potential students in nearby communities aware of the college’s claim to be a worthy educational institution.

Of course, one could make the same claim for the Music Conservatory—and for the same reasons. No one person, no one activity was decisive. But no high profile activity—as football certainly was—can be ignored.








An edited version of this was printed in Monmouth, the Monmouth College Magazine, 26/1 (Winter 2011), 28-29.



Team posing in front of Old Main




















1905 team

1906 team


[1] A History of Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland (edited William R. Coates. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1924), III, 19-20, says that his grandfather, Andrew Bell, a native of Scotland, settled at North Argyle in New York. His father, William Bell, was born January 1, 1841. When William was six years of age his widowed mother took him and her other children to Biggsville in Henderson County, where he was educated in public schools until the age of fifteen, when he began a teaching career that lasted twenty years; he was a member of the school board of Henderson County and secretary of the Fair Association for seventeen years (the annual fair at Biggsville then being one of the most noted fairs in the state). [He did not appear in the Census of 1850, but in 1860 he and his brother Thomas (age 21) was living with Alexander Small in Biggsville; George Bell, 24, was working on the farm of Samuel Darnell.] Later William opened a general store in Biggsville, then became a merchant at Swan Creek until becoming “one of the best known railway clerks in this section of Illinois—the Chicago. Burlington & Quincy Railway run, a job he held for twenty-six years, until 1906, when he was transferred to the Keithsburg run shortly before his death from Bright’s Disease (chronic nephritis). To give his daughters an opportunity to attend Monmouth College, he had rented a house at 416 S. Fifth in Monmouth, probably shortly after 1900. George Bell, his brother, was sheriff of Henderson County at the time of the only hanging in the county’s history, in 1876.

[2] Sarah Martha Williams was born in Henderson County in 1844; her father, Calvin Jamison, born in Kentucky, was one of the earliest pioneers in Henderson County, a farmer, bank director and active community leader in Biggsville. She died in 1915 at the home of a daughter in Galesburg (obituary in Warren County Library, Genealogical collection, June 1 and 7, 1915).

[3] The Chicago Tribune (Feb 23, 1902) noted that he was narrowly beaten in the forty yard dash by Archie Hahn of Michigan with a time of 4.35 seconds. Hahn competed in the Olympics and later became a coach at Monmouth College. Bell missed the big meet against the University of Chicago because of illness, causing his team to lose by four points.

[4] There was a Belmont School south of Chicago, long since consolidated and without surviving records. More likely he taught at Belmont primary school in Henderson County near Bald Bluff. It was a two room L-shaped building with an impressive belfry, built in 1857, burned in 1915. Ralph Eckley, “Belmont’s Early School,” Review Atlas (Nov. 10, 1980). Bell told the writer of his entry in the History of Cuyahoga County that he had been principal of Belmont High School for three years, though that surely counted the partial year before coming to Monmouth College in March of 1905, and may have been a slight exaggeration or misunderstanding.

[5] The 1905-06 catalog listed 471 students (112 men, 111 women in the collegiate program; the rest in the Music Conservatory); the 1906-07 catalog claimed 491 students. No college was very large, in those days. Galesburg had two colleges, Abington two, Aledo one.

[6] This mid-sized house still stands on the SE corner of the block, perhaps with an addition to the north side made many decades ago. Olive (born 1878, teaching music in 1900) was in the class of ’06 (she married John Burnside before graduating) and Pansy, ’03 (born 1882) , remained at home to care for her father, then her mother until becoming a music teacher at Bethany College in Kansas, probably attracted there by her sister Olive living at Garden City.

[7] The indoor track meets (before Bell was hired) were held in a small building behind the Auditorium that was turned over to the Theater department when Memorial Gym was built in 1925. It was tiny—dressing rooms and toilets were in the Auditorium—and the running track on the second level had only very short straight-aways. The Oracle (March 4, 1905) listed the events as dip on parallel bars, pull up on the horizontal bars, standing broad jump, high jump and potato race. The basketball coach resigned at the beginning of the semester—his mathematics classes needed more attention—and a replacement was hurriedly found. The March 31 Oracle reported that the basketball team had lost to Monmouth High School, Muscatine High School and Lombard College (where only shortly before Carl Sandburg had played).

[8] Produced by the junior class, each Ravelings covered the previous year. Thus, the 1907 issue covered 1905-06. That was a particularly good issue, the editors having asked one person from each graduating class to provide “a bit of history that will be of interest and spicy.”

[9] The August Chautauqua brought thousands to the campus for a week of lectures, music and picnics. In addition to the Bryant Day, there were talks by Robert Lafollette and Booker T. Washington. Later Billy Sunday came to town, and Andrew Carnegie gave the money for a library.

[10] The first train to come down from the north only derailed once! The track to Galesburg ran right down Broadway in front of the college, as did the figure 8 trolley around town.

[11] Mark Benson, “T.R. and Football Reform,” College Football Historical Society (May 2003); Bruce K. Stewart, “American Football,” American History and Life (November-December 1995), 24-30, 64, 66, 68-69. Theodore Roosevelt had already advocated this in 1893, “What I have to say with reference to all sports refers especially to football. The brutality must be done away with and the danger minimized…. The rulers for football ought probably to be altered.” Harper’s Weekly (Dec. 23, 1893), 1236. On the other hand, he preferred sports that emphasized “resolution, courage, endurance, and capacity to hold one’s own and to stand up under punishment,” to calisthenics and gymnastics. As for danger, horseback riding (his own passion), especially jumping, was more likely to lead to death and injury. But above all, avoid encouraging professional and semi-professional athletics; spectator sports, with tens of thousands watching others, play is not healthy. Speech at Harvard, June 28, 1905.

[12] Robin Lester, Stagg’s University: the rise, decline, and fall of big-time football at Chicago  (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1999); Morris Bealle, The History of Football at Harvard, 1874-1948 (Washington: Columbia, 1948), with a chapter entitled “President Roosevelt Saves Football.”


[13] Thomas Brown (born 1845 in Tennessee) was mostly likely brought home by Warren County soldiers who relied on information from slaves to round up night riders and imprison them for the duration of the war. The 1898 Ravelings called him a “favorite among the faculty.” A fellow janitor, Levi Marlow (born 1840 in Kentucky, had escaped from his master in 1860 when being transported back south from Canton, Illinois, and had fought in the Battle of the Crater in 1864. There was a large Black community scattered around the town. In 1898 one unidentified young Black man was on the track team.

[14] In 1903 the class rivalry resulted in the junior class stealing the Civil War cannon obtained from the federal government for display on campus. The conspirators dumped the barrel into Cedar Creek where it remained for half a century, then burned the gun carriage. Today the restored weapon is fired at the Homecoming football game when Monmouth scores a touchdown.

[15] Oracle (Nov. 1904).

[16] Oracle (Nov. 1905). His status as a faculty member was always in doubt. He was listed in 1906 as “O. Clifford Bell, Athletic Director and Football coach. University of Illinois,” but he clearly had no teaching duties.

[17] A.J. Taft (record 8-7-4) and Shellar Peacock, whose management was “faultless.” Oracle (Dec. 1905).

[18] Trap plays usually involved double-teaming some defensive linemen, but allowing one to penetrate into the backfield just long enough to be knocked for a loop by a blocker coming full speed from one of the end positions. A swift back would then dash through the momentary gap.

[19] Monmouth Review (Sept. 6, 1905) gave a detailed description of the games, Biggsville and Burlington each playing one half. The reporter quoted Bell as saying, “We have a good schedule and with good material we hope to have a winning season.” The park had been overhauled and was in good condition, and the athletic board had approved his ordering new uniforms. The next day’s headline was, “Gridiron Giants Don Moleskins.” (That is, the tight-fitting uniforms of the day.)

[20] In Amos Alonzo Stagg’s memoire, Touchdown! (New York: Longmans, 1927), 239-41, he only discussed the narrow loss to Army and the new rule making it illegal for a kicker to recover the ball.

[21] The Ravelings of 1907 has this correct in the narrative of the 1905 season, wrong in the listing of games; also the University of Iowa website confirms the 1905 game, and the long article in the Monmouth Daily Review of October 2, says that the game was played in Iowa City.

[22] For the Lombard, game the Review (Oct. 16); for Iowa Wesleyan (Oct. 23), for Knox (Oct. 28 and 30); for Millikin (Oct. 30 and Nov. 18). The Review (Oct. 28) reported that Knox fans rode a special train from Galesburg and the team outweighed Monmouth by ten or twelve pounds per man, with the game displaying “the fastest and best exhibition of football that has been witnessed in many a day.” The Millikin coach thought Bell’s team could play well against the University of Illinois. It was “Monmouth here, Monmouth there, Monmouth everywhere,” and “Go there Eli, Monmouth!” The only disappointment was Professors Graham and McCracken losing their banner to a “street Arab.” There was a summary of the season in the Oracle (Nov. 1905) and in the 1907 Ravelings.

[23] Ravelings of 1907 contains one picture showing Bell with his team lined up in the single wing in front of Old Main, others show athletic competitions, including shots of the bleachers, the onlookers, and the football team awaiting the snap.

[24] As usual, the Review (Dec. 1) reported play-by-play, noting that this was the “hardest and fiercest fought game of the season,” with the score only 6-0 at half-time. One back jumping clear over an onrushing tackler clearly thrilled both players and spectators. Moreover, “Coach Bell threw a spectator over the fence for gassing back when ordered off the field of play.”

[25] Review (Sept 20, 1906): “Knox students to play Socker.” Football was dropped for one year, until it was discovered that “soft” football was as rough as “Rugby” football, and that there were almost no opponents to be had.

[26] The Oracle (Dec. 1905) reported that “one of the great problems of the past has been to get the men to take care of themselves, to observe the proper diet and to keep early hours.” This reflected his intention “to make up for the lack of weight with quick concerted action.” For the moment, however, pies and cakes were in abundance.

[27] If the suit seems a bit too large for modern tastes, the advertisements in the Review (including some for the Model, which closed only in 1994) show that he wore exactly what was expected of a well-bred gentleman.

[28] Two Princeton coaches, Herbert Orin Crisler and Elton Ewart Wieman, summarized the changes in Practical Football. A Manual for Coaches, Players and Students of the Game (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1934), 6-7, as establishing a line of scrimmage, on which six men had to take a motionless stance, pushing or pulling the ball carrier, defining a legal forward pass, and doubling the distance for a first down. Among the coaches’ advice: start the season with two or three weak opponents, and, later on, use common sense.

[29] The obituary in the Review (June 25, 26, 27, 1906) noted that his seven children were present for the funeral at the United Presbyterian Church in Biggsville. Cliff and Harry of Monmouth were among the pallbearers, and that Cliff was “summoned from Arcola, where he has been for a few days.”

[30] Review (Sept. 18, 1906): “Varsity Men Desert the Game. Coach Bell Alarmed.”

[31] Review headline of Sept. 27th: “Big Football Pow Wow.” The 1908 Ravelings noted for that date “Football revival after chapel. Many converts.”

[32] Although passes had been attempted before, referees usually whistled the play dead. The first legal forward pass was thrown on September 4th at St. Louis University, less than four weeks earlier. In any case, it was not easy to throw the rugby-shaped ball of that era, and until 1912 the rules greatly restricted when and how a pass could be thrown.

[33] Review (Oct. 15, 1906), noting that the team “relied but little on the heavy mass football of former years.”

[34] Review (Oct 19, 1906).

[35] Review (Oct 29, 1906). 550 yards offense versus 230, and Monmouth cleared $50-60.

[36] Review (Nov. 1, 1906). Bell was going to try Tarkio, a sister Associated Presbyterian college that often fed students and faculty to Monmouth, but that did not work out. Ravelings (1908).

[37] Review (Nov. 19, 1906), reported the photo; Chicago Tribune (Nov 18, 1906) credited Monmouth victory to its heavier players. Lake Forest tried passes and short kicks, but these were soon stopped by the heavier defensemen. “Phenomenal” kicking (40 yards, 30 yards and 20 yards) decided the game.

[38] Review (Nov. 26, 1906). The punting game was impossible: the ball “preferred to go no more than 15 or 20 yards on the kicks and kept the players guessing which direction it was taking. Fake plays were tried but with little success, as the slippery field and ball made it extremely difficult to handle.” The 1908 Ravelings reported: “Two touchdowns by straight football gave Monmouth her victory.” In fact, there had been so much rain that fall that passing was difficult, and his swift runners had to pound their way through mud. Bell himself wrote a paragraph on each player for the yearbook, his laudatory comments opposite their individual pictures. The yearbook dedicated the athletic section to “the Prince of Monmouth College Athletics,” McMillan. His photograph is that of a good-looking young man who does not seem to have spent much time lifting weights.

[39] He coached the Monmouth football teams in 1911 and 1912; his men had difficulty scoring, but still had a record of 6-10; the basketball record was better—16-11. The 1935 and 1943 alumni directories located him in the Hibbing (Minnesota) Public School system as Director of Physical Therapy. He died April 21, 1950. The Census of 1930 found him in Hibbing, age 47, teaching, married to Ethel, age 44, with son Robert S, age 14. She was the Mary E. Senseman living in Alexis in 1910, a teacher in the local school and simultaneously listed as living in Monmouth with her parents, but born in 1890. Most likely they met at the 2nd Presbyterian church when she visited her family on weekends. Mary Ethel McMillan died in Hibbing in 1945. The obituary in the Hibbing Daily Tribune  listed survivors son Robert and brother Edward McMillan. Robert Sensman McMillan (April 4, 1916 - March 14, 2001 ) started his own architectural firm Robert S. McMillan Associates, which concentrated mainly on projects in Africa and the Middle East.

[40] In 1905 eighteen had died and 150 were seriously injured. The decrease was most marked among high school players, where only one death was attributed to rough play. Blood poisoning from broken blisters was more dangerous. Deaths from “partisan rioting” were not counted. There was not a single fatality in the major university games. Of injuries broken legs and collarbones were most common, outnumbered only by severe sprains.

[41] The president of Knox College defended replacing football with soccer, even though he could only find one collegiate opponent—Elmhurst. The other two games were against semi-pro squads of English and Welsh miners.

[42] Since plays were called by the captains, there was little for a coach to do except send in an occasional substitute (and perhaps swear now and then).

[43] There were only four eligible young women on the faculty, some widely traveled and all fully involved in college life. Gertrude Henderson taught elocution, drama and gymnastics. A member of the honorary Conglomerated Order of Mind Enlighteners, she fielded the first women’s hockey team, probably using the College Park for practices; however, her marriage in 1907 suggests that she was not available earlier. Isabel Rankin Irwin (MC ’03) and Katherine Hanna (Knox ’01) were—to judge by yearbook photos—not much to look at. While Alice Janette Tinker (MC, ’05) did not photograph well, either, and her teaching math and history do not suggest much interest in football, she was to be the mother of television’s longest-lasting soap opera star—Helen Wagner Willey. Maud Burr, who appeared in 1906, seems to have made no impact. Cliff’s sisters must have had friends, but they would have been in the Conservatory. Since his father’s funeral was presided over by the pastor of the 2nd United Presbyterian Church, only a few blocks from his home and where President McMichael often preached, it is highly likely that Bell attended church there regularly.

[44] The Review’s extensive coverage of the November 9th parties (“Peanut Night Was Big Event”) did not mention Bell’s name. Nor did the long stories in the Oracle, and the gossipy Ravelings was principally concerned with students and popular faculty members.

[45] The Review only referred to him on those occasions when he acted as referee: January 10 and February 23. The women began intercollegiate competition this winter, playing in the Armory, but Bell was not mentioned in the accounts of the games.

[46] Reid’s record over the next three seasons was 8-10-1. He had a Ph.B. from Simpson, ’01, an LLB from the University of Michigan, ’06.

[47] Warren County marriage records list a marriage between O.C. Bell and Laura Willis Porter on February 1, 1909, but the newspaper did not report it. It was probably Oliver Clarence Bell, who died in a bar fight in February of 1948; Laura Porter appears nowhere in the records.

[48] Monmouth’s current coach, Steve Bell, now in his tenth year, went 10-0 in the 2009 regular season. No relation.

[49] Speech at the Harvard Union, February 23, 1907. Speaking to the Cambridge Union May 26, 1910, he added, “One of the things I wish we could learn from you is how to make the game of football a rather less homicidal pastime. I do not wish to speak as a mere sentimentalist…. I wish to deprive of any argument those who I put in the mollycoddle class, of any argument against good sport.”

[50] Founded in 1908, it was the first public trade school in the nation. It was, according to the alumni website, a sports powerhouse.

[51] The obituaries (June 1 and 7, 1915) noted the presence of “O.C. Bell and Pansy Bell of Cleveland, Ohio.”

[52] Like East Tech, West Tech emphasized technical training. After acquiring its new building in 1922, it became the largest high school in Ohio.

[53] A History of Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland, III, 20; and R. Y. McCray, Representative Clevelanders: a biographical directory of leading men and women in present day Cleveland community (Cleveland: Cleveland Topics, 1927).

[54] Pansy, by then forty-seven, was in Mount Clemens, Michigan, as a musician, rooming with members of an orchestra. The Monmouth alumni directory of 1943 indicated that she was still living there, teaching piano; the 1951 publication found her at the same address.

[55] In the Census of 1900 she was 18 (born April 1882), her elder brother was a bookkeeper, her elder sister in college; in1920 she fudged a bit, taking two years off her age; she was a teacher living in Cleveland.