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Sunday's Word: Thankful

For the second straight season, Lehigh's football team will be playing after Thanksgiving.

And for the second straight season, Lehigh will also be playing in a second-round game in the FCS Playoffs.

For these two reasons alone, there is plenty to be "thankful" for this holiday season, for Lehigh fans and players alike.  As we run-up to the playoff showdown against Towson, though, it's worth taking a look back from where Lehigh was, and where they are now.


Four years ago, Lehigh's fan base was in an all-out panic.

The Mountain Hawks, going into the final weekend of the season, were 5-5, and a Lafayette loss away from suffering their first losing season since Kevin Higgins went 4-7 ten years prior.  Not only that, though - they were poised to be the first Lehigh team to go winless against Lafayette since 1949 as well - something that, to many alumni, was more important than the losing record.

No loss that year stood out more than the 59-10 drubbing laid on the Mountain Hawks by Holy Cross, which took Lehigh's slight pretense of a chance at a Patriot League championship and utterly destroyed it.  It's one of the few games I've seen where Lehigh was utterly and completely outclassed in every sense of the word in every phase of the game.

Lehigh had lost some lopsided games games before that game.  But even in those losses, such as Delaware's 2000 win over Lehigh in the FCS playoffs 49-22, the Mountain Hawks showed that they were equal to the Blue Hens up to a point.  Against the Crusaders that afternoon, Lehigh was simply outclassed everywhere.

Message boards lit up after that game - blaming head coach Andy Coen, athletic director Joseph Sterrett, and even Lehigh's president, Alice P. Gast, for the debacle that took place - at home, no less.

Of particular worry for Lehigh fans was the thought that many potential football recruits who came to Lehigh that fateful weekend would be turned off by the program forever.

It almost didn't matter that Lehigh lost "The Rivalry" to an ascending Lafayette, 21-17, that season.  The writing, it seemed, was on the wall: the Mountain Hawks, a once proud football program, was in the process of being overtaken by Lafayette.

"We have a lot of players with individual talent." I wrote after that game.  "And this team didn't lose due to one injury, one glaring weakness or one particular breakdown. This team lost from paper cut after paper cut, and by the end of games bleeding to death."

In contrast to Lafayette, the "evil empire" from Easton that had their "Death Star", the Kirby Field House and a newly-renovated football field, it seemed like Lafayette would become the magnet for the high-academic recruits that both the Leopards and Mountain Hawks covet.

It's important to remember, too, that this could have happened to Lehigh in the past four years, too.

The football program could have been left to wither.  Athletic aid could have been cut back significantly.

As we all know today, the aftermath of the 2007 season worked out exceptionally well for Lehigh.  Rather than moan about their situation, Lehigh's coaches and assistant coaches doubled their efforts in recruiting, and getting back to building a winning football team, and it shows.

Among the recruits in that fateful recruiting class of 2011 include a Walter Payton award finalist, senior QB Chris Lum, an all-Patriot League receiver in senior WR Jake Drwal, and two all-league linebackers in senior LB Colin Newton and senior LB Mike Groome.

A few years later, when opportunities to get an offensive coordinator like Dave Cecchini from the staff at The Citadel arose, Sterrett and Coen could have balked as such a bold move.  But they didn't, as Coen and Cecchini reunited to recreate the magic of the playoff-bounds teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

And apparently, losing a bad game to Holy Cross and four straight losses to Lafayette did not result in the program imploding - quite the opposite in fact, as Newton and others saved that newspaper clipping of Lafayette's "4-peat" and used it as motivation to get to where they are today.

With a signature 14-7 win nationally over perennial power Northern Iowa in the FCS playoffs last year, Lehigh re-established itself on the larger FCS scene overnight.

While Lehigh's 10-1 record is something to crow about, it's debatable whether they would have been ranked in the Top Ten all year and got a first-round bye in the playoffs without that win against the Panthers last year.

It's a future that seemed almost unimaginable four years ago.  And it's something to be very "thankful" for, as Lehigh approaches an extremely winnable playoff game at Towson this coming weekend.

*****

All week, I'll be doing plenty to hype up this Saturday's matchup.  But when you get to a certain age (for the sake of argument, let's call that age 31) and you undertake this "sportswriting thing", you start to get all weepy and sentimental.

So I'd like to single out six things I'm extremely thankful for this holiday season, aside from the success of the Lehigh football team.

I'd like to share my thanks to all of my son's grandparents, who have made it this far despite various challenging health problems.  They are fighting, and winning, all of their battles, and it's very inspirational to me.

I'd like to share my thanks to my wife, who continually puts up a lot with my unnatural obsession for Lehigh and FCS College football in general.  Most ordinary folks would not; she, for some reason, does, and I thank the Big Guy Above for that all season long.  (Coincidentally, she's also 31.)

I'd like the share my thanks to my son, who isn't a college football expert like me, but knows enough to know that there's something about these Lehigh teams that I like.  The knowledge of the spread offense (hopefully) will come - in the meantime, I'm hoping the Mountain Hawks Class of 2028 needs a tall forward that can dribble and shoot.

I'd like to share my thanks to the many fans over the years that share their own shared obsessions with Lehigh football - whether to tell me about my many grammatical errors, to share opinions with me, or simply to say hello and share their appreciation.  Knowing there are other fans out there keeps me doing this.

I'd like to share my thanks to the media I've met throughout these years who have made me a part of that press box community - they're names you probably know very well, but I won't list here.  They could have turned their noses up at what I've been doing, but they didn't.  They read my stuff, and for that, I'm deeply appreciative.

And finally, I'd like to share my thanks to all the Lehigh players and coaches who have made this an incredible ride for so many years.  The positive energy they bring to the table makes it easy to tell their stories for the world to enjoy.

Let's just hope the story gets to Frisco, Texas this year.

Some folks may not believe that it can, but I most certainly do.

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