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1887: Lehigh's First-Ever Win

Lafayette dominated the early Rivalry, but in the late 1880s the tides turned dramatically, thanks to a play devised by the founder of Lehigh’s football program.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the origins of the play have also been disputed with a distinct Lehigh/Lafayette flavor.

The “V Trick”, or “Lehigh V”, as it’s known in South Bethlehem, was a revolutionary play in college football at the time.

It involved, on a kick resulting in a change of possession, to have the eleven men form a “V” with interlocked arms to direct the mass of the entire team against a hapless weak link on the opposition’s line, with the halfback running behind the rush line.

This was especially effective after a kick, since the ten men would be able to run forward and get a head of steam going, applying their mass momentum to make larger gains.  To some, it was the basis of all the mass momentum plays that followed, such as the infamous “Flying Wedge” implemented by Harvard.

Though it would ultimately be banned, plays like the “V Trick” were an important historic milestone in the evolution of college football.

And the origins of the play come down to who you believe: Richard Harding Davis, the former Lehigh football player, or Parke H. Davis, the former Princeton and Lafayette football coach.

Parke Davis, in his historical book Football, the Intercollegiate Game, credited the “V Trick” to a former Princeton player that attended the University a few years prior to when Davis was a lineman there.

“Strange to say,” P. H. Davis said, “this highly ingenious and complicated formation was not the result of long and laborious study, but was conceived suddenly in the crisis of a close game and put into immediate execution.  This game was the contest between Pennsylvania and Princeton, October 25th, 1884, and the inventor of the play was R.M. Hodge, ‘86, of Princeton.”

Hodge’s claim was during the course of this game, “if the rush-line would jump into the shape of a V with the apex forward and with Baker [the halfback] inside, the formation ought to gain ground.”  The formation was then allegedly tried once, then shelved for the Yale game, and then shelved for several years afterwards.

Richard Harding Davis pointedly disagreed.

“I want to recall the fact that it was at Lehigh when the V Trick was first attempted,” he recalled for the Lehigh Quarterly.  “It was invented by Jake Robeson, and first tried against Pennsylvania with the success which now always accompanies it.”

The Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, describes the contest where it was allegedly first unveiled by Lehigh on November 18th, 1886.

“On Thursday, what was supposed to be our foot-ball team was beaten at Bethlehem by Lehigh, by 28 to 0”, the writer said.  “The Lehigh rush line is strong, and heavy.  Each member of it singles out an opponent, and sticks to him the entire game, no matter where the ball is.  When Lehigh has the ball, each man on her line wraps his arms deliberately around his opponent, while a Lehigh half-back runs with the ball.  As Lehigh was much heavier than we are, she had little difficulty in winning.”

Walter Camp, the legendary college football authority of the time, credited Lehigh with coming up with “the first practical working of it” in Spalding’s Official Football Guide of 1891, a point that Richard Harding Davis mentioned prominently in the Lehigh Quarterly.  “Walter Camp, the Yale coach, always credits Lehigh with this trick when he writes,” he said.

What wasn’t in doubt was with the “Lehigh V”, suddenly the Brown and White went from tackling dummies for Lafayette’s football team to being competitive.

In 1887 Lehigh had high hopes that they could bust through, finally, against Lafayette, for their first-ever win against them.

And despite Lafayette’s early dominance in the Rivalry, Lehigh still got plenty of ire from Lafayette’s student newspaper.

“The Haverford men had a bad impression of Lafayette before they came,” The Lafayette noted, “and that such an impression was given them by some of the students at Lehigh ‘University.’  Such talk would naturally emit from the ‘University’ men, whose brains are soaked with athletic jealousy.  The Lehigh ‘University’ students know well enough that they have always, when on the Lafayette campus, been treated with courtesy and they know just as well, that the same treatment has not always been extended to Lafayette.”

 “Next Saturday, unless something unforeseen happens, we play Lehigh,” the student reporter continued.  “The result of the game is in considerable doubt.  A large number of men should accompany the team to South Bethlehem and give them the necessary encouragement.”

The student was right to be concerned, as Lehigh won by a score of 10 to 4.  The win, though, was not without controversy.

“For the first time in foot-ball history Lehigh defeated our team,” The Lafayette lamented.  “About two hundred students and several members of the faculty accompanied them. [Lehigh’s] Corbin made a touchdown and the umpire smiled approval. Play was rather sharp for the next few minutes neither side having the advantage, until finally Corbin, assisted by the referee, made another touchdown.”

“In the second half Lafayette played a good game, but in every point the referee favored Lehigh,” the student writer continued, “while the umpire was a useless figurehead. During this half of the game Van Loon secured the ball near Lehigh's line and would have made a touchdown. The referee at first gave the ball to Lafayette, but afterward changed his decision and gave it to Lehigh. Williams made a touchdown that was not allowed. Van Loon secured a free catch directly in front of Lehigh's goal and Payne kicked a beautiful goal from the field; not allowed. The game soon afterward closed.”

The Lehigh Burr had a different view.

“The manner in which Lafayette, after having been defeated in a perfectly fair game of foot-ball, attempted to put all the defeat on the referee, cannot be too highly condemned by the college world,” the writer said.  “If they had taken the defeat in good grace, nothing would have been said, but when they set to work to deliberately besmirch the reputation of the referee, we feel compelled to speak in his defence. Mr. Spalding, as was Mr. Miers, was perfectly fair, and we can, without hesitation, declare that all his decisions and rulings were perfectly impartial and fair. How, after the abuse that has been showered upon Mr. Spalding, Lafayette can expect to obtain an unprejudiced referee, we cannot see.”

“The Lafayette man who was willing to make an affidavit [in the Easton paper] that he heard the referee say to the umpire, ‘We will do Lafayette dirt this half," has not as yet been found, nor is he likely to be. But there was one thing amid the mass of abuse contained in the Easton Express that speaks well for Lehigh, and that was: ‘Considering the bitter feeling which exists between the institutions, the Lafayette men were treated well.’ That a Lafayette man under any circumstances would admit such a thing, would be a high compliment, but when one admits it, when they were defeated, is the highest praise ever given to Lehigh by any one.  Lafayette men should take the matter into their own hands and see that those who report athletic contests with other colleges, for the Easton papers, should not wander hopelessly away from the paths of verity.”

It is not said how Walter Camp decided in 1887 to implement the rule that two paid officials for every college football game, one referee and one umpire, be mandatory, but it could very well be that the treatment of officials at the earliest games between Lehigh and Lafayette - and the electric criticism in the local newspapers - may have been one of the reasons.  (It wouldn’t stop the criticism of biased officiating in the Rivalry – not by a long shot - but it would mandate some basic rules of impartiality, for example, having the officials come from a neutral third college, such as Princeton.  In the earliest games, the officials were actually students from the home team.)

Lafayette got the better of the “Lehighs”, as they sometimes called them, in the return match in Easton, a 6-0 game that was “severely contested, yet never had we seen one in which greater good feeling prevailed between the contestants and also between the friends of the opposing elevens than in this,” said The Lafayette.  “One of the pleasing features of the game was the absence of slugging,” the Burr reported.

That didn't prevent a future version of The Lafayette publishing this bit of prose about the "V" formation at about the same time as these games.

Break, break, break. 
That awful revolving V ! 
For every yard that they make that way 
They make by walking on me 

Oh ! well for the man who's at full-back ! 
He never gets into the play ; 
Oh ! well for the extra half! 
Who is stationed five yards away. 

But the LAFAYETTE men go on. 
Till our line resembles a wreck ; 
But oh ! for a whack at the man with the ball, 
And a chance to jump on his neck !

At the end of the season, both student newspapers took time out to contemplate the history of the early Rivalry.

“The interest that Lehigh men take in the Lafayette-Lehigh foot-ball games is remarkable,” the Burr noted.  “Ever since the first game has been played a large number of men have accompanied the team to Easton. So large a number go that special rates are always granted on the railroad, and twice, a special train. This is an excellent thing; it encourages the team, which knows that it is not playing before a hostile or at the least an unappreciative audience, and tries to do its best. When the team goes farther than Easton, of course the number of men who accompany it is fewer, but at the same time there are always quite a number that go, and [we] hope that this will continue to be the case.”

Both The Lafayette and the Lehigh Burr declared their teams the unofficial “champions of Pennsylvania” under different criteria.  The Burr claimed that Lehigh’s 4-3-0 team split the mythical championship since they split their two games against Lafayette.  The Lafayette said that the 7-2-0 Maroon and White were the true champions, since they split against Lehigh but beat Penn (and Lehigh lost to Penn).

That idea of the “championship of Pennsylvania” would carry through the next few seasons, but the warm feelings and the “absence of slugging” would not.


I wrote a book about this and much, much more about the early days of the Lehigh/Lafayette Rivalry.  The book attempts to delve into the history of the Lehigh Valley, the history of both schools, how football became the big rallying point of both schools, and an attempt to discover the special chemistry that The Rivalry is all about.

It's available in some select bookstores (for example, the Lehigh University Campus Bookstore) and also on Amazon.  You can purchase it below.


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