March 2, 2007

Fear the Purple Cow: Mascots bring tourney to life

The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is a spectacle unlike any in American sports. It’s a once-a-year opportunity for skilled prognosticators everywhere to revert to the accuracy and grace of an embattled local weatherman and a chance to put untested amateurs on a pedestal and see whether they wilt. Ancient cultures would throw great festivals to ring in the arrival of spring. We celebrate the end of winter by shirking all responsibilities and watching teenagers and twenty-somethings throw a leather ball through a modified peach basket.

In DIII, where the glare of the spotlight never gets too blinding, the postseason tournament is a chance for seemingly anonymous college basketball programs to become only slightly less anonymous. In an effort to shine some light on this virtually unknown division, The Maroon provides you with this outsider’s guide to the Little Dance:

Throughout the 59-team field, from Clinton, Mississippi to Painesville, Ohio; from Canton, New York to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the potential matchups are tantalizing. Ever wondered who would win if Lincoln got in a fight with the Messiah? With a little luck, the two Pennsylvania schools could battle for all the adulation Saturday in Washington, D.C. in the second round—that is if Messiah can overcome host Catholic in a festival for theological supremacy tonight.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, our old friend Wash U will take on potential Cinderella Fontbonne in a literal backyard brawl. Next-door neighbors for the past three quarters of a century, Fontbonne has existed mainly as the Canada to Wash U’s United States, content to bask in the glow of its Division III superpower and score minor victories of its own in the unheralded St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. All that could change Friday if the Griffins can pull off an upset at the Field House.

Likewise, the nicknames and mascots for the tournament field range from the befuddling—The Coast Guard Bears?—to the adjectival—The Manhatanville Valiants; from the multi-talented ethnics like the Hope Flying Dutchmen and Wooster Fighting Scots to the sexually suggestive Pointers from top-ranked UW–Stevens Point. None of these can compare, though, to the intra-mascot angst that has built up among a pair of bitter rivals from the Berkshires.

Since the early 19th century, the Amherst Lord Jeffs and Williams Ephs have existed as adversaries in various forms. In academic circles, the spat began when the president of Williams quit his post to found the rival institution in 1821, and continues today as the two annually compete for the top spot for liberal arts colleges in the in the US News and World Report rankings. Even the namesakes of the two schools are intertwined in the annals of history, beset by a drama straight out of Steinbeck.

During the French and Indian War, the founder of Williams, an early New England powerbroker named Ephraim Williams, took a bullet to the head at the Battle of Lake George while serving under the command of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town and indirectly the college are named. While Williams never lived to see the school that would bear his name, General Amherst endures in the history books not only for his crushing defeat of the French at Montreal, but also for his wholehearted endorsement of the distribution of smallpox-laden blankets to quell unrest during Pontiac’s rebellion. And you thought Chief Illiniwek was offensive.

Since dropping dead in the service of his future nemesis, Ephraim and his charges have had the last laugh in the rivalry. Williams pulled off a stunning upset Saturday over the then-second-ranked Jeffs in the NESCAC championship game, recovering from a 14–0 deficit early to win 70–69 and earn a spot in the tourney. The Ephs—known alternatively as the “Purple Cows”—will face Brockport State in the first round tonight.

In addition to their colonial grudge, Williams has also helped to carry on an equally important DIII tradition: an animal mascot that is entirely fictitious. Big-time programs like Georgia or Colorado or Texas might have a real live animal to parade at their athletic competitions, but the schools in this tournament can do one better. In DIII, you’re just as likely to see your favorite school’s mascot in a Harry Potter book as you are at the zoo. Take, for example, the aforementioned Griffins—known for having the hindquarters of a lion, the head of an eagle, and for tearing apart young Draco Malfoy in The Prisoner of Azkaban—or our very own Chicago Maroons, represented by the Phoenix.

Even the championship venues are a little odd in Division III. The men’s final four will be held this year at the Salem Civic Center in Salem, Virginia. Mention Salem to an ordinary person and he or she might mention the infamous Witch Trials, the state capital of Oregon, or the black cat from Sabrina. Mention Salem, Virginia and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. If the city decided to adopt the nickname “What happens in Salem, stays in Salem,” no one would know about it for six years. It’s the backwater in the Blue Ridge.

During the winter months, Salem’s arena serves as the home court for the defending national champion and fourth-ranked Virginia Wesleyan Marlins. But its real claim to fame is as the setting for the scene in Borat in which Sacha Baron Cohen makes a mockery of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and nearly gets murdered as a result. Following the Final Four, it will return to its theatrical activity, hosting a musical adaptation of the Clifford the Big Red Dog children’s book series.

For the teams involved, of course, none of this matters. Win four games in March and Salem looks like the greatest Spring Break destination in the world. Just last week, an all-but-dead squad from the US Coast Guard Academy brought its gaudy 2–10 league record into the NEWMAC tournament and came away with one of the more improbable conference championships in recent memory—earning a trip to the NCAAs in the process.

“To the Valiant Heart,” says the sign in front of the scorer’s table at Manhattanville’s Kennedy Gymnasium, “Nothing is impossible.” Let that be a lesson, as the Maroons begin their quest tonight to win this tournament—one ridiculously named team at a time.