Friday, December 07, 2012

The 150th "Rivalry" at Yankee Stadium

It was one of the worst-kept secrets of the 2012 season. 

Even though it was unconfirmed for many months, people in the know heavily suspected that something big was on the horizon for "The Rivalry" for the upcoming 150th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette.

In 2014, when "The Rivalry" celebrates its 130th birthday, the game will be played outside the state of Pennsylvania.

In two splashy announcements before the 148th meeting between the two rivals right before Thanksgiving, Lafayette and Lehigh jointly announced that the 150th game - Lafayette's home game - will be contested at the new, 36,000 seat Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Lafayette will host the 150th meeting in college football’s most-played rivalry at Yankee Stadium Nov. 22, 2014.

Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss and Lehigh University President Alice Gast made the announcement Saturday morning at the annual President’s Brunch before the 148th Lafayette-Lehigh game at Fisher Stadium.

“Lafayette College is honored to host the 150th meeting of Lafayette and Lehigh at Yankee Stadium. This important milestone for the most-played football rivalry in the country will be celebrated at our nation’s most iconic sports facility,” Weiss said. “Our fans deserve nothing less, and our student-athletes will remember this day for the rest of their lives.”

“While we still consider this game to be a special one for our campuses and for the Lehigh Valley, we thought the milestone of the 150th game presented a unique opportunity to share more broadly our institutions, our students and student-athletes, our successful alumni and our rivalry by playing on a larger stage,” said Joe Sterrett ’76 ‘78G, the Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics. “The Yankee organization understands, values and embraces tradition, rivalry, and commitment to high quality. They are very excited to host our game and we all believe this will be an extraordinary experience.”

Something like this doesn't get pulled together instantly, and as it turns out, it's something that has been informally discussed for several years by both the Lehigh and Lafayette camps.  Along with the fact that Lafayette hosted the first-ever meeting of "The Rivalry" and it's their home game is the fact that the 2014-2015 academic year also represents Lehigh's 150th anniversary, of which this neutral-site game will be a part, making it a giant year for both schools.

Paul Reinhard of the Morning Call delved into the topic with Lafayette's Bruce McCutcheon:

Q: What was the genesis of the event; was it initiated by Lafayette or by Lehigh?

A: Joe Sterrett and I started talking about the 150th game a couple of years ago, thinking that because it’s a milestone event, we wanted to do something that’s pretty unique, a great opportunity to celebrate the two institutions. What can we do different to make this game stand out? We’ve been working jointly for that long.

Q: Was there someone on the Yankee Stadium end who has a tie to either Lafayette or Lehigh and carried the ball on that end?

A: There were a couple of ties. But the major contact with the Yankees is Mark Holtzman, the executive director of non-baseball marketing for Yankee Stadium, who is a Lafayette alum, class of 1980. He’s responsible for the Pinstripe Bowl, concerts they’re doing there now, anything in the stadium that’s not a baseball game. When we first started talking about it, he got excited about it pretty quickly. It was nice to have someone on that side who was familiar with the schools and knew the game.
Among the presidents and those connected with them, the deal seemed like a slam-dunk.  The excitement seemed hard to contain.  A jubilee-like celebration at Yankee Stadium, even if it's not the same exact Yankee Stadium where the NYU Violets and the Fordham Rams dueled in the 1930s.  A big-time venue for a once-in-a-lifetime event.

For some of the "regular" fans, though, the announcement didn't exactly make them happy.

Even back in 2011, when the first thoughts of bringing the 150th to a neutral location were voiced, there were those that hated the idea of taking a Lehigh Valley tradition and taking it on the road

When "The Rivalry" started to actually have some chatter assigning it directly to Yankee Stadium, there were certainly two minds to moving it there: those that think "The Rivalry" has a unique opportunity to have a giant celebration on the national stage, and those, like Keith Groller of the Morning Call, who thought that it belongs to the Valley, and should stay in the Valley.

"There is no doubt moving the game to Yankee Stadium would offer a ton of positives," Barry Miller added in his piece, "in that it would allow students and fans to enjoy a day or weekend in New York City.  Playing in New York would add to the appeal with all the nightlife in the city. In my view, picking another venue, such as Lincoln Financial Field or MetLife Stadium, really wouldn't serve the purpose of making the game special for fans."

"Not to be a party-pooper here, but the idea of taking the party that is the Lehigh-Lafayette football game across two state lines and the George Washington Bridge to Yankee Stadium ... doesn't excite me," Groller said. "Maybe it's because I grew up around here and consider this event - and that's what it is, an event, not just a game - to belong to the Lehigh Valley.  My guess is that the hotels, the restaurants, the bars, the pizza shops etc., all depend on the Lehigh-Lafayette game as being a big weekend for them; at least more than usual.  This is one of the rare rivalry games that no matter where it is played, you can come back to your old stomping grounds and rekindle old relationships."

When the game was formally announced this year, many of those same folks hadn't changed their minds.
At least one Lafayette alum finds the venue offensive. Joe Bozik, a Lafayette Hall of Fame quarterback, said moving the game off campus is a shock and a blow to the game's tradition.

"I would rather play the game at our stadium," said Bozik, who led Lafayette past Lehigh in 1957. "[As a student-athlete] I probably would have said that that sounds pretty good, but right now it doesn't sound pretty good."

Bozik contends the game will not draw a lot of TV viewers, and if it does, they'll see a lot of empty seats.

Some irate fans, like Mike Brady, even took to writing the Lafayette student paper:

I’m sure I’m one of many alums dismayed to hear that Lafayette intends to move the 150th Lafayette-Lehigh game to Yankee Stadium. 

Here are some points that were apparently overlooked:  a two-hour (or longer) bus ride by both student bodies to get to the game – I’m sure many will opt to stay on campus and watch the game on TV or online. Even with a record crowd (unlikely) the stadium will be at least half empty. The exorbitantly high price of concession items at Yankee Stadium. The lack of adequate alumni tailgating facilities (the South Bronx – really?). The loss of what is typically a huge weekend of business revenue for College Hill and Easton businesses.  For those traveling a long distance, lodging costs in the NYC area are at least double the costs in and around Easton.  And we’ve lost five in a row – why would we want to surrender home field advantage? 

Celebrating the 150th game at Lafayette, where it belongs, sounds a lot more special to me.
Finally, right after the playing of the 148th game, both Lehigh head coach Andy Coen and Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani "gave their endorsement" of the game as well:

"I've certainly heard both sides about it," Tavani said. "My first reaction when it was first discussed was what a wonderful experience for our young men, what terrific exposure for recruiting.

"I spoke to a group of recruits and parents before the game in our team room, as I always do, and you should have seen their eyes light up when I mentioned it."

But Tavani also admitted: "I know there's another side of it.  And I know there are alumni and people in the community who are concerned.

"But these things only come around once every 150 years. An opportunity to make it special and play on a huge stage, and get even more national attention, is really big. It's not my decision, but I do support it fully. It's something to be excited about and hopefully I am still living and breathing to see the 150th."

Coen concurred.

"I am excited about it," he said. "I think it's going to be a positve. I don't know all of the details of it, but there's certainly going to be a buzz about it. We should get a great crowd. I will be excited just to walk on the field at Yankee Stadium. I think the last time I did I had to jump over the fence and run."

Coen was just kidding about last part.

"My mother is a big Yankee fan and she will be all fired up about it," Coen said.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on the 150th in Yankee Stadium, coming in the next few days.

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