Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flashback: November 18th, 1961: Lehigh 17, Lafayette 14

In 1961, fifty years ago this week, Lehigh was dominating, and Lafayette was struggling.

The "Packers", as the Brown & White called them then, were 6-2 going into the traditional rivalry game at the end of the year. There was no postseason berth - and no "Middle Three" championship, as Rutgers had beaten both the Leopards and Packers - but Lehigh was No. 2 in the Lambert Poll behind Amherst, and a resounding win over their arch-rivals could make them the No. 1 team in the East.

The Leopards, on the other hand, suffered through an "rather disastrous" 2-5-1 season in 1961, according tothe Brown & White, only squeaking by Muhlenberg and tying Temple in the "Mud Bowl", their only other victory came against Tufts - which seemed, though, to portend a tougher game for Lehigh than the records might show.

And it certainly was one for the ages.  With hall-of-fame head coach Bill Leckonby on the sidelines, Lehigh would avert a certain tie and eke out a win in dramatic fashion - that would result in the 1961 Lambert Cup.

In the early 1960s, it was already well established that there would be shenanigans between the all-male students at Lehigh and Lafayette.  And in 1961, both student papers spend as much time covering the run-up to the game as they did the game itself.

The Lafayette, in an effort to get the student body and athletes riled up, published a supposed letter from the "Lehigh U. Squad":

Mr. Doeschel, Captain of the Clawless and Fangless Leopards
Dear sir,
How's that banged-up ankle?  We think you're putting on an act to stay out of the L.U. game...  We at Lehigh want to give you and your punchless footballers a chance to crawl out of our annual game.

The letter would go on, suggesting that perhaps the school doctors should "proclaim an epidemic of Scarlet Fever or mumps", in order to cancel the game.

But that was tame compared to some of the other things that were starting to happen concerning the 97th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette, as related by both papers.

Both had big pictures of the Lafayette Leopard in Easton, painted with a fresh new coat of white and brown paint.

They also reported the freshmen, dressed in pajamas, guarding the bonfire, as well as the yearly trip over the Penny Bridge (now Fahy bridge)  to Moravian (then an all-girls' school) to serenade the ladies there.

Then there was also the "early bonfire".

Late Monday evening - well ahead of schedule - Lehigh's bonfire was set ablaze by Bethlehem "townies", the Lafayette mischeiviously wrote.  But in the Brown and White, the story was decidedly different - the story of Lehigh Larry, who reportedly "single-handedly turned away the pyromaniacs who started the Taylor Stadium bonfire Monday night" - with, I kid you not, a shillelagh in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.

Lehigh Larry was a real guy, last name unknown - who, to me, seems sort of a cross between Pat O'Brien and Foster Brooks - who guarded the bonfire every year, directing the freshmen to protect the bonfire, reportedly even setting up walkie-talkies in order to protect it.

Despite such colorful stories - and trust me when I say that these were more of the tame stunts that were pulled - both the deans of Lehigh and Lafayette were concerned about the escalation of the pre-game "festivities'.

"The deans of both Lafayette and Lehigh have issued statements reminding students that disciplinary action can be taken for trouble resulting from the traditional rivalry," the Lafayette reported.  Both deans, Wray H. Condon (Lehigh) and Charles C. Cole (Lafayette) warned that forays to the other schools' campus could be grounds for both disciplinary action or expulsion.

This wasn't just a Dean Wormer moment, either.  For everyone had the riot of 1959 very fresh in their minds.

At the end of the game, a 22-6 loss by Lehigh, a mass of Brown & White students circled their wagons around the goalposts, while Lafayette students rushed them to tear them down.  The result was a "600 man riot", with beer bottles actually being "thrown at the onrushing Leopards.", according the the Leopards' student newspaper.

"President Bergethon was nearly beheaded by an iron pipe swung by a fanatical Lehigh student," the paper added, noting that all of Lehigh was placed on disciplinary probation for the riot.
It didn't do much to put a lid on the pregame energy, however, as there were still plenty of the alchohol-fueled pregame shenanigans that many had come to expect.


Almost lost in the pre-game craziness was the fact there was a football game to be played - and it was a dandy.

Today, college football fans never have to suffer through a tie.  At the end of a season, though, a tie could be the difference between being No. 1 or No. 3 in the polls, the only rating system that mattered.

Almost 15,000 fans watched in utter amazement as a supposedly heavily favored Lehigh team lost a 14-0 lead to a pack of spirited Leopards, and seemed destined to settle for a 14-14 tie.  It appeared to be a disappointing ending to a successful 6-2 season at that time, but DE Andy Larko rose to the occasion.
The junior from upstate Pennsylvania kicked the first field goal of his college career with six secondd remaining in the tilt to offset all Engineer mistakes and give the Big Brown the win, 17-14.
Lehigh, who played a variation of the Wing-T at the time, was primarily a running team.  But after Lehigh's defense forced Lafayette to punt, and they had the ball with only 40 seconds left, they had little choice but to attempt to pass.

Lehigh QB Johnny DeNola had one completion on the day - but it was a good one to Pat Clark at the 5 yard line, setting up the FG try - that, as you can see in the picture, split the uprights.

Shortly after Lehigh's kicker made the game-winning try, students rushed the field and - unsurprisingly - tore down the goalposts before Lafayette could get off their final play, a desperation heave that was intercepted.

"The game is not yet over," the PA system at Taylor Stadium said.

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