The rivalry between Pueblo Central and Pueblo Centennial might as well mark the beginning of high school athletics in Colorado.
The two teams first squared off in 1892, nearly 20 years before the formation of what is now the Colorado High School Activities Association. It is often regarded as the oldest high school rivalry in the western United States.
Central won the first matchup. NFL Hall of Famer Earl "Dutch" Clark helped the Wildcats claim the win in his final two seasons at Central (1924-25).
In 1950, a new wrinkle was added to the annual game as the victory bell was introduced and the winner has been taking it home ever since.
Fast forward to present day and the Bell Game is still a must-see event in the realm of Colorado High School football. Over 15,000 people pack Dutch Clark Stadium and clear battle lines are drawn. Fans are either going red or going blue.
With the craziness that surrounds the game, Central athletic director Mike Kovac and coach Kris Cotterman joined Centennial athletic director John Ward and coach Jeff Wilkerson to chat about the intensity of Bell Game week and just how important it is to each school.
How is the Monday of Bell Game week different than a typical week in your building?
Kovac: There's more hype and anticipation of the game because there's so much tradition in it. With the tradition and everything leading up to the game that week, there's just a lot of anticipation not only from the students and the staff, but the community as well.
Ward: We have so many things happening. Number one, we have the community coming into the school to buy tickets. We have our boosters, our other clubs, all selling merchandise and goes really big that week. It looks like a little mini Walmart in front of our athletic office. We have like eight tables of stuff; the official bell game t-shirt and all the other Centennial gear. It feels like Black Friday. Everybody has to get all their stuff and it's the biggest sale day of the year because everyone's in there trying to get tickets. I can tell you that there have been times where the game sold out by around lunch time the next day. I know there have been times where they may be sold out late on the first day.
How about the players? Do they come into practice any differently than they would on a regular week?
Cotterman: I think they're more excited. As we've gotten better, practices really haven't changed that much but definitely I think there's more enthusiasm. From a standpoint of do that practice harder? Probably not. We've gotten to the point where they're practicing pretty hard anyway. But there's definitely excitement and through the week there's always something going on at the school. So there's a lot of excitement for sure.
Wilkerson: They're really locked in and focused. They, they tend to forget about the last week a little bit quicker than normal weeks. Our student body does a great job of celebrating that game, but as far as their mood they're absolutely locked in and focused.
From an administrative standpoint, what's the biggest challenge you face that week?
Kovac: The scheduling of the week, because there are so many different things going on. And then you get wrapped in with our regular school day and other sports going on, we're just trying to make sure that we're doing things right and making it accessible to as many kids as possible during the week.
Ward: It's always really great at the beginning of that week. Everybody's excited in a good mood and so on. So we typically have hardly any issues with (student behavior). It's all about trying to meet everybody's needs because everybody has something that they're trying to get or want or how can I help them get their table? How can I help someone who wants you to donate tickets for a gift basket? Everybody's got something that I need to help them with. So I guess my biggest challenge is just finding the time to give everybody adequate time and, and listen and be able to help them out as best as I possibly can.
How much of a difference do you see in the seniors playing in their last one to the freshmen playing in their first?
Wilkerson: I think it depends on if you won it or lost it for the seniors. If you get that taste of winning the bell you want to keep winning it and winning it and winning it. You want to do it in front of the 15,000 people. I think the younger kids are taking in the whole aspect of it, the whole atmosphere of it, as they're coming through at that age, but once they get to be a senior they want to win it as many times as possible and especially their last year.
Cotterman: It's a big difference. We always suit up our entire team, freshmen through seniors, for the Bell Game, just to get them used to it. I can always tell around the freshmen when they see everyone in the crowd and their eyes are as big as can be. By the time they're seniors, especially this senior class since it will be my fourth year, a lot of these kids will be in their third year starting in it. They're determined to win it.
What's happening in your building that week that's different from anything else going on in Colorado high school football?
Ward: The biggest thing is the huge focus on the game itself and everything that goes into making it successful. For example, we have a 10- or 12-page script that goes through all the times of which team is going to come out of the tunnel and which team is going to have warm ups at this time. It's so choreographed. I can only imagine what it's like when you're doing a Big 10 or an SEC football game. There is all this stuff going on and that you have to prepare for. The preparation level has to be by far probably something that the average high school and or AD doesn't experience. People say that there's probably more going on with this game than even the state playoffs.
Kovac: It has to be the traditions and the community support and just how much the community is so involved whether it's attendance at the assembly or something after school, the Bell Bash as we call it, that is usually the night before the game. If there is a big event here at the school, the community is welcome to attend. There's a lot of energy and it's crazy and fun.
How much does emotion come into play for the players during this game?
Cotterman: Just from the crowd alone and the noise it makes, it definitely provides a lot of ups and downs and that's not lost on us. How big this rivalry is and how big it is for our community and how much fun it is. We definitely feel the emotions before the game and even after the game win or lose.
Wilkerson: We tend to say let it build. That's our motto. We start out calm and cool. I wouldn't say we're necessarily having a good time on Monday, but we're more relaxed. And then as the week builds, our intensity builds a lot more as we go. And then Friday you just let it loose.
When you get to gameday is there a sense that all the work and intensity of the week pays off?
Kovac: For me personally, I don't think I get to experience it like the crowd does because there's so much stuff going on and a lot of it is so scripted in terms of how that game is going to be run and all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding it. So if it's the coin toss and we've invited alumni back to be part of that, having little things like having them down on the field, ready to do their thing. I don't get to enjoy like the crowd that everybody else does because you know, whether it's me or (John), we are in the midst of just trying to make sure that it's going off, so it's smooth and everybody can enjoy what it's all about.
Ward: I really start to feel a great sense of relief. I usually get to the stadium about 4:30, about two and a half hours before kickoff. At that point everything's done and you can really kind of take it in and visit with people. I would say really it kind of it's all in place by then. There's a thing or two going on or a question about when are we going to announce the 50/50 raffle. But other than that, I think right when I get to the stadium at 4:30, I know everything is done.
Neither of you guys have experienced it both ways, but what do you think is better, winning to take possession of the Bell or successfully defending it?
Wilkerson: That's kind of tough for me because next year will be the first year that I have to went back. It swings our school atmosphere for sure, whether you have the bell or not.
Cotterman: And I've never defended it. Winning it was pretty special. I do have a unique experience just from the fact that when I took over the team there we were 0-10, and if you look at the point differential from before, they've been three pretty good games. We've been lucky enough to win one, but I do look forward to defending it.
Where does the Bell Game stand with other notable rivalries in Colorado?
Cotterman: It's the biggest rivalry In the state of Colorado, no question. It's probably the best venue in the state of Colorado to play at. The fans pack it out and the community supports it. It's funny, last year I had to go get some license plates and I walked in the courthouse and it's stacked with signs for Central and Centennial. That whole week the community gets around it. I don't think there's anywhere close to a bigger rivalry than Centennial and Central.
Wilkerson: It doesn't. I don't see 15,000 people going to other stadiums on a given night like they do to watch these two teams play. And there's such a rich history behind it with all the bad blood and good blood and all that kind of stuff. I don't see anything like it anywhere else.