Lafayette isn't really "evil". Or maybe they are. Maybe this week, anyway.
I think any fan of a team with a true historic rival can understand this mentality this week. How the rival becomes Darth Vader. General Moff Tarkin. Emperor Palpatine. "Evil".
Lehigh, of course, casts themselves as the plucky rebels in this scenario, willing to take on the "big bad Empire". I've found that every team tries to do this, no matter how ridiculous it is in reality. (See: "New York Yankees, 2009 World Series", playing the "Empire Theme" when Philadelphia was introduced. If the Yankees - with a budget bigger than the two cheapest MLB teams put together - are the "plucky rebels" in any plausible scenario en route to their 27th world title, I'll gladly eat a shoe.)
"The Rivalry" has definitely taken a true black hat vs. white hat, Empire vs. Rebels feel to it this year. I don't know if it's part of the normal psychology of "The Rivalry" over the generations or not, but I do know that it wasn't always the case.
Part of the reason is that in this decade, Lehigh and Lafayette have alternatively embraced the role of "Empire" or "plucky Rebels". For years Lafayette positioned themselves as "little Lafayette on the hill in Easton" when big, bad Darth Lehigh was successful in the Patriot League and the I-AA playoffs. But when Lafayette started donning the black jerseys - and building a football "Death Star" in Easton in their renovated Kirby Field House and Fisher Field - it's the boys from Easton that seemed a lot more like the Empire, while Lehigh has seemed like the team that has needed the "one shot in a million" to defeat the "Evil" Empire.
I think a lot of it, too, came from the businesslike head coach during that time, coach Pete Lembo. I remember distinctly one year hearing Lembo say in a press conference that his coaches and Lafayette's coaches "shop in the same stores" or something like that, and I cringed. Lembo tried to take that emotional side out of "The Rivalry", I think, and maybe it infected the coverage of those games, too.
When coach Coen was hired, one of the reasons his choice was lauded was that he understood the emotions of "The Rivalry", that football is a passionate game and that only by summoning that passion could one hope to beat "that school in Easton". After Lehigh had (horror) lost their second game to Lafayette in the last three years, this made perfect sense.
Fast forward to the present. For the third time in the last three years, no title will be on the line: only, perhaps, a chance for "that school in Easton" to make the playoffs if they put away the Mountain Hawks. A Lehigh victory would almost certainly destroy any chance that the Leopards have at the postseason. For a long time, "The Rivalry" seemed to have Patriot League title implications almost every year. Maybe that's another reason why the view of "The Rivalry" has been different the past three years: playing to ruin someone else's season is a far cry from playing for a title.
The teams themselves have played into the psychology through jersey selection. For several years, Lafayette looked for an edge for the team by unveiling all-black jerseys during the "big games" against Lehigh. Last year, in an effort to bust through a four game losing streak, Lehigh donned all-white jerseys - and won. No word if this year's game will once again be black vs. white, but it wouldn't be surprising - it's worked for both sides.
Even the fans seem a bit more worked up about each other than usual. Lehigh/Lafayette week is always intense, but the intensity seems to have been ramped up a little higher and little more rapidly than usual. Look at any message board: it's dangerous out there.
Certainly Lehigh fans, already resigned to a losing record after the Colgate loss, have been looking to this game for weeks to have some sort of redemption for a losing season. And Lafayette fans - heartbroken after a tough 28-26 loss to Holy Cross which has them wondering what could have been - are clearly venting their frustrations out on the Mountain Hawks.
Another reason could be that for the first time this year, a weekend has contained a Lehigh win and a Lafayette loss. For ten weeks in a row Lafayette fans could rightly claim that they had all the momentum on the year. For one, brief week, Lehigh can claim all of a sudden that they have more momentum than "that school in Easton".
Certainly, good old-fashioned hatred and casting schools in the roles of good vs. "evil" are part of what makes college football great. With 144 games played against each other - more than any other schools - there's plenty of opportunity to see the "evil" in the other side in this rivalry.
Yet Lafayette is not "evil" per se. They're, after all, a Patriot League school. They graduate their students, just like Lehigh. They produce great human beings that are successful in the world. There's no coasting in Lafayette - or any Patriot League school for that matter. Lafayette is a great school. (Of course, who were the rap artists that once said: "Don't get me wrong... They [Lafayette] was good.... But We [Lehigh] was FANTASTIC!)
But all those feel-good facts graduation rates, scholar-athletes and the like become cloudy in the fog around "The Rivalry". Lafayette - and that stupid Maroon color and that ugly Leopard statue and those loudmouthed alums who can't seem to grasp that their team hasn't won a playoff game, not once, not ever - becomes "evil" in the literary sense. What I am (Brown, White, Engineering Mountain Hawks,winner of playoff games, product of South Mountain) is "Good"; what they are (Maroon, Leopards, winners of the paper 1896 championship, products of Easton) is "Evil".
In other words, Lafayette isn't really "evil". Or maybe they are. Maybe this week, anyway. And it should lead to one hell of a football game this Saturday.