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The History Of Lehigh (Men's) Basketball, And Lehigh vs. Army Tonight

I certainly don't hopethe No. 5 seeded Lehigh men's basketball team (15-13, Real Time RPI: 244) is one-and-done against No .4 Army (10-18, Real Time RPI: 288) for the third straight year at 7:00 p.m. tonight at Christl Arena. But if you look at the obvious in the last five games, you clearly see two teams heading in opposite directions.

After Army beat Lehigh 82-75 in the same venue on Valentine's day, Army went 2-2, battled Navy to the wire and scored more than 70 points in two wins (on the road, no less) against Lafayette and Bucknell. The Mountain Hawks, on the other hand, went 1-3 in the same stretch, losing to both Lafayette and Bucknell and failing to eclipse the 52 point barrier in two straight games.

The optimist looks at junior G Marquis Hall, who has averaged 17 points a game against Army this year and certainly has the capability of carrying the team on his back in the tournament, who, along with junior F Zahor Carrington (14.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg), made the first and second team all-Patriot League teams, respectively, this year. The pessimist, though, comes out in full force when considering the emergence of freshman G Julian Simmons as an offensive threat the past two games for Army, and thinking about the powerful frontcourt of Army underneath the basket.

Depressed, I started to look through Lehigh's basketball history to try to think of something positive to take into tonight's game - perhaps a nugget of past goodwill, a history of a Lehigh team that defied all odds to succeed in the tournament. But after taking a peek at the history of Lehigh basketball, I began to see what Lehigh is up against. History has not been kind to Lehigh on the hardwood.

Lehigh, first and foremost, is a football school, followed very closely by wrestling in the hearts and minds of local fans. Whereas basketball in other areas of the country has been considered an integral part of the fabric of the community, Lehigh men's basketball, despite its 107 years of history, has played at a bare minimum third banana in the minds of Bethlehemites.

Sparing you all the pain, I've distilled the history of Lehigh basketball to its essence - the key facts, and people, you need to know.

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* The first recorded word of any sort of basketball being played on campus comes from the April 15th, 1901 edition of the Brown & White.  That issue talks of a "very interesting program given last Friday evening" which involved members of the class of 1904 playing basketball against a "picked team" of players.  It was a part of a gymnastics presentation to display what Lehigh's winter athletes could do.  It was this same year that Lehigh has its first basketball coach, F.W. Parsons, and would officially start competing intercollegiately in 1902.

(Worthy of mention was that members of the Ivy League had already formed basketball teams at this time.  People remember that the Ivies were the founding fathers of football, but forget that they also were pioneers in basketball, too.)

* The first recorded intercollegiate basketball game for Lehigh came in 1904, where the Engineers traveled to Swarthmore and won 21-12.  "The game on the whole was very rough," noted the Brown & White, "as is witnessed by the black eyes which Andy and Landefeldt have been sporting around the University."  Notably, Lehigh sported a seven game schedule against Princeton, Penn, Yale and Susquehanna - but not Lafayette, whose team had disbanded that year, leaving two open slots in Lehigh's schedule.  (Lehigh dominated their first two games against the Leopards in 1902 and 1903, 46-13 and 20-9 respectively.)

* In 1913 there is a reference of Lehigh's longing to join the "Intercollegiate League" in 1914 which included all the members of the Ivy League and others.  The fall of 1913 coincides with the building of Taylor Gym on campus in time for the 1914 season - undoubtedly a part of Lehigh's desire to join this league in both basketball and wrestling.

* In 1922, Lehigh and Lafayette were a part of the founding of the "Middle Atlantic States" conference in many "minor" sports, including basketball. Lehigh was (or wasn't, depending on who you ask) part of this conference in 1922, and possibly earlier.  (The founding of the "Middle Atlantic States" conference is debated - it could have been the outgrowth of the "Intercollegiate League".)

* Lehigh's media guide says that Lehigh captured one "Middle Atlantic States" conference title: the 13-1 team of 1926, headlined by the Schuab twins (Carl and Earl) and Benny Weinstein.

* From 1927 to 1958, Lehigh suffered through 27 non-winning seasons out of a possible 32 - a dismal stretch by any definition.  Typifying the period was the 1947 season: Lehigh would limp to a 5-13 record, while current Patriot League member Holy Cross would win the NCAA Men's basketball championship.  (Even Lafayette wasn't half bad this year: they'd sweep the Engineers and play Holy Cross tough in Worcester, ultimately falling 50-40.)

* In the 1958-59 season, depending on who you talk to, the "Middle Atlantic States" basketball conferences was "founded", which would later be known as the East Coast Conference. The founding members include Bucknell, Delaware, Drexel, Gettysburg, Lafayette, Lehigh, Muhlenburg, Rutgers, St. Joe's, and Temple. In the 1959 season, St. Joe's (coached by legendary head coach Jack Ramsay) would earn a first round bye before getting upended by West Virginia 95-92 - their first of eight straight NCAA tournament appearances, interrupted only by Temple's appearance in 1968. In the same year, Lehigh, on the other hand, would limp to a typical 6-16 record.

* In the 1966-67 season, a Lafayette basketball alumnus and fresh coaching face named Pete Carril, showed up in Taylor Gym to take over a sad 4-17 Engineer squad whose freshman team was 0-17 - and whose best season since formally joining the ECC eight years ago was 7-13. Carril would coach the Engineers to an amazing 11-12 record, which then-Delaware head basketball coach Dan Petersen called "the greatest coaching job I've ever seen in college basketball." A year later, Carril would head to Princeton, escaping Lehigh's basketball purgatory forever and giving teams fits in the NCAA tournament for years to come.

* The team in 1967-68 - the team molded by Carril before he left - ended the year with a 12-11 record. After that, Lehigh basketball fans would have to wait until 1980-1981 for their next winning season, a 14-12 effort (and their second year in newly-built Stabler Arena). In response to this - if Lehigh is doing this well, the entire league must be in decline - St. Joe's and Temple elect to bolt the ECC and join the Atlantic 10.

* 1985 saw what could have been one of the most improbable conference tournament runs in history: head coach Tom Schneider (and assistant coach Fran McCaffery), behind guards Darren Queenan and Mike Polaha, saw his team that ended the regular season 9-18 came together at the end of the year to upset Drexel, Hofstra and Bucknell en route to their first-ever ECC title and NCAA tournament appearance against Patrick Ewing's No. 1-seeded Georgetown team of 1985 (yes, the same team that would lose to Villanova) . While Queenan and Polaha would return to the tournament in 1987 with a stronger 21-10 team - playing No. 1-seeded Temple tough before finally falling - it was 1985 where the spell of the futility of Lehigh basketball was truly broken. Lehigh basketball could really be the big time -maybe even muscling out wrestling as a premiere sport on South Mountain. Or so it seemed.

* After Queenan, Polaha, and McCaffery (who jumped to Notre Dame as an assistant coach in 1988, and is currently the head coach of the perennial Cinderella candidate Siena Saints out of the MAAC) left, the Dave Duke era began with the promise of forwards Bob Krisansky and Dozie "We got Two... From" Mbonu (during my undergraduate years). Fans, fresh off the memory of the NCAA Tournament appearances, packed Stabler on a regular basis (averaging 3,000 a game) in what would be Lehigh's dying days in the ECC and beginning days in the Patriot League. While Duke's first teams were solid, they couldn't overcome Towson on the road in the ECC final in 1989-1990, and couldn't overcome "powerful" Fordham in the second-ever Patriot League basketball tournament in 1991-92. Folks wondered if Fordham would permanently be winning the Patriot League basketball crown on a yearly basis. (Trust me; this made sense at the time.)

* The Patriot League - and their restrictions on scholarships for basketball - had an immediate effect on Lehigh's program and others. As a result of the lack of basketball scholarships, Fordham would bolt in all sports except football, while American would join the Patriot League once Holy Cross would threaten to leave over the scholarship issue and finally allow basketball scholarships. Meanwhile, for the next 10 years Lehigh wouldn't enjoy a winning record, despite the presence of talented players like G Brett Eppenheimer and G Jared Hess. Duke would quietly leave during these dark ages, becoming an assistant coach at Penn and eventually ending at Temple under Fran Dunphy.

* Head coach Billy Taylor, seeing the Mountain Hawks have nowhere to go but up, joined Lehigh as head basketball coach in 2002-03 season. Immediately Lehigh improved. In 2003-04, Delaware transfer G/F Austen Rowland came to Lehigh and made an immediate impact (along with G Jose Olivero), helping lead Lehigh to a 20-11 mark, a home game vs. American on ESPN to clinch the Patriot League tournament (their first appearance in the NCAA tournament game).  Glee turned to shock, however, when they learned they would be shunted out to Dayton in a first-round play-in game against Florida A& M in the NCAA Tournament.  While Lehigh's blowout loss in the PIG was unquestionably a disappointment, for the second time in history Lehigh seemed poised for prolonged success, even with the graduation of Rowland.

* F Joe Knight was supposed to be the savior after Rowland graduated, but the transfer from a Texas junior college (after his time at High Point) wasn't able to carry Lehigh on his back the same way Rowland did. During his senior year, there were indications that something on his academic record wasn't quite right. Lehigh elected to play Knight the rest of the season when it became evident that some of his credits to qualify him for eligibility at Lehigh were not from an accredited school (he took an online course, I believe, from the University of Phoenix, though I cannot corroborate this). As a result of this, Lehigh had to vacate 13 victories from the 2004-05 season - though Knight himself graduated on time from Lehigh, and on the honor roll to boot. Taylor would climb the coaching ladder himself, jumping to Ball State where he continues to position himself as the future head basketball coach at Notre Dame. Assistant Dr. Brett Reed took over for Taylor, where he continues as head basketball coach to this day.


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That's it, in one easy-to-read blog posting. After going through all that, I guarantee you one thing: no matter what happens in Christl Arena tonight, it will be a success in light of the history of Lehigh basketball.

Having said that, let's win one for Polaha, eh?

The game will be broadcast on AM 1230 and 1320 in the Lehigh Valley, and on lehighsports.com.

Comments

ngineer said…
Pretty good synopsis, though you missed the 'great' team of 1969-70 that met LaSalle on the MAC playoffs at the Palestra, led by Bob Fortune, only to lose in a one or two point game. After that, the real desert of the early 70's, including a 1-23 season...
Anonymous said…
Your commentary of the Joe Knight situation is greatly untrue and smells of some kind of conspiracy concocted by Lehigh to let in a kid that didn't belong. The truth is that the administration was under the impression he was a 2-4-2 transfer (look it up in previous NCAA manuals), thereby only needing 50% of his credits and a junior college Associates Degree to be eligible. After he had already played his junior year it was discovered he needed 60% progress towards degree because of a new NCAA rule which was not communicated clearly to schools such as Lehigh because they don't typically take transfers. Although Knight was on pace to graduate, with an honor roll GPA to boot, the NCAA/Patriot League ruled that LU should forfeit the games. The characterization of a conspiracy or of Joe Knight not belonging at Lehigh is very disrespectful to the kid, who went through a tough ordeal, handled it with class, and won academic honors during his time at LU, in addition to have a fairly solid impact on the team. Just thought you should know before we start spreading false truths...
Chuck B '92 said…
If you got the impression that I am saying there was a conspiracy to get Joe Knight into Lehigh, nothing could be further from the truth. Knight was an honor roll student at his time at Lehigh (which I mentioned), so clearly could handle the academic workload. He was also a very good basketball player to boot.

You say there was miscommunication between the NCAA and Lehigh; that might be true. I do know that Lehigh self-reported the "violations" to the NCAA as an honest compliance mistake. But the debate about whether it's a compliance mistake that should have been caught before the transfer was allowed to happen has never really ceased.

But let me be clear; the debate is one of compliance. Joe Knight clearly belonged academically and athletically at Lehigh - and he proved it on and off the court.
Anonymous said…
That's not exactly accurate about Joe Knight. The NCAA rules were VERY clear. LU's administrative people just didn't bother to read them.

As for the forfeits, no ruling was required. PL rules are very clear that in this situation forfeits were mandatory.
Anonymous said…
That '85 team was in truth coached by Tom Schneider, assisted by the other guy.

My take - for whatever reason, LU basketball has always been the poor stepsister among major mens sports, from beginning. If LU finds a decent coach, they ley him get away (pay?) or lack of commitment. As such, they end up with coaches no one wants - Pugliese, Mentessana, or real up and comers (Carril, McCaffery, Hill) who get some resume experience and move out as soon as possible.

Moving the program to Stabler has not helped...it's apparently too far to travel for today's students. The crowds are embarrassing!

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