For the past five basketball seasons, Pappa Charlie's Deli on the campus of Williams College has christened a sandwich in honor of the Ephs' top player each week. After selecting the main man on Sunday, the Williamstown, Mass., eatery allows (well, implores) that player to head toward the breadbasket and customize his own hoagie. If the player is particularly imaginative, his sandwich may become a permanent fixture on the menu board.
Until this season, earning a spot on Pappa Charlie's menu was about the greatest glory a Williams player could achieve. Ever since 1961, Williams had not allowed its teams to compete in postseason tournaments.
That policy was adopted after the Ephs lost to Wittenberg in the '61 college-division tournament in Evansville, Ind. There, Williams administrators watched in dismay as the Wittenberg students boisterously celebrated their team's victory. Appalled by the students' behavior, Williams chose to abandon "big-time" college athletics. When the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) was formed in 1971, with Williams as a member, the conference adopted Williams's policy as well.
But last April the presidents of the 11 NESCAC schools voted to permit conference members to compete in the NCAAs on a three-year trial basis. (Not that the ever-sensible authorities completely lost their heads, however; NESCAC rules still stipulate that league standings must be ordered alphabetically and not by the teams' records.) "Now we have something more to play for than just a pretty record," says Williams senior forward Rob Bice, who last year helped the Ephs to a 23-4 finish by sinking 52% of his three-point shots.
Perhaps a few tournament wins will also help quiet the guffaws Williams players often hear when they hit the court. After all, it's difficult to be taken seriously when your nickname is the Ephs (the abbreviated first name of school founder Ephraim Williams) and your mascot is a purple cow (inspired by doggerel verse written by Gelett Burgess in 1895).
The Eph troop has 14 of 15 players back from a team that ranked fifth in the nation in scoring margin last season, which leads sophomore forward John Botti to muse, "We're deeper than Sylvia Plath." References like that seem to confirm the notion that the Eph men are a bunch of bookish nerds, an image they'll do just about anything to dispel. Senior guard Pete Davenport spent part of last summer roaming the beaches of Maine dressed in a ruffled, polka-dot woman's swimsuit. Mercifully, it was a one-piece. Asked why he did it, he responded, "Sometimes you just don't know why you do certain things." Senior forward Rob Williams has proclaimed himself the school's social chairman of blow-out pajama parties. He has attracted as many as 200 partygoers to these nocturnal affairs.
Then there's 7'3" junior center Eric Gingold, who as a freshman was named the tallest Jew ever to play college hoops by the National Jewish Post and Opinion. Gingold found his way to Division III ball after first visiting several larger schools. One Division I coach promptly told him, "Man, you must really stink if I've never heard of you."
The Ephs become truly well-rounded during January, when Williams students take only one class, usually in some offbeat subject. Previous offerings have included "How to Buy a Car" and "The U.S. National Census." "We don't spend a lot of January worrying about school," says Bice. "It works out well because that's when we play the heart of our schedule."
The Eph men will most likely use much of their spare time this January pondering new sandwich combinations. After all, if they get to the Division III tournament finals, Pappa Charlie's will need a few more player-of-the-week hoagies.