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On a Trojan campus, Greeks are in frat city

Times Staff Writer

When word came in June 2006 that USC was accepting applications for three new fraternities, it was as if someone had tapped a fresh keg at spring break.

Fraternities eager to be the first new one at USC in more than a decade started by mailing packets explaining why they’d be a great fit at the school, and a lucky few were invited to campus to make their pitches. Then, like nervous job applicants, the fraternities started calling.

“They were so anxious, asking, ‘When will you know? When are you deciding?’ They called enough to show their interest, but you could tell they didn’t want to overdo it, either,” said Beth Saul, USC’s director of Fraternity and Sorority Leadership Development and Parent Programs.

When USC finally made its choices, the losers were crushed. Saul had long phone chats with some and even met with one fraternity representative to console him. “They were so heartbroken, and they just wanted to understand,” Saul said.

For the lucky winners, it was a prime opportunity -- especially for Sigma Alpha Mu, which got to launch its new chapter this year. The other two winning fraternities will -- as they like to say -- “colonize” next year and in 2009.

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Sigma Alpha Mu was kicked off campus nearly 15 years ago for hazing and has wanted to return ever since. USC, with its strong alumni base, good academics and good-time reputation, is considered a Greek haven.

“It’s our top priority. Groups on campuses that large produce strong alumni, so it’s a very big deal,” said Matt Witenstein, a national organizer for Sigma Alpha Mu, which sent a delegation of 30 recruiters and alumni to an initial meeting with USC officials and promised a $50,000 scholarship contribution.

USC’s move comes as more and more students are joining Greek organizations nationwide. There were about 350,000 students in fraternities last year, up from a low of 280,000 in 1998, according to the North-American Interfraternity Council in Indianapolis, which tracks traditional social fraternities.

USC has about 8,200 male undergraduates, about 1,300 of them in fraternities, according to the administration. This year, 411 male students pledged, almost 100 more than three years ago. The growing interest prompted the school to add to its 19 fraternities.

It’s unclear why more students are joining fraternities. But Pete Smithhisler, executive vice president for the Interfraternity Council, offered a theory: “In the 1990s, it was all about not conforming. Today, students want to be part of a group.”

Getting into the big leagues of the fraternity world is one thing. Making a name for yourself is another, as the 16 members of Sigma Alpha Mu, commonly known as Sammy, found out at USC homecoming earlier this month.

By 12:30 p.m., most Greek organizations had set up tents at McCarthy Quad on campus, and a Mardi Gras spirit prevailed. One fraternity had seven kegs of Miller Lite on ice, and a boy stripped off his shirt and flexed when blond coeds walked by wearing bright beads. But the men of Sammy hadn’t even set up a table for a game of “beer pong.”

“I thought, ‘How hard can it be to run a frat? It’s just a bunch of guys getting drunk together.’ Well, it’s a lot of work,” said Nathan Pikover, 21, the fraternity’s new prior, or president, as he anxiously fingered his cellphone, seemingly trying to will it to ring.

“Where’s the table?” he muttered. “Is someone getting the pingpong balls? Tell me someone’s getting pingpong balls.”

Like most Sammy members, Pikover said he’d never had any interest in joining a fraternity. The only reason he decided to join was because Sammy representatives contacted him in September after asking a rabbi with a USC organization if there was a senior who could fill the presidency. Sammy is a historically Jewish fraternity.

“We get to decide whatever will shape the chapter in the future,” said sophomore Brian Tenenbaum.

Witenstein, the national organizer, has visited campus almost a dozen times to share such things as the secret handshake for new recruits and to gather them in tight huddles to lead them in song:

Everlasting, ever faithful,

ever staunch and true

that’s the brotherhood we form in Sigma Alpha Mu!

The members’ aversion to “traditional” fraternities was clear during the USC-Notre Dame football game. When they got together at a member’s off-campus apartment to watch the contest weeks before homecoming -- they have yet to get their own house -- they cheered rabidly as the Trojans ran up the score. But they were almost as interested in some commercials as in quarterback Mark Sanchez’s play.

“Vonage washed out 50% of my portfolio,” said sophomore Matt Schapiro, one of several Sammy members who is an active trader.

When the Trojans went up by 31 points in the fourth quarter, Sammy members decided to play NBA Live instead of watch the game. “Who wants to be the Spurs?” asked Schapiro.

But even the most independent-minded students want to fit in during homecoming.

“We need a table,” Pikover repeated as he cooked hamburgers and chicken hot dogs over a small Weber grill, engulfed in billowing smoke streaming from a neighbor’s 7-foot barbecue pit.

When the table finally arrived, Sammy members quickly set up for beer pong, placing 10 red plastic cups at each end and filling each with a few ounces of beer. They set up teams and began tossing pingpong balls at the cups; each time a team sank a shot, the other had to drain the contents.

Though the object of the game was to beat the other team, it was also meant to attract other students to the tent. Sammy hopes to add more members next semester and eventually have 100.

At neighboring tents, squealing sorority girls flung pingpong balls while being coached by fraternity members, but the Sammy members pretty much competed against one another. Other students would drift by, eye the nearly empty tent and generally move on.

“We’d have more people here, but four of our guys are in the [marching] band,” Pikover explained. “We’re kind of the band fraternity.”

The scene at Alpha Epsilon Pi, the other traditionally Jewish fraternity on campus, was more lively. Chapter President Koltin Stratiner had to tear himself away from a blond student to speak to a reporter at the fraternity’s tent, where the overflow crowd had spilled out onto the sidewalk.

“Everyone knows that Sammy’s here,” Stratiner said. “It will take them a few years to get going.”

As the Dos Equis beer bottles piled up around their pong table, Sammy members started to have more fun.

Pikover and Schapiro beat five challengers in a row before heading off to find a bathroom. When the team members returned, they found a new foreign team waiting for them.

“El Presidente never loses,” boasted Pikover before he and Schapiro grabbed an early lead. But then El Presidente knocked over two of his own cups -- a major party foul -- giving the other team a 9-7 lead.

When the other team sank a ball into the final cup with a triumphant splash, one of them screamed “yeeeah!” before falling down and rolling exuberantly on the lawn.

“How sad,” Schapiro said, retreating to the shade of the tent. “A new fraternity comes along and we lose.”

Pikover didn’t seem as worried. The quad was emptying as students headed to the Coliseum, and he said: “We had a good time. I’m not counting it as a loss at all.”

jason.song@latimes.com


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