Special to the Morning Call
It was a scene that few could have predicted two years ago: the end of "The Rivalry", after 148 meetings.
While the 63-13 victory by the Mountain Hawks was not totally unexpected - after all, Lehigh has already ramped up their scholarships to the NCAA-mandated maximum, while Lafayette chose to remain true to the ideals of the now-defunct Patriot League - you get the feeling that it didn't have to end in this way.
Lafayette's facilities - still the best in the Patriot League in 2012, thanks to the Bourgers - saw more than just the final Patriot League game, and the final game in Lehigh's and Lafayette's season. They saw the sad, final chapter to one of the greatest rivalries in all sports. (more)
The real handwriting on the wall came when just about two years ago, the Patriot League faced a potential vote on football scholarships that was tabled at the final moment.
While the final deliberations were never made public, after Lafayette president Daniel Weiss went public with his "No" vote right before the meetings were scheduled to take place, speculation was that he threatened to leave the Patriot League if football scholarships were approved.
This caused the Patriot League to craft a vague statement at the end of their two-year discussion on the matter, saying that the council of presidents "elected to table a decision to adjust the current need-limited model of financial aid for two years."
It was rumored that Villanova, William & Mary and Richmond were very interested in the deliberations, since they may have considered joining a scholarship Patriot League. So was Marist, who might have considered joining if the old need-based aid system were guaranteed deep into the future.
But "The Vote" that was supposed to set the future course of the Patriot League in football - either with full scholarships, or without - never happened. Many feel it was Mr. Weiss' actions that deep-sixed football scholarships once and for all.
You know the rest of the story.
A few months later, Fordham decided to join the Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA, while Colgate and Lehigh decided to join the CAA in all sports a few months later for the 2013 season.
Citing a desire to bring their athletics programs to an "elite conference in football and basketball" - following Hofstra's surprise run at the Final Four earlier this year - a somewhat melancholy Joe Sterrett, who was athletic director for Lehigh throughout the entire history of the Patriot League, announced at the same press conference that Lehigh was willing to schedule Lafayette to keep the "Rivalry" alive after 2012, but also said he "wasn't optimistic".
With the Patriot League in effect disbanding - since they were losing two core all-sports members, never to return - Bucknell and Georgetown discontinued their football programs shortly thereafter, and Holy Cross' decision to drop their football program came right after the 2011 season.
(They joined New Hampshire and Maine's decision to stop sponsoring football in the CAA as well, thus further causing a proud Northeast football tradition to become extinct. Only 0-11 UMass, in their first year in the MAC, and Rhode Island, soldiering on in the NEC, were the only remaining football-playing schools in the Northeast who were originally in the Yankee Conference.)
Fortunately for Bucknell, Lafayette and Holy Cross, the MAAC allowed them to join in all other sports, saving their basketball programs from the indignation of competing as independents. With the addition of NJIT, the MAAC really benefited from the tearing apart of the Patriot League, gaining four all-sports members after Manhattan and Siena joined the Atlantic Ten.
Only Lafayette remains of the former Patriot League teams not wishing to sponsor football at the Division I level, who join Marist as a northern partner in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.
After committing to a true a non-scholarship program, continuing the nation's most-played rivalry after the end of the 2012 season was seen as impossible by Weiss and the board of trustees at Lafayette, with their decision to no longer even to issue the former grants-in-aid in football that were allowed under the old Patriot League structure.
"We refuse to let our team be in a position where they're not successful," embattled athletic director Bruce McCutcheon said in a terse statement on the GoLeopards website. "But we will have no problems scheduling. We will maintain our historic rivalries with Harvard, Columbia and Princeton."
Since they no longer will schedule the Mountain Hawks, their season-ending game against Lehigh will be replaced in 2013 with a Pioneer League clash against Marist instead. Nobody thinks that it will get anywhere near the interest that the game against their backyard rivals once had.
And the Ivy League games have never come anywhere close to the attendanct of the end-of-the-regular-season clash with Lehigh.
After today's shellacking, the two directions that both football programs are going was abundantly clear.
Eddie Robinson award candidate Andy Coen pulled his starters at halftime, but still won easily. Senior RB Zach Barket was named the final Lehigh/Lafayette MVP award winner with his 202 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns in just over a half of action, barely edging out senior WR Ryan Spadola with 4 catches for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns.
"It's sad to see this rivalry game with Lafayette end," an emotional Coen said after the game. "And I feel for [former football coach] Frank Tavani [now on the coaching staff at Northwestern] and current interim head coach John Loose. But Lehigh football will move on to our new chapter in the CAA, and I know there are a lot of excited people in the program who are really excited at the games at Rutgers and Penn State in the next few years, and the prospect of Delaware coming to Murray Goodman next year, too.
"The rivalry game with Delaware won't be the same as the one we had with Lafayette - nothing will ever, I think, really replace that - but it will be the closest thing we have to what we had with the Leopards. We'll survive."
While Lehigh will survive, you can't help but think what might have happened had the Patriot League presidents not been so gutless and made a decision - one way or another - on football scholarships a few years ago.
And you have to wonder how long Lafayette will allow their once-proud football program to stick around in the travel-intense, non-scholarship Pioneer League.