Forget NCAA Titles, This School Dominates Spoken Word

As college recruiting continues to be a challenge, many schools hope a run at a national title in football or basketball can get prospective students to check out their campus. But for a small private school in the Midwest, an unprecedented domination of another competition may be what sets them apart. Bradley University has won more national titles in speech competitions than UCLA, Kentucky and Duke combined have in basketball.

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While many universities try to win national attention with their sports programs, one school is dominating a lesser-known competitive arena: speech teams. Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., will defend its U.S. title again this weekend at the National Forensic Association tournament in Huntington, W.Va. Jonathan Ahl reports.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Cecil Blutcher is on stage, practicing his poetry recitation in front of his fellow speech team members.

CECIL BLUTCHER: Now my face is stuck to lamppost, glued to plate-glass windows.

AHL: The Bradley University speech team practices and critiques each other daily. But this is not your typical speech team. Of the 70 national collegiate speech team competitions ever held, Bradley has won 40 of them, a staggering 57 percent. That's more titles than UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina have in basketball combined.

Ken Young coaches the team, and was on the squad when he was a student more than 10 years ago. He says Bradley has a secret weapon that keeps it at the top of collegiate competition.

KEN YOUNG: We have an alumni network that is continuously giving back, through coaching and providing service, and so they pass down the skills and the techniques needed to continue to fight for that national championship year in and year out.

AHL: Jacoby Cochran is the defending individual champion and was part of the Bradley team that won titles in the past three years. He says Bradley's dominance continues because its current members respect the legacy.

JACOBY COCHRAN: It gives you a responsibility to uphold how you do this activity correctly, how you do it honestly, how you do it humbly. We're not just the best speech team because we are national champions. We're the best speech team because we do it with grace.

AHL: Being part of a successful speech team can help students get jobs. Melina Barona is a recruiter for accounting firm KPMG in Chicago. She says involvement in speech competitions and performances stands out in resumes that she sees.

MELINA BARONA: A student that's involved in speech team, or something else that's kind of very directly related to speaking and presenting and communicating, can sell themselves quite well.

AHL: Senior Jacoby Cochran won't predict a win this weekend. But he says Bradley won't hold back.

COCHRAN: We show you how much we put into these events; how much we bleed and we cry for these people.

AHL: Bradley sees its speech team as a recruiting tool, gateway to alumni support, and increased attention from employers for its graduates. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl.

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