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Lehigh/Lafayette - Through the Years

"The Game", The Rivalry, The Blue-Collar Brawl
This weekend Lafayette will host Lehigh at Fisher Field, unfolding yet another fascinating chapter in this storied rivalry. For both Lehigh and Lafayette fans, this is a huge game as it is every year, made even more huge with the tantalizing possibility that there will be an I-AA playoff bid on the line as well. Win the game, and you're in the playoffs. Lose, and you will be sweating on Sunday.

Today I'm going to spend the time to recount the history of this storied rivalry - how this game became the most-played rivalry in college football, and how the "blue-collar brawl" defines Lehigh fans.

Harvard/Yale: The "Other" Game
To the uninformed, the dull, and the most of the national college football media circuit, many folks think that Harvard/Yale is to be considered "The Game". Ha! Lehigh/Lafayette has more on the line (especially this year), is more historic, and has a longer and richer history than that "other" game. Witness the statistics:

Number of meetings:
Harvard/Yale: 120 (through 2003)
Lehigh/Lafayette: 139 (through 2003)

Streak of consecutive years with at least 1 game played:
Harvard/Yale: 1945-2003
Lehigh/Lafayette: 1897-2003

I-AA Playoff teams involved in the game this year:
Harvard/Yale: 0
Lehigh/Lafayette: at least 1

Also worthy of mention is: No two schools' rivalry has as long an unbroken yearly streak as Lehigh/Lafayette. Also, no two schools' rivalry has played as many games as Lehigh/Lafayette.

So, what's to debate? Lehigh/Lafayette's "The Game". Harvard/Yale is clearly "the other game".

Lehigh/Lafayette Through the Years
The first year "The Game" was played was in 1884, when Lafayette and Lehigh played each other twice, once in Easton, and once in Bethlehem. Lehigh got crushed both times, by a combined score of 84-4. This is very likely to have been just the beginning of the bad blood between these two schools in this "blue-collar brawl".

Lehigh's first win came in 1887 by a 10-4 count. Lehigh would proceed to win 13 of the next 17 contests (going 13-3-1 in that span), and then Lafayette started their own span of football doominance. A rivalry was born.

Overall, Lehigh is 62-72-5 against the Leopards. The longest Lehigh losing streak was from 1937-1949, where the Engineers went 0-11-1 against hated Lafayette during that span. The longest consecutive Lehigh winning streak? Fast forward to 1995-2001, where Lehigh had won seven straight against the Leopards.

In more recent memory, since the Patriot League was formed in 1988, Lehigh leads the rivalry, 10-5. In that span, Lafayette has won the outright Patriot League championship 3 times (1988, 1992, and 1994), and Lehigh has been won the outright Patriot League championship 5 times (1993, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2001) and been co-champions of the Patriot League once (1999, with Colgate) during that span.

In 2002, Lafayette finally broke Lehigh's longest winning streak in the series, beating Lehigh 14-7 at Fisher Field in Easton, breaking a 7-game winning streak. It was an ugly day for the Lehigh offense, battered down by injuries and not playing well after having their expectations for a 1-AA national championship run squashed by a Colgate team that beat them 28-0 at Murray Goodman. Missed field goals, turnovers, and overall lack of execution doomed the Brown & White to have their first loss to the Leopards since 1995.

Not all the players on the field will remember this particular game, but many will. The memory of Lafayette's celebration will surely be something they won't want to see again Saturday.

Last year, Lehigh redeemed themselves at Murray Goodman, coming on top in a 30-10 win. Senior RB Jermaine Pugh had a dominating day, racking up 265 all-purpose yards, including a punt return for TD which sealed the deal for Lehigh in a game that had been close for 3 quarters. The only negative to an otherwise great Lehigh victory was the fact that the I-AA playoff commitee (in this humble reporter's opinion) completely shafted Lehigh by not giving them an at-large berth to the I-AA playoffs. Still, at least we had beaten Lafayette, thus by definition having a successful season.

My Experiences With "The Game"
My first game was in 1988, travelling to Fisher field in one of a fleet of school buses that took many fans over to the game. I was but a freshman then, going to only my third game of the year. Back then, not having the I-AA playoffs to play for, the goal of the game was twofold: 1) for Lehigh to win, and 2) to storm the field to get souvenirs from the game, such as the end zone markers and bits of the goalposts. In anticipation of the amount of people who would be storming the field, security had been beefed up, and the metal goalposts were replaced by wooden ones to make for easier tearing-down. Even though security was tightened, there were always fights between fans, and ultimately there were scores of arrests.

That day, it seemed like every time the offense touched the ball either Lafayette or Lehigh scored. Ultimately Lafayette prevailed 52-45, although Lehigh never really took the lead as much as they kept the game close. Lafayette won the Patriot championship that year, and after storming the field with my buddies, I managed to get one of the end-zone markers. (Which was stolen from me by some girl, but that's a story for another time.)

Back in my college time, to most fans the "Game" was not as important as 1) having fun at the tailgate (e.g. drinking beer), and 2) the mere act of storming the field. Most fans didn't bother studying Mark McGowan's passing statistics or Bryant Appling's tackles for the year (like me) - they were there because, well, you just had to be there. Fraternities scored large chunks of the goalposts, and hung them proudly in their living quarters.

In 1990, I hitched a ride to Fisher Field with a few friends in a VW Bus which happened to have a lot of "liquid refreshment" in it. We got to the game early, ate burgers at many tailgates, had (er) some of that liquid refreshment, and saw Lehigh dominate the Leopards 35-14. This game was my first Lehigh victory, and during the postgame I got a "piece" of the goalpost. I say "piece" for my goalpost shard couldn't have been more than 3 inches long - as 2 fraternities were fighting over a huge piece, a little shard came off in my hands. Triumphantly, I headed back to campus, my souvenir tucked away in my coat pocket.

The Lehigh/Lafayette game during my senior year in 1991 could be considered the final days of this "goalpost" era. In that game, in defiance of the "traditions" of the wooden goalposts, Lehigh erected metal goalposts, and got the local authorities involved in keeping order. (No Patriot League title was on the line since Holy Cross had the championship wrapped up.) Even though students and fans were repeatedly warned not to storm the field (in which Lehigh dominated, 36-18), many fans still did storm the field (myself and my friends not being among them). The fans on the field, frustrated at not being able to rip down the goalposts, picked up hunks of turf and started to throw them at the cops trying to restore order on the field. Not surprisingly, the cops went out and beat up a lot of the "fans" on the field that day, in front of many horrified students and alumni. Not a banner day for the Rivalry.

In the years that followed, my friends and I all got jobs or went to graduate school. But every year, we would have our yearly reunion to see Lehigh and Lafayette. Slowly the game stopped being about beer and riding over to the game in a VW Bus and storming the field to rip apart the goalposts and instead got to be about elaborate tailgates, meeting old friends, announcing engagements, and collecting in the spirit of beating the hated Leopards.

My friends Greg and Ginny have a centrally-located house in Easton (both rabid Lehigh fans), and their house has become a pilgrimage every year for our Lehigh "gang". The tailgates have gone from hockey-puck burgers in the parking lot to gourmet buffalo wings, chips, dips, cakes and desserts. Children have started to appear at the party and game. It's a great time to get back together and get caught up with old friends - and get psyched for Lehigh's I-AA playoff possibilities.

Best and Worst Lehigh/Lafayette games
Worst game:1994 at Fisher Field, where Erik Marsh ran roughshod over the Lehigh defense and blew the Engineers out for the Leopards' third Patriot League title. It's the only game where I felt physically ill afterwards (and no, it's not because of the beer).

Second worst: 2002, with Lehigh losing 14-7 at Fisher Field. It was a game marred by Lehigh miscues and errors, and the Leopards executed more cleanly, capping off a very disappointing 7-4 season for Lehigh.

Best game: Easily 1995, where Lehigh won the Patriot title, 37-30 in overtime (the first overtime Lehigh/Lafayette game). Brian Klingerman caught a one-handed grab just after night fell in Murray Goodman to give Lehigh the win, after Lehigh came back from a 16 point fourth-quarter deficit. It seemed like if a third overtime period were needed, it was debatable if there would have been enough light to play the game! (Murray Goodman doesn't have lights.)

Second Best: 1993, Lehigh dominating the Leopards, 35-19, for their first-ever Patriot championship, on a bitter cold day. It also was the end of the Hank Small era at Lehigh.

I have only missed one Lehigh/Lafayette game, and I will be there this weekend, hopefully cheering the Engineers to a big "W" - and a I-AA playoff spot.

Tomorrow: "The Game" Breakdown

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