Record Profile: Paulsen’s passion ‘fuels’ men’s basketball for success

Who’s the star of the men’s basketball team? Who gets the ball in the waning moments of a close game? The team’s enormous success this season has answered all questions about its skill and tenacity, save perhaps the two above. The case could be made for Benjamin Coffin ’04, whose spectacular performance in the NESCAC tournament powered the Eph juggernaut to its first conference championship. On the other hand, consider Drew DeMuth’s ’03 masterful showing against Salem State in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday. At different times during the season, Michael Crotty ’04 and Tim Folan ’03 have looked unstoppable.

In short, the Ephs’ 27-1 record has been a true team effort, keyed by a talented core of scorers and some of the toughest rebounding and defense in the country. Every Eph victory is a victory of unselfishness, and no man better personifies the team’s gospel of success than the man who preaches it, fourth-year Head Coach David Paulsen ’87.

“Coach Paulsen has the unbelievable ability to understand chemistry and its importance to our success on the floor,” Folan said.

Paulsen lives his game plan of unselfishness. He immediately deflects praise to the members of the team.

“This has been the most rewarding year for me coaching ever,” he said. “The guys have really given up part of themselves to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

During an interview, Paulsen conducts himself in the same manner he expects from his players during a game. He answers questions about himself on the condition they be used as “background.” He uses every opportunity he can to extol the virtues of his team. Ask him how the team wins its games, and he brings up the example of DeMuth against Amherst for the NESCAC championship. Paulsen had started a small lineup against the Lord Jeffs, leaving DeMuth temporarily on the bench in the biggest game of the season. When the starters began to knock down threes, Paulsen decided that, “since it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As a result, DeMuth played only eight minutes in the first half.

“A lot of guys would have pouted about that,” Paulsen said, “but in the second half, he was a monster down the stretch.”

Indeed, with Amherst resurgent at the end, the big man hit four huge free throws to help seal the game. And against Salem St., DeMuth played his heart out, scoring 24 points and grabbing seven boards. The example of DeMuth is the rule, not the exception, according to Paulsen.

“The story here is about these guys who’ve been so unselfish,” he said.

That trait has played a crucial role in the team’s success, but it has also resulted in individual player stats which can seem unimpressive to outside observers. Coffin and Crotty are the Eph representatives this year on the All-NESCAC first team, but the other spots are held by players on other teams who boast flashier stats than their Williams counterparts.

“I’ll take Tim Folan over Mike McGlynn of Tufts any day of the week, and I’ll take Drew DeMuth over Cam Johnson of Wesleyan every day of the week,” Paulsen said. “Those guys have inflated stats for teams that aren’t playing anymore.”

As a Williams player in the ’80s, Paulsen was never in any danger of cracking the all-league team.

“I was short, but I made up for it by being slow,” he recalled.

Harry Sheehy, director of athletics, and former basketball coach, remembers playing Paulsen only “sparingly.” But Sheehy recognized other talents in the feisty reserve point guard.

“He clearly had a coach’s mindset. He always looked at the game more fundamentally soundly than most other players,” Sheehy said.

Off the court, Paulsen quietly earned Phi Beta Kappa honors in history. One of his advisors, the late Russ Bostert, foresaw great things for him in the field, if only he could resist the temptation of coaching basketball.

“He told me, ‘Do that for a few years, and when you see the error of your ways, go get a Ph.D.,’ or something like that,” Paulsen said.

The history department’s prodigal son never returned, however. Paulsen spent the ’90s as an assistant at Michigan and Cleveland State, then as head coach at St. Lawrence and Le Moyne. In 1999, he became Sheehy’s first choice and ultimate selection for men’s basketball coach at Williams. Sheehy couldn’t be happier with that choice.

“His work ethic jumps off the page; he’s always looking for ways to improve, and he’s always trying to make the team better,” Sheehy said.

In his first year as head coach at Williams, Paulsen led the team to a 21-7 record and an ECAC championship. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing – Paulsen brought a new offensive system to the team which some of the seniors, who had grown used to Sheehy’s system, had trouble learning. And following a legend is never a simple matter.

Paulsen, however, proved to be a natural for the job. His overall mark now stands at a stunning 70-14. He credits Sheehy for being, in essence, the anti-Al Davis.

“Coach Sheehy was really good at stepping away and not looking over my shoulder,” he said.

Two weekends ago, Paulsen coached the team to victory at Amherst’s LeFrak Gymansium, a result no Williams team had achieved since 1996. Paulsen called the win “a validation of everything we’re about – defense, balance. . . everybody playing within themselves.” Even at the season’s zenith, the lone loss on the road to Amherst, Paulsen saw the potential for the end of the depressing streak.

“In years past, when we lost at Amherst, there was a sense of devastation,” Paulsen said. “But the sense I got in that locker room, after we played very poorly, was a sense of being very upset, but with a kind of weird confidence, because even when we played very poorly we were right there with a good team, and our system works, and we were going to be fine.”

In the end, the team returned and triumphed at LeFrak. The victory and the season have been extremely moving for the coach and players.

“There’s a mystical experience that happens when you get totally focused on the team and you see all you worked for come to fruition,” Paulsen said. “It’s a high that can’t be replicated.”

The Ephs have now reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The competition is tougher and the stakes are higher, and Paulsen even speculated that a rematch with Amherst might be in the cards if both teams continue to advance.

If anybody can lead this team to the promised land, though, it’s Paulsen, and he has the confidence of his players to face the task.

“When you have a coach as obsessed with excellence as he is, it makes it easy to give it everything you’ve got every day, to try to go over the edge and be as good as you can be,” Crotty said. “His passion is what fuels us as a team and is at the core of our success.”