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"The Rivalry" on the Hardwood: What Rivalry?

(Photo courtesy Jim Middlekauff, The Express-Times)

It's a matchup that would seem destined to pack the house at Stabler.  Lehigh vs. Lafayette.  It's less than a marathon's worth of mileage between the two schools.  They're two fanbases who seem like they're always at each other's throats.  Lehigh and Lafayette fans work together, live next to one another - and usually don't talk to one another when they're facing off in whatever sport they're playing in.

But historically, the bad blood between the Lehigh and Lafayette fan bases in hoops hasn't always been there.  It exists now - still stemming, largely, from the football Rivalry - but it wasn't there for a very long time.

It probably helps that Lehigh's basketball history has been pretty checkered - to put it mildly - while Lafayette's hoops teams, after some early issues (and losses to Lehigh), actually has had some serious hardwood success, including multiple post-season appearances in 1950s.  This post will attempt to put the history of the "hardwood rivalry" in some (sleepy) historical perspective - and show why now, in the days of the Patriot League tournament, it needs to be seen in a different, more intense, light. (more)

Lafayette is celebrating their 100th year of college basketball in 2010, and would love nothing better than to end this historic season by humiliating Lehigh on their home floor and playing in the NCAA tournament.  Interestingly, though, Lafayette didn't start their basketball season exactly 100 years ago.  (Math majors have already deduced that if you subtract 100 years from 2010, you get 1910.)

The Leopards actually started their first hoops season in 1901, playing six exhibition games: four against local athletic clubs and two games versus Princeton.  (Basketball had only been invented in Springfield ten years earlier in 1891.)  The Leopards, though, had a problem: they didn't have a gym devoted solely to basketball, which meant that the gym had to be shared with other students. Since underclassmen paid for the use of the gym through student fees, in 1903, Dr. Updegrove, the gym's manager, refused to let the basketball team practice in the gym, which led to the disbanding of their program.

Upon hearing that Lafayette had started a basketball program in 1901, Lehigh swiftly followed with their own program starting in 1902.  By 1904 they were playing a full college schedule - and, by the end of the 1904 season, had three winning records to show for their efforts (and two wins over Lafayette before they disbanded).  One popular event during the "smoker" pep rallies (so named due to the large quantities of tobacco smoked during the events) was the "juniors vs. sophomores" basketball game.  (Perhaps a precursor to "midnight madness" at the beginning of hoops season today.)

Along the development of their basketball team and wrestling team, Lehigh was becoming a powerhouse in winter sports - and that growth meant that they, with the right facilities, could bid for "Intercollegiate Conference" membership.  Primarily for wrestling - but also for basketball - Lehigh put the finishing touches on Taylor Gym - right in the middle of campus, up the way from Taylor Stadium - in time for the 1914 season.

Perhaps coincidentally, the 1914 season was when Lafayette started to start up their dormant hoops program once again.  Playing three home games in the Easton Armory, the Leopards started modestly with a 5-7 record - and losing again to Lehigh, 26-23.  (Every game versus Lehigh, up until this point, were by necessity road games.)  But soon Lafayette would have plenty to cheer:in 1915: playing at Ortygia Hall in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, they would beat Lehigh 23-15 in their first-ever win against the Engineers.

Through the 1920s and early 1930s Lafayette's program would grow in leaps and bounds, with players like George Troxel and Bill Anderson featuring in the early years until - finally - on December 6th, 1924, Lafayette would open Alumni Gym and have a place for Leopard basketball to grow.  Lehigh's basketball teams would also be very successful - with the pinnacle being the 1926 "Middle Atlantic States" conference championship, featuring a 13-1 record behind the efforts of twin brothers Carl Schaub and Earl Schaub.  In these days, many of the athletes played both football and basketball - which created some interesting crossover with the football "rivalry".  "'Dinty' Moore, Lafayette's only varsity forward to return in September, could not enter the game until after Christmas and has since been ordered to give up basketball because of injuries received in the Lehigh/Lafayette game," the Brown & White noted in 1926.  (Lafayette would lose three times to Lehigh that season.)

At the end of the 1930 season, Lehigh only had two seasons with double-digit losses and ten seasons with double-digit wins in basketball.  But while the 1920s would see equal space for basketball and wrestling in the student paper, the 1930s would see wrestling dominate the headlines as Lehigh's basketball team slid largely into mediocrity - and a reduced number of fans.  Even the basketball rivalry took a back seat to other considerations: in 1936, Lehigh's basketball season was declared over before their customary season-ending series vs. Lafayette.  Why?  Because the state of Pennylvania had shut down all athletics events due to a measles outbreak.

It was the 1940s, though, where Lafayette's basketball program headed one direction and Lehigh's another.

On January 29th 1944, Lehigh would beat the Leopards at home 48-37.  After that game, Lehigh's basketball team would have to wait 34 games - and 17 years - before they'd enjoy another basketball victory over Lafayette.  During that time, Lehigh would have two winning seasons - and Lafayette would put Lehigh in the rear-view mirror for all practical purposes.

In 1949, Bill Anderson - now a coach - would lead the Leopards to their first-ever 20 win season.  Soon afterwards, in 1955, Lafayette would appear in the (still prestigious) NIT tournament for two consecutive years (thanks to players like Bob Mantz) and their first-ever NCAA tournament bid in 1957.  Lafayette was getting double-digit wins every season during this time, and were invited to in-season tournaments at Syracuse and playing teams like LSU, South Carolina and NYU.  Lehigh, on the other hand, led by head basketball coach 'Stony' Packer, had teams that were "better than last year's squad, but not exactly overpowering," he told the Brown & White in 1957.  ("When asked the big question as to whether the Engineers would break Lafayette's 28-game domination this year, Packer smiled wanly and said he didn't think so," the Brown & White reported.)

It wasn't all that much better in the 1960's either for Lehigh, though Lafayette (despite the losses in 1961 and 1963 to Lehigh) would continue to field solid basketball teams through the early 1960s.  Once St. Joe's and Temple started to dominate the East Coast Conference - of which the Engineers and Leopards were members - however, Lafayette faded somewhat and fell back to the mediocre level of basketball that Lehigh had been mired all along.  In 1966, 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.  He had seen success as a member of those great Leopard teams - and had some coaching ideas of his own.

Carril would coach the Engineers to an amazing 11-12 record in 1967 - including two wins over his alma mater, who cratered to a 4-21 record at the same time - in a coaching effort 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 early 1970s saw modest expectations for Lehigh, with 6'7 Greg Falkenbach as their big star and a "winning record" as their goal, but Lafayette's basketball goals were still very different - the NCAA postseason.  Behind the duo of Jay Mottola and Tracy Tripucka, Lafayette would surge back into becoming a contender on the national stage in 1971 with a 21-6 record, and an appearance in the NIT - and a postseason victory, thanks to a Mottola free throw, to beat Virginia 72-71. 

Perhaps one reason for the lack of the intensity of "The Rivalry" in basketball is simple: when Lehigh's been up, Lafayette's been way down (for the short period of time that Lehigh was up), and when Lafayette was up - way up - Lehigh was smiling wanly and saying "I don't think so".

What would finally break this pattern?  The expansion of the NCAA tournament from a second-tier tournament of regional interest to a national phenomenon with national TV coverage.

With the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 64 bids - and the advent of postseason tournaments for automatic bids - every year, there was hope, even for a team with a losing record, that they might have a chance to play for the NCAA championship.  As a member of the ECC, Lehigh and Lafayette had an automatic bid shot every year.

In 1985 - the first year the tourney expanded to 64 teams - Lehigh looked by all appearances to be having one of those "wan" years.  A young Lehigh team - with some good talent, like G Mike Polaha and G Darren Queenan - was 9-18.  Lafayette, at 15-12 and nursing a split against Lehigh during the regular season, was having a OK year.  But Lehigh's run through the ECC tournament - with wins over Drexel, Hofstra, and Bucknell - meant that Lehigh would be making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Lehigh's narrative was no longer a losing record and a split against Lafayette.  All of a sudden, Lehigh's story became about how a team with a losing record - the first ever in the NCAA tournament - could qualify to play against the powerful Georgetown Hoyas.  A Lehigh season that was poised to be just as forgettable as so many others was now going to be the most memorable hoops season since 1926 - overturning two generations of mediocrity.

The tourney would change everything - immediately - for both Lehigh and Lafayette.  In 1987, Lehigh would win the ECC tournament again - this time, with Queenan and Polaha as seniors - and return to the NCAA tournament again as a No. 16 seed (and battle former ECC leaguemate Temple hard, but ultimately lose by double-digits).  In 1989, with John Leone in his first year as head basketball coach, Lafayette made the ECC title game but fell 71-65 to Bucknell.  In 1991, Lehigh nipped Lafayette on a last-second shot in the ECC tournament but lost to Towson in the final.  There was a juice from these basketball games that simply wasn't there before since so much was at stake.

Entering the Patriot League - and eschewing basketball scholarships - changed the game too.  Lehigh's teams fell off the map in the 1990s, hitting a low point in 1997 with a 1-26 record.  But Lafayette, behind the coaching of the man who will coach this Friday at Stabler, Fran O'Hanlon, managed to navigate the non-scholarship waters and would return Lafayette to glory with a pair of Patriot League titles and tournament appearances in 1999 and 2000.  Brian Ehlers, as documented in the book The Last Amateurs by John Feinstein, excelled in championship wins over Bucknell (1999) and Navy (2000).  (For the record, Lafayette swept Lehigh 5-0 through the 1999 and 2000 seasons, though Lehigh gave Lafayette a scare in the Patriot League tournament before ultimately falling 66-60.)

Billy Taylor, seeing the Mountain Hawks have nowhere to go but up (and quite possibly seeing that Lehigh would be reinstating a limited number of basketball scholarships), joined Lehigh as head basketball coach in 2003 season. Immediately Lehigh improved. In 2004, 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.  Lehigh's blowout loss in the PIG was unquestionably a disappointment - and it seemed to cheat a whole new generation of Lehigh basketball fans who thought Lehigh didn't make the "real" NCAA tournament.  (Lehigh and Lafayette split in 2004, including a wild 110-104 double-overtime game at Kirby Field House.)


This Friday, the "Rivalry" on the hardwood, for better or worse, will take a new, intense chapter.  Forget the fact that Lafayette leads the all-time series 137-75.  Forget the first game at the STAR, won by Lehigh 75-57, and the game at Kirby, won by Lafayette 90-75.  For the first time ever (it seems), Lehigh and Lafayette's men's basketball teams are peaking at the same time.  A long time ago, without a postseason tournament, such an intense basketball rivalry wouldn't be possible.  But with the postseason in the Lehigh Valley and a trip to the NCAA's on the line - it's different this time.


Douglas said…
You lose credibility in this history when you state that Grace Hall opened in 1914.. Grace Hall was opened in 1942 with gifts from Eugene Grace of Beth Steel.. Lehigh indoor sports including wrestling were held in Taylor Gym prior to that...
Chuck B '92 said…
Thanks for catching that. That was a typo.

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