Sunday, November 11
WILLIAMSTOWN — When ESPN wanted to televise the 100th version of the Biggest Little Game in America in 1985, the late legendary Amherst football coach Jim Ostendarp said no.

"We're in the education business," huffed the Darp, as he was more commonly known, "not the entertainment business."

Ostendarp retired in 1992, and things lightened up a bit when ESPN2 broadcast the 1995 Williams-Amherst contest that ended in a scoreless tie.

If there were any remaining barriers to having the Williams-Amherst rivalry on America's leading sports network, they all came down yesterday.

The big time hit both the Williams-Amherst rivalry and Division III football yesterday with the presence of ESPN's College GameDay crew, on a stage that had been set up behind Weston Field's south end zone. Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard broadcast live from tiny Williamstown, Village Beautiful — the first time GameDay had visited a Division III school.

"We wanted the perfect time and the perfect place to see Division III football," Fowler said, turning to a small group of boisterous fans who had gathered behind the stage shortly before the GameDay crew went on the air at 10 a.m. "This is the time, and this is the place."

Fowler scanned the crowd, which was trying its leather-lunged best to sound like those larger gatherings that the GameDay crew usually appears in front of in places like Ann Arbor, Baton Rouge or South Bend. The fans' colors confused him.

"Everyone's wearing purple," he said. Either Fowler didn't know or had forgotten that Amherst and Williams both wear that color.

"It's hard to tell who's who," he said. "We always try to be balanced, but we lean toward the home team."

A cheer went up.

"Sorry, Amherst fans," Fowler said.

Yesterday's Williams-Amherst game may have been a first for the GameDay crew, but it was the 122nd time that the Ephs and Lord Jeffs had met on the football field since 1884. Their rivalry is the longest among Division III schools, and the fourth longest in all of college football behind Lehigh-Lafayette (142 games), Yale-Princeton, which met for the 130th time yesterday afternoon, and Yale-Harvard (124).

"I feel real fortunate to have been a part of something like this," said former Williams' quarterback Peter Supino, the Ephs' signal caller in the spectacular last-second 48-46 victory over Amherst in 1997 that ended the Lord Jeffs' dreams of a perfect season for the second straight year.

Supino, who now lives in Omaha, Neb., had traveled to Williamstown to watch the game with his wife and kids.

"To revisit it, it's a ball," Supino added. "I like seeing the passion and tradition. ... I've made it to four of the last 10."

The game is so popular among the graduates that Brooks Foehl, Williams' assistant director of alumni relations, said his office gets calls every year from about 50 groups interested in watching NESN's telecast of the game via satellite at distant watering holes around the world. The Williams grads frequently watch the game with their Amherst counterparts, he said.

A group in Tokyo receives a game tape from the alumni office.

"We copy it and deliver it a week later," Foehl said.

Satellite broadcasts may be old hat for the alumni, but the GameDay crew's live telecast was something new for the current students. When the news broke that ESPN was coming to Williamstown, some students didn't believe it.

"It was very weird," said Williams senior Annie Scheidman, who is captain of the women's tennis team. "We thought it was a joke."

Scheidman and her friends were standing next to a gold (Williams' other color) Nissan Xterra on which purple paper splotches had been pasted. "Isn't it great?" she said.

Under a tent on the opposite side of Weston Field from the mayhem and noise of the GameDay set, the older Williams graduates gathered. Ear-splitting rock 'n' roll was played at the GameDay set whenever the crew went to a commercial. Near the tent, the Williams Reunion Jazz Band, a group made up of senior citizens, played Dixieland tunes.

"We're all a little bit older," said Lamson "Choppy" Rheinback, class of 1962, standing in front of the tent sipping wine from a plastic glass with a purple and gold W emblazoned on the front.

"I hear the Division I schools are all angry," Rheinback said, referring to GameDay's presence at Williams. "I think it's wonderful."

Unlike other schools that play each other for items such as axes, bells, cannons or jugs — Cincinnati and Louisville battle for a keg of nails — no trophy is awarded to the winner of the Williams-Amherst game.

However, if Williams wins its homecoming game — Amherst in odd years, Wesleyan (the other team in the Little Three rivalry) in even years — the entire football team walks en masse up Spring Street to St. Pierre's Barbershop while singing the school fight song, "Yard by Yard." Inside, the players smoke cigars while the seniors cut the freshmen's hair. "The Walk," as it is known, was named "Best postgame tradition in America" by Sports Illustrated in 1992. It dates back to the mid-1980s, barbershop owner Roger St. Pierre said.

Following yesterday's 20-0 win, the Ephs were cheered on their walk up Spring Street by people hanging out of windows and standing on roofs.

"Nothing was ever well-choreographed or planned," St. Pierre said. "I didn't set out to make a tradition. It evolved in an innocent way to something I have no control over."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski: tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6224