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Patriot League Offseason 2008: Lehigh

We're on the eve of the season, and even an impending storm isn't putting out my enthusiasm about tomorrow. To kick off the season, I'm hoping to post two more items: first, the conclusion of my yearly review of the Patriot League offseason with Lehigh, and second, my media day interview with coach Coen.

Lehigh's athletics website released a video clip of the Copperhead Grille luncheon, and it's incredibly cool.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot: Lehigh also has an official iTunes store where they put audio shows and clips from Lehigh athletics last year - they were a treasure trove last year. As of this afternoon there was only one show on there: the weekend preview for this weekend (9/4). Happily, on that podcast is a good, long preview about the Lehigh football season and the upcoming Drake game.

Coaching Changes: Much of the same staff from last year's squad remain, with a few changes: defensive line coach Donnie Roberts was elevated to assistant coach, running backs coach Mike Kapusta left for private business, and coach Coen hired two new faces: new running backs coach Scott Brisson (from Franklin & Marshall) and new outside linebackers coach Matt Sanders (a player and graduate student assistant at Louisville). Another key development is the revamping of the strength and conditioning program on South Mountain, which affects all sports.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: There are not one, but two: and it's not who you think. C John Reese and OL Jimmy Kehs were two big guys you could just pencil in on the "O" line and both who got multiple all-Patriot League accolades during their time on South Mountain. Lehigh will have different big bodies to anchor the "O" line in 2008, but it won't be easy to replace these multiple letter-winners.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: With an offseason of uncertainty at quarterback, QB Chris Lum generated a lot of buzz, making fans wonder if he is the next coming of Phil Stambaugh. A star at Lake Orion high school in Michigan his junior year, he ripped their league apart (64.2 completion percentage, 1,902 yards passing, 28 TDs), folks wonder if maybe Lum might get into the starting mix sooner rather than later.

Incoming Class Grade: A-. I know, I know. Take this with a grain of salt since I'm a Lehigh fan. But if the two receivers coming to the program are indeed the playmakers they appear to be, this class once again grades out exceptionally well (I think) by any yardstick. Five big "O" linemen, four defensive backs - and best of all, only one is below 6'! Maybe this class could have used a pure fullback to replace senior FB Adam Watson when the time comes, but if depth at fullback is the biggest concern that's got to be a good class.

Spring Game: For those of us who thought that the offensive woes would be gone with a new quarterback in the spring, we were dead wrong. The defense (Brown) showed exactly how much further along they were in a 52-24 victory over the offense (White). Worringly for Lehigh, neither quarterback, junior QB Chris Bokosky (9-16, 65 yards) and sophomore QB J. B. Clark (5-16, 80 yards) established themselves. On defense, however, junior LB Al Pierce sure did - he had two interceptions, including one he returned 80 yards for a TD.

Preseason So Far: Quarterback battles can be contentious, with a lot of bruised egos and ill will. But the battle was civil and appeared to be very good to help develop this offense in this preseason, where sophomore QB J. B. Clark was the ultimate winner in the QB sweepstakes. For what it's worth, there appeared to be a real culture of quiet, hard work this offseason - this team appeared to be quite humbled by what happened last year, and it's clear that they've been working hard and getting stronger to try to recify that this year.

One thing they did rectify from last year to this year: the number of injuries were significantly less than last year, where Lehigh saw most of their top receivers go down to injury, as well as senior RB Matt McGowan.

Fan Base: When Lehigh was having the best of times, Lehigh football fans were actually not as insufferable as they've become now (well, maybe not to Lafayette fans). Yet Lehigh fans are still stuck in the past - specifically, November 19th, 2005.

At that time, Lehigh was coached by Pete Lembo, who inherited the Mountain Hawk football program from "Saint" Kevin Higgins in early 2001, who left a team that expected to beat Lafayette every year, beat teams from the A-10 (now the CAA) every year, and maybe even win a national championship. Coach Higgins could do no wrong, and when he left for the NFL's Detroit Lions in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, nobody begrudged him his decision.

Promoted from within was head coach Pete Lembo. During his coaching tenure, Lembo, too, had a lot of success at Lehigh. He won the Eddie Robinson award as coach of the year in 2001, and the Mountain Hawks - for the first time since 1980 - had the opportunity to host not one, but two, home playoff games. He amassed an incredible 44-14 record as Mountain Hawk head coach - and beat Hofstra, 27-24, in a playoff game at Goodman I will never forget.

But for all his incredible success on South Mountain, he never was loved by a significant portion of fans at Lehigh. Why? To this day it's difficult to say Was it personality? Aloofness? That he wasn't the biggest rah-rah guy? It certainly wasn't due to performance on the field. It might have been because Lehigh was quietly starting to lose to Lafayette - which, by the way, had risen from the ashes and become a very good program. This wasn't your mama's Leopards.

On November 19th 2005, with under a minute to play, Lehigh was facing off against Lafayette at home. Backup Lafayette QB Pat Davis was drilled on 4th down. The ball went up.. up.. and floated into the hands of RB Jonathan Hurt to send Lehigh to defeat. That catch denied Lehigh a conference title and another trip to the playoffs - and a short month later, coach Lembo would be the head coach at Elon University.

Three years later, Lehigh fans are still getting into virtual fistfights about Lembo's legacy. We loved Lembo! battles with We hated Lembo! It hasn't helped that Lehigh has had two subpar seasons in a row, either, meaning Lehigh fans are doing even more bickering and fingerpointing. It's dominated the conversations the past two years. Did fans drive him to Elon? Did we, the fans, subconsciously want Coen - and we got him - and we haven't been back to the playoffs? Is it our fault?

Worse, while you'd think this might make Lehigh fans a bit more agreeable while talking to their fellow leaguemates, it hasn't. If anything, it's made us more arrogant than ever.

Overall Offseason: This team certainly feels different than the one from the past two years. There's less talk, and by all accounts focus during the preseason has been great and has brought the team together. However, part of this is because there feels like there's less expectations of winning - Lehigh, after all, was picked to finish fifth in the league this year at Patriot League Media Day. There's real, genuine hope this year that things will be better this year. I feel it too.

The fans, however, need to get over the drama from '05. What's done is done. Lembo is doing well at Elon - argue about his legacy if you must, but wish him well. This year, coach Andy Coen - with a team that is completely his, now - will do well at Lehigh. I feel it.


Anonymous said…
My comment on this years expectations, I think we as Lehigh fans are getting used to losing. When someone asks me if I think Lehigh is going to be Lafayette this year, my response is "i sure hope so". We don't really expect anything great anymore because we haven't seen it in such a long time. I do think Lehigh will return to competing for league titles and playoff bid but not for another 2 years or so. For this year, lets hope not to get embarrassed at home (HC game) and lets hope to win vs. Lafayette.
Anonymous said…
The Junior QB looked pretty good the other week in the Brown/White game and your article shows better stats in the spring game. I have been away and saw the reports of the soph starting. What's the scoop?
Lehigh74 said…
I think what it comes down to is that Clark is bigger, has a stronger arm and more athletic ability. Therefore, the coaches think that Lehigh has more long term potential to succeed with Clark at the controls. By all accounts the Freshman has looked very good. So if Clark is not successful, don't be surprised to see Lum starting before the end of the season.
Anonymous said…
The problem with that explanation is that the natives will get very restless if Coen continues to think that he can have a "long term" outlook without having winning seasons "short term!"
Doug H said…
I remember the end of the Lembo years very well... I think losing to the Pards was certainly part of it but also some play calling that was very strange ( my biggest pet peeve was mentioned in yesterday's Drake game) like shotgun offense in a driving rainstorm that caused many turnovers that cost us a game ( and ulitmately the championship)... There were several factors that season that made people mention that they wanted somebody new.

Frankly all of that could have been excused if Lehigh fans weren't spoiled by the previous success

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