Speech team dynasty

“We have more titles than, say, Duke, Carolina, and Kentucky combined in basketball — or Alabama, Notre Dame, and Penn State in football. The speech team ranks right up there with anything Bradley has to offer.” 

— Coach Dan Smith




The 2011–12 speech team displays its trophies after winning the 2012 National Forensic Association tournament at Ohio University.

National champion Jacoby Cochran ’13 delivers one of his winning speeches. Studio photography by Duane Zehr

In 1897, Bradley hosted the Interstate Oratory Contest, beginning a speech history that’s still going strong 115 years later. With the mantra “two in ’12,” this year’s undefeated speech team won both the American Forensic Association (AFA) and National Forensic Association (NFA) tournaments, exactly 30 years after the team captured both tournament titles the first time. This year’s sweep at the national tournaments was the 14th in program history. The most successful speech team in the nation, Bradley has garnered 141 individual national titles and 39 team sweepstakes over the last 30 years.

In addition to the team’s success this year, several team members won individual national titles. JACOBY COCHRAN ’13 won communication analysis, individual sweepstakes, and duo interpretation with partner JUSTIN RESTAINO ’14 at AFA, while CECIL BLUTCHER ’13 took home the poetry title at both AFA and NFA. Cochran also took home the pentathlon and rhetorical criticism titles at NFA, while CAMILLE YAMEEN ’12 was named prose champion. 

“I believe the reason that I do so well, the reason that I do all this activity, is because they’ve never asked me to be anybody other than Jacoby Cochran,” said Cochran. 

Bradley’s director of forensics and speech coach Dan Smith stepped down in June after the 2011–2012 season. He came to Bradley in 1994 and became head coach in 1996. While Smith plans to help the new coach, KEN YOUNG ’05, he is now director of COM 103, Bradley’s required general education speech class. 

Bradley’s success is the result of decades of hard work. The forensics legacy was built on debate teams, which Bradley has had since at least the 1920s. It wasn’t until Laurence Norton, professor of speech and director of forensics from 1948 to 1973, coached the team that Bradley skyrocketed to national success. Norton is credited with revolutionizing modern forensics, creating some of the events that are still used in competition today, such as duo interpretation and informative speaking. 

The competition that would eventually become the L.E. Norton Invitational was first held on campus in 1947. More than 1,500 students competed in events such as listening, discussion, oratory, and extemporaneous speaking. The November competition has grown to be the largest in the country and is often referred to as “fall nationals,” according to Smith. The Bradley Forensics Alumni Network (BFAN) holds its reunion every five years in conjunction with the tournament. The next reunion is November 2–4 at the Hayden-Clark Alumni Center. 

Laurence Norton, left, is credited with revolutionizing modern forensics. Members of the debate team included VIC GRIMM ’58, DAVE SILLS ’59, JAY JANSSEN ’59, and CHUCK WISE ’61.

Under Norton’s tenure, debate faded and speech dominated. On the national speech scene, organizations were being formed. The American Forensic Association and National Forensic Association were formed in the 1970s and began holding tournaments. Bradley began competing in both tournaments in 1979. The team won its first AFA title in 1980 and its first NFA title in 1982.

When Norton retired in 1973, speech professor George Armstrong took over, further cementing Bradley as a speech giant with the help of professor and assistant coach HENRY VANDERHEYDEN ’50 MA ’51. Throughout the ’80s, Dr. Gary Dreibelbis also coached the team and succeeded Armstrong as forensics director in 1988. 


Today, an annual high school speech tournament, the George Armstrong Heart of Illinois Invitational, is held at Bradley. The purpose of the tournament is twofold: to introduce high school seniors to a nationally ranked college speech team, and to help recruit for Bradley’s program.

There are three other annual tournaments, as well. In the mid ’50s, a young debater named JAY JANSSEN ’59 set foot on Bradley’s campus. He went on to become an attorney with Norton’s encouragement. Janssen and his wife JOAN LORIG JANSSEN ’69, a member of the Board of Trustees, now sponsor the annual Janssen Oratorical Contest, which awards scholarships to high school seniors who finish in the top three. 

Bradley annually hosts a swing tournament with Illinois State University, and Bradley’s portion of this tournament was recently renamed the Dan Smith Invitational. Swing tournaments take place over two days, with one tournament on one day in one location and another the next day in a nearby location. 

Bradley also co-hosts the annual Hell Froze Over tournament with the University of Texas, Austin. Smith was a friend of the coach at Texas, Bradley’s rival. The two coaches were talking one day and Smith said, “How would the community react if we hosted a tournament together?” The other coach responded, “They’d think hell had frozen over.” The tournament is held annually in January, but the site alternates between Bradley and Texas. “We started it to be kind of small and fun — a celebration of the things that are cool about forensics — but it’s really turned into a gigantic, competitive tournament,” Smith said. 

When a school hosts a tournament, it can’t compete because of the time needed to help run the event. The only exceptions are nationals, when AFA and NFA run the tournaments. 

Grueling schedule

Coaching legacy

Laurence Norton

George Armstrong

Dan Smith


Tournaments can be grueling, adding to a speech team member’s demanding schedule. Tournaments take place on the weekends, and the team often leaves Friday night and returns late Sunday or early Monday morning. Smith and his assistant director of forensics, Michael Chen, MA ’85, traveled every weekend, scouting talent from community colleges. They also look at the “culture” at schools where important tournaments will take place. The speech season runs from September until April. Bradley takes time off from competition between Thanksgiving and the new year, but hosts the George Armstrong Heart of Illinois Invitational. The team returns early in January for the Hell Froze Over Tournament. 

The most intense tournaments are AFA and NFA. While both organizations are similar, Smith said there are a few fundamental differences. AFA is more exclusive than NFA, making NFA a larger and longer tournament. According to Smith, 25 to 30 schools attend both tournaments. For the AFA tournament, the team left on Wednesday at 9 p.m., endured a 20-hour bus ride to Texas, and arrived late Thursday afternoon. Friday was reserved for practicing before the Saturday competition. It continued through Sunday, finishing the day with the first round of quarterfinals, the top 24 speakers in the tournament. “All day Monday is out-rounds,” Smith said, “so you compete until you’re told that you no longer can compete. And that’s one of the things that’s tough for the kids. For most of them, somewhere along the line their world changes from performer to supporter.” Monday wraps up with awards. Smith describes the NFA tournament as very similar, but it is one day longer because it has four preliminary rounds instead of three. 

In addition to a long season, every summer Bradley hosts the Summer Forensics Institute, a camp for rising high school students. The two-week camp serves as a recruiting tool for Bradley’s team, as well as an opportunity for high school forensics enthusiasts to receive more formal training. “Four of the freshmen we took in this year camped with us for three years,” Smith said. “So in that sense, our freshmen are like other teams’ juniors.”

“I started speech because I ended up taking a class in high school,” said TALAN TYMINSKI ’15, a camper for three years. “By the end of high school, I wasn’t done competing. I had more to say and more topics to do.” Tyminski was one of the top 12 extemporaneous speakers in the nation her freshman year.

Although some team members didn’t attend the camps, many participated in high school speech, and chose Bradley for its program.

Speech goes far beyond weekend competitions and titles. “There are roughly 7 billion people on this planet,” Cochran points out, “and what we do every weekend for fun is something that most people can’t do either because it is illegal or their circumstances have rendered them illiterate or unaware of the world they live in. That is why we do what we do. The trophies are nice. The championships can feel good, but the reason I choose to work as hard as I do is because I know that there is no other place where the messages that we speak will be heard as loudly.”

Family feeling

Like any group of college friends, the speech team has its traditions. Two stand out this year. The first involves a statue named Oscar that sits on top of one of the large traveling trophies the team brought back from the AFA tournament; team members frequently rub its head for good luck. The team also has a special song that is iconic. What else could it be but We are the Champions by Queen?

The team might be compared to a large family. Even though most members’ roles change from performer to supporter during a tournament’s elimination rounds, they are completely behind their teammates, according to Smith. “I think every one of them would tell you that they’d give up any individual title as long as the team was able to win,” he said. But that camaraderie isn’t easy to form, especially this past year. The 29-member team had 15 transfer students, 13 of whom were from Southern California. “It always takes a while for that chemistry to build, but it will get there,” Smith said. 

Each team has an average of 30 people and is open to anyone. At the beginning of the year, an informational meeting is typically attended by 75 to 80 people. By the end of October, the team is generally settled, and has had as many as 45 or as few as 25 members. Smith estimates he’s coached 300 to 350 students during his 16 years as Bradley’s director of forensics. According to Smith, each team has about 50 percent communication majors and 50 percent “everything else.”

After graduation, alumni are able to keep in touch through the Bradley Forensics Alumni Network, or BFAN. One of the Bradley University Alumni Association’s first affinity networks, BFAN allows alumni to connect with each other and support current students. “We are most proud of how amazing our alumni are,” MITCH COLGAN ’06, president of BFAN, said. “In the past year, we’ve raised over $60,000 to give back to the team.” Alumni also help coach the team, attend tournaments, and serve as judges. 

Colorful cast of characters

Interesting alumni have come out of Bradley’s speech program. They include actors, standup comedians, authors, educators, marketers, attorneys, and many more. ATHENA PAPACHRONIS HERMAN ’94, at right, is a lawyer at Benassi and Benassi, P.C. in Peoria. Herman was speech team captain during the 1993–94 season and won an NFA individual title in persuasion in 1991 as a freshman. She was part of the team that took home NFA championships from 1991 to 1994 and AFA championships from 1991 to 1993, coached by Katie Elton. 

In 1926, a young Hope Summers arrived to head the speech department, only to leave a year later to pursue a career on the stage. She went on to become a popular character actor. From a recurring role as Clara Edwards on The Andy Griffith Show to a murder witness in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken to Mrs. Gilmore in Rosemary’s Baby, her characters ran the gamut.

Read a personal memory of a speech team member, learn about different speaking categories, and watch videos featuring the speech team and Hope Summers in our Web Extras.

— Abby Wilson Pfeiffer ’10






The 1925 Women’s Negative Debate Team.

Keeping with tradition, the 1993 speech team had its picture taken in front of the bus.