Commentary

Sibling rivalry: Williams-Amherst remains heated

Originally Published: July 23, 2007
By Lauren Reynolds | ESPN.com

When Zephaniah Swift Moore abandoned Williams in 1821 with a few professors, students and, allegedly, a few library books, to start what is now Amherst College, he couldn't have imagined that the Massachusetts schools would still be battling in 2007.

Amherst-Williams
Kris Dufour One of the longest traditions is 'The Walk,' which features Williams, in full uniform, walking from Weston Field right up the middle of Spring Street to St. Pierre's Barber Shop, where the team celebrates (and occasionally shaves a head.)

Yet the two prestigious liberal arts colleges compete nearly constantly: in academic pursuits, in the recruitment of students, in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings and, perhaps most visibly, in athletic ventures.

The schools' football teams have been sparring in an end-of-the-season grudge match since 1884, with Williams leading the series 68-48-5.

"I always thought it was a great way to end the season because regardless of how good or how bad [the season has been] -- and we've been on both sides," said Dick Farley, Williams' Hall of Fame coach, "if you're not having a very good year and you can somehow corral those last two games, you've had a pretty good year."

Farley should know. In his first season, the Ephs started 0-4, only to recover midway and win their final four games. The last two wins came against Little Three members Wesleyan and Amherst.

"We finished 4-4 and had a great year. [Amherst] ended up 6-2 and had an awful year. I wasn't used to being congratulated for finishing .500," said Farley, laughing.

Although the unusual history of the two schools inspired the rivalry, the annual success of both programs certainly has turned up the heat. And since schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference don't participate in postseason football, the Williams-Amherst matchup has decided more than a few conference championships.

The 1997 season finale, for instance, has become something of a local legend in New England. Williams entered the game 6-1; Amherst was a perfect 7-0. The Lord Jeffs took a 46-45 lead with just over a minute to go on a trick two-point conversion. But Williams answered, driving 70 yards to set up a 27-yard field goal, which freshman Collin Vataha (in his first year of kicking -- ever) nailed to ruin the Lord Jeffs' perfect season, 48-46.

"People comment that it was one of the greatest games they've ever seen," said Amherst football coach E.J. Mills, whose first taste of the rivalry as a head coach came in that 1997 matchup. "The thing that's amazing about the game is the emotion -- the raw emotion -- from the kids. We really enjoy playing in that game, and unfortunately, for better or worse, you get defined by that game. And when you win it, it's awesome, and when you lose it, it's devastating. It's kind of hard to put into words exactly, but it just means so much to a lot of people."

The thing that's amazing about the game is the emotion -- the raw emotion -- from the kids. We really enjoy playing in that game, and unfortunately, for better or worse, you get defined by that game. And when you win it, it's awesome, and when you lose it, it's devastating.

E.J. Mills

"The intensity, emotion and effort [during a Williams-Amherst game] are the same as at a USC-Notre Dame or Miami-Chargers game -- any game against an archrival," said Farley, an All-America defensive back at Boston University who went on to a pro career with the Chargers. "I always knew going in it was going to be a great football game. I didn't know if we'd win or lose, but I knew we'd get a great effort. There was no speeches that had to be given; for the seniors, it was their last go-around. So it was an easy game to coach from an emotional point of view."

"When you see a school of 1,650 and a school of 2,150 and you see crowds of 10,000 and 15,000 at these events, it really is pretty spectacular," said Dave Hixon, Amherst's men's basketball coach. "And for the kids, you could be playing for Ohio State, the way the crowd feels."

The 1997 matchup is hardly the only game in this series to be decided on the final play. In 2001, the two teams entered the game undefeated for just the third time in the series history; the Ephs emerged victorious in overtime to deny Amherst a perfect season for the seventh time.

"It really doesn't matter what you've done in the first seven games going into that one," said Harry Sheehy, Williams' athletics director and legendary coach. "I truly believe that sometimes your group of seniors can truly will your team to win. It's the strangest thing I've ever seen. I've been on both ends of it. We've had teams two scores better than them, and they beat us. They've had teams two scores better than us, and we've beaten them. And a lot of it has to do with your senior leadership and your kids knowing this is their last go and understanding that this is the one they're going to take with them, this is the one they're going to remember."

Part of the reason for the parity is the players; because the schools are similar, they attract the same type of student-athlete. As Farley said, "You can tell which school a kid is going to by flipping a coin."

That's not to say the coaches aren't aggressive in recruiting. Part of the motivation for winning the rivalry game was the ability to sit back and smile as recruits and their families came in, knowing you could say you won your last matchup. "In recruiting, I've told kids, 'I don't care if you go to Harvard, Dartmouth or Yale, just don't go to Amherst,'" Farley joked.

Amherst College
Amherst CollegeAmherst fans pack the gym for a hoops matchup with Williams.

But it's clear that the coaches understand that athletics -- even in a rivalry as heated as this one -- take a backseat to academics. "[The student-athletes] are getting the full collegiate experience at a place like Williams or Amherst: They're a student; they're an athlete; they have an opportunity to go home in the summer and do internships that a lot of college athletes don't do. And they still have the venue -- for us, [the game] is piped all over the country and all over the world [through closed-circuit television]. They still get to play in front of 10,000 to 15,000 people on a regular basis, and you know that wherever alums are, they're watching the game together."

The rivalry is not confined to the players and coaches, however. In the long history of the rivalry, some of the most memorable moments have taken place off the field. Amherst students have accused their Williams counterparts of stealing back the books Moore took with him nearly two centuries ago; a few years ago, Williams' band presented Lord Jeffs supporters with a bill for $1.6 million in late fees for those same books.

Hixon, an Amherst alumnus, said the rivalry has inspired its fair share of pranks between the schools. "Back in the mid-'80s, we had a comic group on campus, an underground group, called Rubber Chicken. And Rubber Chicken was this comic group that pulled all sorts of bits," he explained. "And how they did it, I don't know, but they got into the Williams equipment room and stole all of the Williams home jerseys on the Monday before the [game on] Saturday. And as the Williams equipment manager went to lay them out, he found out that they didn't have them.

"So all hell broke loose, as you might imagine. They didn't really know who it was, and now it looked like Williams was going to have to play at Williams on their homecoming in their away jerseys. It just couldn't happen.

"Rubber Chicken took a picture of themselves -- about 12 guys -- with the jerseys on, but the shirts over their heads, covering their faces. And they sent it to Williams, and the fun began. And on that Thursday afternoon, [Williams'] security office and our security office met halfway up the Mohawk Trail to deliver the jerseys."

The Rubber Chicken incident is hardly the only prank to be pulled; in fact, Williams students are the reason Amherst's mascot, Lord Jeff, no longer carries a sword to games. (It seems the mascot might have been a little too eager to joust when an Ephs supporter stole his hat at a basketball game.)

"There's a lot of fun and folklore; the stories get a little bit better each year," said Hixon, whose basketball team is all too familiar with the rivalry. This season, Amherst captured its first Division III NCAA men's basketball championship, finishing the season with a sparkling 30-2 record. The two losses? One came at the hands of Williams, of course.

Although the students are entrenched in the rivalry from the moment they step on campus, it does not end at commencement.

"One of the things that really fuels the fire is the professional world. That's where it really becomes heated -- when you're sitting across from a guy, or your boss is a Williams guy or the guy underneath you is an Amherst guy, and there's little wagers or whatever," Mills said. "It's an amazing thing. It's a small school, but it seems to have veins everywhere in the country, and the post-grad stuff is really what keeps the flame burning."

All rivalry games are popular with alumni, but Williams-Amherst is unique in yet another way. As Farley once simply and famously said, "If you can't play here, you can't play anywhere. There is no Division IV."

Amherst Williams
Williams CollegeWilliams' 1989 win over Amherst kept its first undefeated season intact.

"[Our alumni] can imagine themselves in the game. The athleticism hasn't gotten away from that point," explained Suzanne Coffey, Amherst's director of athletics. "It's not at the level of an Ohio State, where that seems unreachable. And I think that makes the game accessible and attractive in a way that the bigger schools are not."

Although most of the schools' football players end their playing careers in the rivalry game, a few go on to test the professional ranks. Farley's son, Scott, played for him at Williams before attending NFL training camps and playing in NFL Europa.

"[Scott] got to play in the [NFL Europa championship game], and somebody asked him in an interview, 'How does playing in this game compare to Williams-Amherst?' And he said, 'Nothing compares to Williams-Amherst,'" Farley relayed. "He was a 24- or 25-year-old professional athlete when he said that, and I thought it was somewhat meaningful, that he had been around some pretty good people, but he still came around to the Amherst-Williams rivalry being the most important experience of his life. And that's probably the way it should be."

When it comes down to it, the reason for the rivalry's continued success and popularity is quite simple: It's the essence of what college sports are supposed to be about.

"They're amateurs. There's no false pretense of what they're doing. They're doing it because they enjoy doing it. Half of them are paying $45,000 a year. I think it's the way sports should have been," Farley said.

It's one of the few topics on which you'll find Amherst and Williams supporters agreeing.

"When everything else in our society sort of pushes us to the television and the Division I game, I think the Amherst-Williams game is pure and simple. And that's sort of where it should be kept," Hixon said. "The way that our kids still play the game, and why they play the game, the rivalry sort of epitomizes it -- it's the special piece that we hold dear in Division III, and in the NESCAC and in places like Williams and Amherst. We need to hold onto that. It's our last anchor."

Lauren Reynolds is the editor of ESPNU.com. She can be reached at Lauren.K.Reynolds@espn3.com.