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Sunday's Word: Hard

There are 246 schools that field football teams at the Division I level, encompassing both the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision.

Of those 246 teams, there are 13 teams that are undefeated at this stage of the season.

Lehigh, who competes in FCS, is in a pool of 122 teams they vie in a subdivision that competes with fewer than the 85 headcount athletes that compete at FBS.

Of those 122 teams there are exactly 2 teams that are undefeated at this stage of the season.

There are two teams in all of Division I that currently sit with eight wins, and zero losses: The Ohio State University, and the Mountain Hawks.

And it's time to acknowledge something.

That getting to 8-0 is "hard".

Being a fan of Lehigh football can be strange at times.

When I go around the water cooler at work and listen for sports, I hear about Ohio State's overtime escape over Purdue, the football Giants coming-from-behind win over the Redskins, and the baseball Giants' Game 6 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. 

What I don't hear is chatter about Lehigh's 16 game regular-season win streak, or their 8-0 record, or the fact that they, along with 7-0 Cal Poly out of the Big Sky, are the only two undefeated teams remaining in all of FCS - even though I care a lot more about the Mountain Hawks than I do the NFL's Giants or MLB's Cardinals.

If someone were to ask me, I could certainly regale them with stories on how the Mountain Hawks are undefeated at this stage of the season for the first time since 2001, and that in a four year stretch, from 1998 to 2001, Lehigh started out the season 8-0 each time, going undefeated in the regular season three separate times.  (The fourth time they finished 10-1, with a tough 28-24 loss to Colgate in Hamilton the only regular-season blemish.)

I could also say that, like this years' 8-0 team, people took shots at the Mountain Hawks back then for playing a schedule that they didn't deem worthy of high rankings in the Top 25.

It didn't help that back in those internet-challenged days, if you didn't live within the distribution area of the Morning Call, it was much more of a struggle to get any sort of news about a team's wins outside of a three-sentence blurb in your local paper - if you were lucky.  More often, you'd have to look a block list of scores, buried under the list of "Transactions" on a Monday, to get all the scores of the games.  They'd be lumped in with Moravian under "East", but at least you'd know the final score.


If there was an exciting play in Lehigh's 22-16 win at St. Mary's (CA) to determine the game, unless you were in Moraga, California, you didn't see it - you were just looking at a score, in small print, in a box.

Not exactly a good way to determine the best teams in the land.

Then as now, wins over Ivy League teams were deemed suspect.

A win over Harvard?  Princeton?  Columbia?  Unfortunately they mean nothing, in the larger picture, to a lot of people who care about such things. 

Many people outside of the Northeast hadn't seen the Ivy League play in person.  If you were a resident of Boston, Harvard games were a big deal, and Yale games were big in New York, all the way up to New Haven. 

But then, as now, the Ivy League generally played each other, or, in the last twenty-five years, Patriot League teams.  They would basically never travel south of the Mason/Dixon line, and only rarely play teams from the old Yankee Conference like New Hampshire or Northeastern.  For those that were devotees of the playoffs, there was no frame of reference, and since they didn't play in the playoffs, who cares?

Sure, a lot of fans who had physically attended Ivy League games know that the Crimson and Eli always have some great, NFL-quality athletes year in and year out, not to mention the other members of the Ivy League.  But if you lived in the midwest, Harvard and Yale were just scores in small print in a box. 

Then, as now, most folks didn't gather around the water cooler talking about undefeated Lehigh's 21-17 escape against the Crimson.  They were busy talking Yankees, or Eagles.

The relative unfamiliarity with the toughness of Lehigh's Ivy League competition was something that head coaches like Delaware's Tubby Raymond would play like a drum. 

"Check for St. Francis Of Assissi on their schedule - those are the types of teams they play.  They don't play anybody," is my memory of his quote after undefeated Lehigh handed Delaware a 42-35 loss 1999.

It's a criticism of Lehigh's schedule that seems to persist today, even in this age of the internet and instant communication.

While I don't talk about Lehigh in front of my real water cooler at work, I do talk about the Mountain Hakws on national forums, like Any Given Saturday.  When there's no literal water coolers to talk about this stuff, you have to go to the virtual water coolers on the internet to discuss it with similarly rabid fans, and thankfully, it's there.

Twitter, too, also helps a lot.  @LFN offers a place for me to engage in conversations about Lehigh football with, essentially, complete strangers whose only limit to access is the fact that they have a Twitter account.

These types of tools with a national reach were inconceivable in 1999. The advent of both, however, also can become a forum for people to take shots at your program from across the country - something that didn't happen often in the late 20th century.

Oddly, the biggest shot against Lehigh today is largely the same that Tubby made in 1999 - "they don't play anybody.  They're ranked too high.  If they played Cal Poly it would be no contest - after all, they beat FBS Wyoming!"

It's pretty amazing to think that this criticism still holds so much sway since it always is, and always will be, incredibly "hard" to get to 8-0 during the course of a season, no matter who you play.

What's also funny is that, through the magic of the hard work of sports information directors and networks, it's become easier than ever before to watch the oeuvre of almost any team you desire.

Think Princeton is a bad football team?  You don't just have to rely on a box of scores to inform your opinion.  Well, you can watch them make one of the most astounding comebacks in Ivy League history on ESPN3, right now, as their entire game was broadcast there.

Think Cal Poly deserves to be the top team in the nation?  You don't need to plan a trip to San Luis Obispo, California, to watch a game in person.  You can watch their games for free thanks to America One Sports.  (Unfortunately they don't have archives of the games they've played thus far, but if they're playing you can watch them live, and judge for yourself whether they belong.)

As for Lehigh, you can watch video highlights of every single one of their games through their recaps, and the Brown and White also has some video highlights of games as well, just in case you need more evidence to judge the validity of the Mountain Hawks in the Top 25.

Cal Poly, too, has videos as a part of their schedule as well with complete highlights on YouTube, for those that care to make comparisons.

Would Lehigh beat Cal Poly in a head-to-head matchup?  Right now, we don't know.  But of course, the best part of FCS football is the playoffs, which means that the back-and-forth arguments about whether Lehigh or Cal Poly is worthy of top consideration will be settled if they win all their regular-season games.

They'll head to the FCS Playoffs, and compete for the NCAA Division I National Championship against the top teams in the country.  They might even play each other.

Imagine that - two schools known for their engineering and stellar academics, undefeated, playing for the NCAA Championship in Frisco, Texas.

That's one thing, mercifully, that hasn't changed since the last time Lehigh went 8-0 at this stage of the season.

*****

All this talk of the "worthiness" of Lehigh's 8-0 record though is really just that, talk.  But there's something else, too that needs to be emphasized.

To anyone who's played or coached, they know that getting to 8-0 with a Division I schedule is extremely "hard" to do.


Not every team the Mountain Hawks have played in 2012 is a threat to win their league's championship.  But looking at Lehigh's schedule objectively, not every team has been as terrible as Lehigh's worst critics have portrayed, either.

Columbia and Central Connecticut State had not has successful seasons thus far, going a combined 2-11.

But Lehigh didn't go out and schedule a purposely weak Division II or III team to get a cheap win, either.  Before the season, CCSU was bandied about as a potential dark horse for the NEC title before their sub-par season.  That they were one of the weaker teams on Lehigh's schedule was purely the luck of the draw.

Monmouth is 3-4 and seems like they are going to finish a middle-of-the-pack team in the NEC.

But Princeton is 4-2 on the season, but 3-0 and sitting atop the Ivy League standings. 

Liberty is 3-4, but also 2-0 in Big South play and still very much alive in the race for the Big South autobid.

If Princeton and Liberty keep win out and win their respective conferences, suddenly Lehigh's "weak" schedule looks a lot "harder" than it might have seemed in Week 8.

It goes without saying that not every Brown & White game this year has been won on style points - witness the seven turnover game against Georgetown. 

But Lehigh managed to overcome those turnovers and still win.

Every team will lay an egg at some point during the season, whether you're Eastern Washington, North Dakota State or Delaware.  When most of these teams do - no matter whom it's against - they come out with a loss.  Lehigh didn't.  They won.  To win a game, to turn around and take your worst game of the season, yet somehow pull yourself together and turn it into a victory - that's extremely "hard" to do.

It's about time that Lehigh got some credit where credit is due.

"Football's a hard game; it's a hard game to win," head coach Andy Coen said. "But our guys are consistent at an emotional level. We are never too up and never too down. We've re-centered ourselves when we've needed to do it and our guys are never fazed by anything."

"It's a testament to the character of the guys on this football team," senior QB Michael Colvin said after the game Saturday. "What we're trying to do here is real special and it's hard. When it comes push to shove, every single guy — whether it's a freshman or a senior — they answer the bell. It's never going to be easy. We know that. We know mistakes are going to happen. It's just on to the next play."

It's sometimes hard to understand that every coach in America would like to bottle this ability that this Lehigh team appears to have to pick themselves up off the ground despite injury, turnover, penalty, or whatever is thrown their way, and just continue the battle until it's through.

Lehigh fans might prefer that it doesn't seem to come down to a moment like this every single week, seemingly, making the wins "harder" than, perhaps they needs to be.  But it always seems to actually happen for this team, to find some way to create the wins, and that, ultimately, is what's most important.

8-0 seasons are rare for a reason - they're incredibly "hard" to do.  You have to go all the way back to 1950, before that remarkable stretch from 1998-2002 and this year, to find the last time Lehigh went 8-0.

The kids have earned the right to undertake their "hard" challenge, to go into Lehigh history as an undefeated team in the regular season, to become three-time Patriot League champs, and to become the NCAA National Champions.

It's great.  It's "hard".  It's special.  And it's time to go along for the ride as long as it lasts, because seasons like this don't happen very often. 

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