"Both said the same thing, before my time."
This is absolutely true, by the way. The last time the Blue Hens and Mountain Hawks played on the gridiron was 2005, so the players do have a point. If they were Blue Hens at that time, that would have made them redshirt freshmen when a missed extra point in overtime doomed Lehigh to a 34-33 defeat.
The talk this week will be of the renewal of a regional rivalry that dates to 1938. It will involve talk of talkative former Blue Hen head coach Tubby Raymond, whose games with Lehigh in the 1970s up until the 2000s have gone into "legendary" status. There will be a lot of rejoicing that the FCS playoffs can - once again - rekindle a regional rivalry that ought to happen a lot more often than it actually does.
But for the kids on the field this weekend, there is none of that. There is a national championship to win, and the Blue Hens and Mountain Hawks see each other as one thing: fodder on their way to the title. (more)
There is plenty to reminisce about here about the history of the Delaware/Lehigh rivalry - and trust me, I'll spend more than a few words on that.
But framing this game as a rivalry isn't quite the right way to approach it. This is a playoff game. The winner moves on; the loser's season is over. It's really that simple.
And no matter what the history is, Delaware is FCS royalty.
There's that 2003 National Championship team, who destroyed the last Patriot League team to win a playoff game, 40-0, in the championship game in Chattanooga. RB Jamaal Branch couldn't even score a touchdown against the powerful Blue Hens.
There's also the 2007 squad that made it to Chattanooga for the final but were bested by Appalachian State 49-27 against arguably the best FCS program ever. Even having QB Joe Flacco as their signalcaller wasn't enough to beat the Mountaineers.
Since that near-championship year, Delaware has joined Lehigh on the sidelines of the FCS playoffs, having missed qualifying for the postseason two years in a row.
But in 2010, the Blue Hens have been in the Sports Network Top 25 all year, edging into the Top 10 in late September and never dropping below that threshold. Delaware ended the regular season - according to the Gridiron Power Index - as the No. 1 team in the country, based on and index of human polls and computer ratings.
They have the "blue chip recruit, Elite 11, Parade all-American" quarterback, who, like Flacco three years ago, has a real chance to be a high draft pick when the 2011 NFL Draft rolls around. And he's not the only Delaware player being looked at by NFL scouts, either.
This season, they've gone an impressive 9-2, losing the CAA championship on a 44 yard last-second FG miss - to the No. 2 team in the GPI, William & Mary - and only lost in overtime to the defending national champions, Villanova, in the last game of the season thanks to an untimely fumble.
Delaware was expected to do well with a brutal CAA schedule, an all-world QB and a monster defense, and did so.
In contrast, Lehigh didn't have a heck of a lot of expectations on them going into the year. Unlike the Blue Hens, going into summer camp they didn't even know who their starting quarterback would be.
While junior QB Chris Lum ended up winning the battle, two early losses - a humbling 35-0 defeat to Villanova and a 31-10 loss to New Hampshire - seemed to justify to most people around the country that this Lehigh team was too raw, or not talented enough, to hang with the big dogs in the CAA. The Mountain Hawks might find a way to win a weak Patriot League and win a few games against the apocryphal Ivy League, but that's about it.
But since the game against New Hampshire - where Lum, nursing an injury, did not play, and sophomore QB Michael Colvin instead took all the snaps under center - Lehigh became a different team.
Junior LB Mike Groome went from "solid starter" to "all-league player", teaming up with captain senior LB Al Pierce to spearhead a defense that has held eight straight opponents under 21 points a game.
Sophomore WR Ryan Spadola emerged, in the second half of the Harvard game where Lehigh was down three scores, into a true offensive weapon and a reliable target for Lum.
Sure, Lehigh still has a few big names - like an NFL prospect of their own in senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley - but compared to Delaware, with its multitude of blue-chippers, stratospheric national rankings and high achievements in the hardest league in all of FCS, it's easy to fall into the line of thinking of the Mountain Hawks as a bit of a rag-tag team in comparison.
And it sure seems like the Lehigh football players are quite aware of the enormity of their task at hand.
"It's a huge challenge," senior RB Jay Campbell told the Delaware Journal this week, "but definitely something we're looking forward to. A lot of people thought Northern Iowa was going to run over us and people might be thinking the same thing about us going to Delaware. We embrace the underdog role."
"They're great on both sides of the ball," senior WR Craig "Braveheart" Zurn said on Lehighsports.com's preview of the game. "They have a great defense. It's going to be a tough game. We definitely need to make more plays than we did last week in order to come out of Delaware with the victory.
"We weren't happy with the way we performed against Villanova or New Hampshire. They're great opponents, but we left a lot of plays out there on the field against them. We're looking to get a second chance at this."
"Every team you play in the playoffs is going to be an athletic team," junior LB Fred Mihal said, "it's the top 16 teams left. I think we've grown a lot. We played Villanova and New Hampshire before Week 5. I think it will be a much different game [this Saturday] than most people probably will think."
Fortunately for Lehigh, games are played on the field, not on the internet. Because if it were waged by Blue Hen fans, pollsters, or even NFL draft scouts, the game wouldn't even be close.
Lehigh's game notes don't really break much new news on the injury front. Junior SS John Littlejohn returns from his one-game suspension to play this weekend in Delaware, a very welcome return for a key player in the secondary and special teams. And freshman FB Sean Farrell should continue to be available, though senior FB Bryce Arruda will continue to be the No. 1 fullback.
The bottom line is Lehigh returns from Iowa quite healthy, especially considering that they are now going to be playing their thirteenth game of the year.
Early weather reports for New-ARK, Delaware call for a very cold, partly sunny day at Tubby Raymond stadium. With a high of 45 - and with a noon kickoff, it's likely to be closer to the high 30s than the mid-40s at that time - it's going to be a cold day at the stadium. Bundle up.
A Whole Lot of Words on the Blue Hens
While the players might think that this "Blue Route" rivalry was "before their time", the on-again, off-again rivalry between these two schools has been one for the history books. Looking back at my last preview of a Lehigh team facing off against Delaware reveals exactly how special it is.
"When you talk to our alumni, next to the rivalry with Lafayette the games they refer to the most are the games against Delaware," former Lehigh head coach Pete Lembo said. "The classic matchups between [former coaches] Tubby Raymond and John Whitehead... it doesn't take long to understand and appreciate that."
While the Blue Hens and Engineers played each other three times before World War II, it was only after 1950 when Delaware and Lehigh started to play each other on a regular basis. As an independent in the "Small College" devision, it made a lot of sense for Delaware to schedule nearby schools like Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, West Chester, Rutgers, and Temple.
Eventually, Lehigh and Delaware would both compete in the "Middle Atlantic States" conference, which was a large, loose association of smaller colleges in the middle Atlantic States that was split into divisions. But without a postseason to complete for, Lehigh's focus was mostly based on the games against Lafayette at Rutgers rather than the Blue Hens. It didn't help that the tradition was to have Lehigh play Delaware early in the year, many years as the season-opening game for both teams.
A former standout football and baseball player at the University of Michigan, Raymond took the Blue Hens' success in the University Division of the Middle Athletic Conference and successfully guided them to 300 career wins, an amazing 14 Lambert Cup Trophies (presented to the best small college team in the East), four bowl victories, and a gaggle of postseason invites as the Blue Hens went from "Small College" to Division II to Division I.
"There were few teams, maybe none, Tubby Raymond enjoyed beating more than Lehigh," Kevin Tresolini shared on his blog this week. "Lehigh went from being a sad-sack program in the 1960s — the first time I ever saw grown men cry (Lehigh players) was on the field at Lafayette after Lehigh lost to finish an 0-9 season there in 1966 — and early 1970s to NCAA Division II champion in 1977 using the Delaware Wing-T offense."
Why was that? They were ending the season against Bucknell of the University division, but that wasn't the same thing. They were playing Villanova at that time, and a school that was probably closer to Delaware too at that time in terms of football aspirations. (Villanova is Delaware's chief rival today.) But Lehigh captured Tubby's ire more. Why?
For the answer to that, you have to look at the coaching career of Lehigh's John Whitehead.
Like Raymond, Whitehead won a Division II national championship through a playoff. (Raymond's came in 1979, Whitehead's came in 1977). And like Raymond, Whitehead was a devotee of the Wing-T offense.
But Whitehead's teams owned Tubby Raymond's teams. In his nine year coaching career, Lehigh went 6-2 against the Blue Hens - the only true era of dominance over Delaware by Lehigh.
With Tubby's own offense.
Off the field, Whitehead and Raymond are best of friends - but on the field, they were something else, according to this classic Morning Call account. While "The Rivalry" with Lafayette was clearly No. 1, Whitehead himself did plenty to elevate his battles with Delaware high on the national stage.
Whitehead can roll off story after story about his confrontations with Raymond and his Blue Hens. Like the time in 1975 when Mark Weaver ran back a kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown which helped the Engineers to a 35-23 win. To begin with, Weaver, a Salisbury High product, was the right kid for the situation. His flamboyance still ranks among the best in Lehigh history.
"Mark's run irritated the hell out of Tubby," said Whitehead, his round face lighting up with the recollection. "Mark put on a little dance when he got to the end zone. That really got to Tubby. He told his film crew that he wanted the film to show his defense. Tubby told his defense he doesn't want something like that to happen ever again, especially from a Lehigh kid."
"[Future NFLer] WR Steve Kreider made this great catch (from QB Mike Rieker)," Whitehead said. "Steve hauled it in with one hand, something like you see on a highlight film. We were beating up on Delaware that day, and Steve's catch just added to the frustration. Tubby thought Steve was hot-dogging it. He even yelled, `Hot dog, hot dog' loud enough for Steve to hear it."
"With all due respect to Lafayette," said current athletic director Joe Sterrett about his time playing the Blue Hens in the 1970s (but the quote dates from 1993), "Delaware always seemed to have the national respect ... the rankings. As a player, we always thought it was a benchmark game for our program."
One of the players on those Raymond-coached teams was none other than current Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler, who succeeded Raymond in 2002 but played under him in the late 1970s.
"Those were some great battles when we were both at the very top of our games," he said this week to Keith Groller of the Morning Call.
"When I got here [as head coach], Tub asked me what his role was and I told him that 'I just lock up at night, you built the place,' and that's how I still feel," Keeler said. "Tub was in my office [Monday]. He is a painter and he paints portraits of my seniors for me. We talk football all of the time, and he tells me I should play my starters longer sometimes.
"I'm so comfortable with him. He was my coach and I wasn't intimidated when I got here. But trust me, he's still an icon. Every day, I walk out there and see his name on that field and I deal with it, but I deal with it in a positive way. I realize that Tubby, Bill Murray and David Nelson built what we have. We are the only school in the country to have four different coaches who have won national titles."
Raymond may have build the stadium and the program, but it took both Raymond and Whitehead to build the Lehigh/Delaware rivalry. And "Tub" always seemed to be good for some real great copy before and after his games with Lehigh.
"It took Rip Van Wrinkle 20 years to wake up, and it only took us three quarters of a football game," said Tubby after a 28-17 come-from-behind victory in 1986. "We made every mistake you can make . . . We didn't drive the ball the way we can, and our defense was modest."
"I really don't like this place," said a half-joking Raymond after beating Lehigh for the final time in Taylor Stadium (now the site of the Rausch Business School), 28-24. "I hate walking up the three flights of stairs to the locker room. On the sideline, the line judge ran over me three times because there's just no room there. The fans are sitting on your back, in your head and everybody's screaming. They can hear everything you're saying; it's kind of like being naked.
"As much respect as I have for Lehigh and the number of fantastic games we've played here, I'm glad to get out of here. Sure, I'd like to play Lehigh again somewhere down the road . . . but not here."
And Raymond's attitude inflamed the passions of Lehigh's coaching staff as well:
P Steve Banco, under a heavy 10-man rush, was hit on the play and knocked to the ground, but no yellow flags joined him there. "I thought I was roughed on the play, but anything I say would sound like sour grapes," he said.
When asked if the ball was partially blocked, Lehigh head coach Hank Small quelled a volcano ready to erupt inside of him.
"No, the ball wasn't partially blocked, but Steve was partially nailed!" said the Lehigh mentor. "I'm tired of having to keep my mouth shut each week (about officials' calls), but I'll keep it shut one more week. I'm just tired of them (the officials) having such an influence on the outcome of the football game in obvious situations."
Something about this rivalry seemed to really stir up the emotions. (This quote makes me laugh every time I read it. Wouldn't you love to react like this every time there's a bad call against your team? I'm betting if YouTube was invented back in 1987, this would be a Greatest Hit.)
By the time 1993 had rolled around - and a humbling 62-21 loss to Delaware and Raymond's Wing-T offense - a new group of Lehigh players were learning to hate - yet respect - Delaware.
"You try to put this behind you, learn from your mistakes and forget all about it," then-WR Dave Cecchini, said of his final game against the Blue Hens. Not that he remembered much of it - he suffered a concussion early in the game, "yet played the whole way", according to the Morning Call.
"It could have been on the very first offensive play. QB Scott Semptimphelter was scrambling around and I (blocked) a linebacker. He came over me and his foot came through my facemask and cut my nose."Chick, of course, came back from that concussion. As an assistant coach, he'd play a part in Lehigh's biggest victory over the Blue Hens in a generation.
Cecchini pointed to an inch or so long scar that ran down the length of his nose as proof.
"The other play, we ran an option and I came over to crack (the weakside linebacker) and our helmets butted pretty hard."
Since 1986, Lehigh has gone 1-8 against the Blue Hens. At this time, had joined the Yankee Conference and started to offer the full allotment of scholarships allowed at the FCS level - 63. Lehigh, now a part of the limited need-based aid Patriot League, won a lot more moral victories than actual victories. The perceived difference between "full-scholarship" (the Yankee, eventually CAA, Conference) and "not really scholarship" (Patriot League) seemed to be real, judging by the record.
But I was there when Lehigh beat Delaware 42-35 in 1999, and boy, oh, boy, was that ever sweet for me as a fan.
Lehigh head coach Kevin Higgins, who was only a year removed from his landmark Patriot League win over Richmond in the I-AA playoffs and sporting a No. 12 national ranking, almost didn't seem to be taken seriously by the Delaware players, who had scheduled Lehigh for homecoming that year and were ranked No. 15 in the country. The Delaware fans thought us to be oddities - perhaps a bit delusional.
On that coaching staff was Cecchini - the concussed playing in the 1993 beatdown - and future Lehigh head football coaches Pete Lembo and Andy Coen.
QB Phil Stambaugh and 5'5 RB Ron Jean sliced Delaware's defense in this track meet of a game - which was 42-24 deep into the game, and only made respectable when the Blue Hens would score a late touchdown to make the score closer. The silence of the Tub throughout the second half - and the whining by Delaware fans as they exited the stadium - are a treasured memory for me. (It even prevented the Blue Hens from appearing in the playoffs that year - Lehigh instead got in the playoffs as an at-large team, largely thanks to that win vs. Delaware.)
"You guys didn't beat anyone," one sour grapes fan said to me and my friends. "But we beat you!", my friend Ray responded in one of the best rejoinders ever.
Echoing his fans, Raymond made a crack about Lehigh's schedule after the loss. I'm paraphrasing from memory, but the quote was something like, "Check for St. Francis Of Assissi on their schedule - those are the types of teams on their schedule. They don't play anybody."
"It was only about 15 seconds after the game and Tubby walked up to me and never said congratulations or good game or anything like that," Higgins told Paul Reinhart of that game, when commenting on Raymond's retirement in 2001. "It was one of the most enjoyable wins I ever had."
(Higgins, who played football at West Chester, another Delaware rival, remembered some of Raymond's antics well. "I remember him onsides kicking when he was leading by two or three touchdowns, and I thought, "Boy, one day I'd like to get back and beat those guys,"' Higgins said.)
That 1999 win was huge - in more ways than one.
One years later, when Lehigh would go on the road to shock a Missouri Valley Conference champion in their own house (Western Illinois, by a 37-7 score), they would then face Delaware in the second round at the Tub. Highly uncharacteristic for a Raymond-coached team, Tubby and his players gave not a single bulletin board quote in the run-up to the game. Not one.
Delaware would win the game going away, a 49-22 rout that wasn't ever a close contest. The Blue Hens were mugging it up with their touchdowns - much in the way that Lehigh's teams might have "hot dogged" it in front of Raymond himself in the 1970s. It was an old-fashioned, Tubby Raymond-style beatdown of Lehigh. His players got the message - you can't lose to Lehigh again. And they didn't.
(I was at that game, too, and I left early - having tasted both the ecstasy, and agony, of this Blue Route Rivalry.)
"Beating Delaware meant their whole season and we had to take it in stride," Tubby said this week in the Delaware News-Journal. "Then they quit playing us. When we won that tournament game in 2000, I said this is a wonderful game and it should be a rivalry."
It is, Tubby. It still is.
As if that wasn't enough history for this rivalry, I did not attend Lehigh's 34-33 overtime loss in 2004 - but I did watch it and I did blog about it. It's Lehigh's only game against current Hen head coach K.C. Keeler.
Before the game, Raymond couldn't resist getting in another dig at Lehigh, the rival he helped make, and the Patriot League.
When asked by the Delaware News-Journal as to what Lehigh fans should enjoy beating more, Lafayette or Delaware, Raymond volunteered Delaware. "Here, I go again... It's because of their selectivity of schedule. They really don't play anybody that could beat them. They've created a cloistered league [the Patriot] for themselves to play each other. So, when they play us, it's like the World Series."
Led by a hero performance by QB Mark Borda and RB Eric Rath, the Mountain Hawks were clinging to a two touchdown lead - twice - in the 4th quarter, but the Blue Hens erupted for 21 fourth-quarter points. "Delaware kicked it into another gear I didn't think they had," I said at the time.
"Borda was getting drilled every play and still standing after getting hit. He may have been concussed. And then Rath, who clearly said "Give the ball to me" after the timeout, went out there and got an incredible 4th down conversion, and took incredible punishment to convert the TD."
But a missed extra point spoiled the party - and left Lehigh players and fans wondering what could have been.
"Unfortunately, when the pace picked up, we were running out of bodies," head coach Pete Lembo said. "Our receiving corps got pretty banged up in the fourth quarter and late in the third."
"I thought our defense had a heck of a day, but they may have gotten tired and Delaware seemed to start finding things late," Borda said. "Still, it was a great experience. I had fun out there tonight. The final result is very disappointing, but the experience of the crowd and this atmosphere was phenomenal."
"I had a blast," LB Anthony Graziani said after making a team-high 14 tackles. "I've never played in an atmosphere like this before. The crowd, the noise, the intensity, on and off the field, was great. It would have been better if the outcome turned out differently, of course, but I think the whole team enjoyed the opportunity to come down here and experience this.
"We weren't able to make enough big plays and stop them," Graziani said. "In the first half, we were making tackles. But in the fourth quarter, we missed some key tackles and missed some of our gap assignments and they had some big gains."
Six years later, Lehigh hopes to finally avenge the loss.
"This shouldn't be a once-in-a-blue-moon game," Keeler said back in 2004. "We should be playing each other more often. It's a game that's good for both programs. We're both top-15 teams on a regular basis and it should be an outstanding atmosphere. It's what college football is all about."
LFN's Drink of the Week
It's brutally cold out. It's a noon kickoff. And you know who Northern Iowa fans are probably rooting for this weekend? Lehigh. As frustrated as they were with their own team last weekend, their memories are long, too, and they're upset with Delaware after their 39-27 defeat at their hands in 2007. As a result, I think we can come up with a drink that celebrates Lehigh's win, but gives a Panther kick to the party, too.
Templeton Rye - a Prohibition-era whiskey - makes for the perfect addition to hot chocolate for tailgaiting at the Tub. I know the Iowans wished it were they who could kick the Hen's asses - but in their absence, celebrate with the Templeton Rye in the hot chocolate, and rejoice as the folks from Pennsylvania - and Iowa - root for the Hawks to shock the world. Again.
As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that. (And, thanks, UNI fans, for the idea.)
Tomorrow: The Lehigh/Delaware Breakdown