Skip to main content

LFN Look Back: Rivalry Narrowly Avoids Suspension During The "Great War", 1917-1918

It didn’t initially seem conceivable that war in Europe would affect the daily lives of American boys and men playing college football in Pennsylvania.

Before World War I broke out, or the Great War as it was then called, President Woodrow Wilson pursued a strict policy of neutrality in regards to the trench battles in Belgium and France, echoing popular opinion.

But when World War became inevitable, it naturally affected the campuses of Lafayette and Lehigh in the seasons of 1917 and 1918.

Through the seriousness of war, the Rivalry continued where other college football seasons were halted, complete with much of the same pageantry.

In tough times, the Rivalry provided a much-needed escape though the seriousness of the times.

President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson started his rise to the Presidency through academia. first at Bryn Mawr and then at Wesleyan University.

Though he never competed on the gridiron, he was an avid football fan.

At Wesleyan, after a particularly poor start to the 1889 football season, the young history teacher reportedly “injected himself into the [football] situation.. as faculty adviser,” the story went that made the rounds through several newspapers in the 1910s.

From there he proceeded to turn the spirits around of his team, which was rumored to be considered to start disappearing from the schedules of the biggest Eastern schools, such as Penn and Princeton.

More provable was his dedication to forming football strategy, attending practices, and making trips to some out-of-town games in the horse and buggy era.

He and a graduate assistant even coined a slogan, according to a biography of him by Edwin A. Weinstein: "The College First, The Fraternity Afterward".

The 1889 football season led up to a critical game against Lehigh, the Brown and White team with the legendary halfback Paul Dashiell.  That season, Lehigh was legitimately considered to be one of the very top teams in the nation.

As legend had it, down 11-0 to the Brown and White on an extremely rainy afternoon in Springfield, Mass, Wilson, clad in a rubber raincoat and boots, led Wesleyan’s cheering section in a group of rousing cheers, his umbrella tapping to the beat.

The Wesleyan players, allegedly inspired by the display from Wilson and the fans, and feeling they needed the result to stay relevant in the world of college football, rallied late to score 11 points on Lehigh, securing an 11-11 tie and preserving their place.

Few that day might have thought that the progressive Wilson might one day be the Commander in Chief after that exhibition on the football field.  But that's exactly what happened, with his meteoric rise through academia, and his revolution at Princeton University as their president from 1902 to 1910, which was his springboard to the highest office in the land.

(At Princeton, he’d continue to be an advocate for their football team as well as instituting tough education reforms.  His football squads would continue to compete against both Lehigh and Lafayette, with a large amount of success.)

By 1917, the pacifist Wilson, facing increased German U-boat provocation in the Atlantic Ocean, couldn’t hold off American involvement in the Great War any longer, and a draft was instituted among men aged 21 to 31.

In that number were a number of Lehigh and Lafayette students.

“Probably the two upper classes are the hardest hit by the departure of many of their number to the call of the government, but the Sophomore class also has lost some of its members,” The Brown and White reported, listing a group of undergraduates that were conscripted into the National Army, Naval Aviation company, and other different branches of the military.

The same occurred at Lafayette, with nearby Allentown was the site of training for the Ambulance Corps.  In that corps Lafayette students formed a “Lafayette Ambulance Unit”, Unit No. 61.

“Twenty-eight men of Lafayette, bronze of face and stalwart of form,” The Lafayette reported, “are now awaiting their turn to break camp and join an overseas contingent.  The men will probably leave soon to carry the name of Lafayette College to the country from which the immortal Lafayette himself came.”

Allentown Ambulance Corps Football Team
As the Ambulance Drivers recruited both Lehigh and Lafayette students, their love of football inspired the drivers to form their own team - and compete against their former schools.

“Pitted against a team composed of former college stars and the Three Brown Brothers of Lafayette,” The Lafayette said, “the Maroon and White’s ‘brand new’ team on Saturday handed to their opponent a defeat in terms of 20-0.   The Ambulance Team’s offensive lacked unity of interference and was powerless against the other line.”

Upriver, too, other military units formed teams that appeared on Lafayette and Lehigh schedules alongside more traditional competition like Georgetown and Rutgers.

“Lehigh’s 1917 gridiron season opened Saturday on Taylor Field with a 7 to 0 victory over the Seventh Infantry team, composed entirely of men from various colleges who are now second lieutenants at the army camp at Gettysburg,” The Brown and White reported.  “Considering they only had three days’ practice and that without a competent coach, they played a hard game.”

Despite the war, thousands of fans watched these games, which no doubt must have been an effective recruiting tool for the Army.

Overall, Lafayette struggled mightily in the season of 1917, thanks to the the disappearance of most upperclassmen to the draft.

Only two men tried out for the football team that had played on the varsity the prior season.  “One was drafted before the first game,” The Lafayette said, “and the other dropped out after one or two contests.”

Leopard fans feared the worst for their football team's chances after a 56-0 shellacking at the hands of Swarthmore.

“In the face of war conditions, Lafayette is playing a straight schedule with her traditional opponents, without cancellations, and without soldier athletes,” The Lafayette noted.  “It is a difficult and a heartbreaking task to build a college team entirely of new men, whether or not they are experienced in preparatory school football.”

Only one outcome could salvage their season.

“There is one game left that Lafayette men should work hard to win,” the paper continued.  “There is one game left that will make all the difference in the world with the final estimate of this season. To better present conditions in that game means nothing more or less that two weeks of slavery for the football team. It means a lot of continuous, secret practices, and all the strategy in planning out this coming conflict that our resources will permit. There is a great deal that Lafayette students can do. We must remember what the Lehigh game means to us. We must stand in a body back of the team when it meets the Brown and White, and no matter whether we shall sing ‘Lafayette's Men All Victorious’ or the ‘Alma Mater’ at the conclusion of the game, let there be no man who has not done his bit.”

Lehigh’s problems for the 1917 season didn’t involve players, but schedule.

Villanova and Fordham, both scheduled to play the Brown and White, had to cancel their games with Lehigh, though national powers Georgetown and Pitt did not.

Pitt, coached by the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner, dominated the Brown and White 41-0, while Georgetown jumped to an early lead and made it hold up, 14-6.

Despite the setbacks, though, there was a lot of promise for head coach Tom Keady’s Lehigh squad.

“Beaten numerically, but not in spirit, the work of the team gives the impression that it has found itself and will go through the rest of the schedule at a different pace than it did through the first of the season,” The Brown and White said.

The lead-up to the biggest game on the schedule was the same as many of the others through the years, though with less animosity between the schools in years past.

Lehigh reported a smoker that had been better attended than in prior years, complete with parade through the “Bethlehems”.  “Bosey” Reiter and Walter Okeson delivered their usual stirring speeches.

“Whatever the result, the interest in the contest will be the same,” The Brown and White reported.  “A defeat for either team means the failure of the entire season to their college.  In view of the general unsettled atmosphere which was prevalent at the beginning of the term, due to the war, the support has been good and has demonstrated that the old Lehigh spirit is as strong as ever.”

“The Lehigh Smoker, which, next to the game itself, is one of the biggest events of the football season, is to be held in accordance with tradition on Friday night,” The Lafayette reported.  “Prof. March has been asked to tell about other times when the Maroon and White has sent the Brown and White "back up the river" to spend another year in hopeful preparation for the Lafayette eleven. Despite the losses earlier in the season the men of the Lafayette team are as anxious to get at Lehigh as men of other years, and they will meet the rival team with as grim a determination to win as that ever possessed by any team of former years.”

Determination was not enough.

“Running, dodging and plunging their way up and down Taylor Field for touchdown after touchdown,” The Brown and White announced triumphantly, “Coach Keady’s well-prepared team trampled the Maroon and White colors of Lafayette underfoot, completely outclassing the Easton collegians in one of the most remarkable Lehigh-Lafayette games seen in a quarter of a century, and winning by the overwhelming score of 78-0.”

The remarkable result came about from an amazing 12 touchdowns by the Brown and White, including four by FB Vincent de Wysocki and four by QB A.S. Herrington.

QB A.S. Herrington
“If there are any features about the game, they might be said to lie in the large number of touchdowns scored, the numerous goals from touchdowns that Lehigh missed, and the almost limitless number of substitutions made by Lafayette,” The Lafayette lamented.

The game was played in a half-empty stadium, according to the student paper, and the formal “duel of the bands” between the Lafayette students and the Bethlehem Steel Company band before the game was short.

“Yet thru the four quarters of play," they continued, "a time that seemed endless to Lafayette rooters, while the Brown and White were scoring so consistently and with so little resistance, the Lafayette cheering section upheld its end in a way that will never be forgotten. The true spirit of Lafayette was evidenced during that heartbreaking contest.”

Lafayette’s head coach, Robert Berryman, resigned after the game, though it wasn’t due to the lopsided score.

FB Vincent de Wysocki
“In his letter of resignation to the President, accepted some days ago,” The Lafayette said, “Berryman stated that he was leaving from purely patriotic motives. There is a general demand for engineers, throughout the country and being a graduate engineer, Berryman has accepted a good position in an aeroplane construction company. Berryman expressed his gratitude for the hearty appreciation given his work here, but said that he did not believe anything should be allowed to interfere with the service of ones Country in these trying times. Before leaving, he expressed an earnest desire to return to Lafayette next fall and to continue with the work of coaching football.”

As trying as the 1917 season was, 1918 was even more serious as President Wilson lowered the conscription age to 18.

“On June 21st, Lehigh University received a telegram from Adjutant General McCain in the form sent out on that date to a number of Universities and Colleges of the country,” The Brown and White reported September 18th, 1918, “outlining a plan for sixty days’ training camps from July 18 to September 16 for selected students and faculty members to be trained as instructors to help officers assigned to carry on military instruction at the institutions.”

“Camp Coppee”, established in the spring, continued, as the newly-founded Students’ Army Training Corps was established at Lehigh, per government order.

“Oh!” you Lehigh men,” the student paper continued, “old and new, think of what service you will be to your country; think how proud Lehigh will be of you, if you throw all your energy and resources into the battle of democracy.  Here is your chance to make good.  This is not the time for trivial things.”

It was very unclear as to whether Lehigh would have a team for the 1918 season, thanks to the war and the fact that many schools suspended intercollegiate football.

The stars from last season's team, the anticipated All-Americans of Herrington and de Wysocki, were gone, drafted into the army.

“That Lehigh will be represented by a football team this year is practically certain as Captain [A.G] Van Atta is in favor of the continuation of football as far as military training will permit,” they later reported of the football captain and S. A. T. C. president.  “The management is trying hard to find a suitable opponent for the opening data but is meeting with trouble on account of the earliness in the season and unsettled conditions among other colleges.”

Additionally, there was considerable doubt as to whether Lehigh would field enough students to have a team, as almost everyone who played the prior year was gone, drafted, or both.  But Lehigh tried out about fifty students, and managed to field a team.

Lafayette, too, managed to also suit up a team despite the uncertainty.

“At the opening of the fall semester at Lafayette, it appeared that the college would be without a team,” The Lafayette reported.  “The military authorities however, stepped in and offered to help in developing an S. A. T. C. team. When the first call was sounded, one L man of the 1917 squad, one substitute and a large number of freshmen responded.  But despite many misfortunes, good material was discovered, a schedule arranged and a coach selected from among the military authorities assigned to the college for instruction purposes.”

Lehigh’s ambitious 1918 schedule was shortened, playing pick-up teams from the other military training camps, and only four other local colleges that were still fielding intercollegiate teams.  Those schools were Rutgers, Muhlenburg, Penn State, and their ancient Rival.  Lafayette’s schedule also featured a hybrid schedule.

WWI themed cigarette ad, 1918 B&W
All through the season Lehigh’s “smokers” were well-attended by the students, who seemed headed to the European front and served as a distraction from military training, with the lead-up to the Rivalry game being the best attended of all.

“Into every available space with the exception of a small squared area in the center of the floor were crowded the student-soldiers,” The Brown and White reported, “and music to enliven the occasion was liberally furnished by the Bethlehem Steel Band.”

The 1918 game itself, which almost was cancelled, ended in Lehigh’s third straight win over Lafayette, though it was a much more evenly matched 17-0 game that was devoid of some of the bitterness that the Rivalry generated in peacetime.

Perhaps a better explanation for the subdued nature of the game can be explained by another front-page item in The Brown and White the same edition.

“Word has been received that Lieutenant John Reading Schley, of the class of 1919, has died of wounds received in an airplane accident while serving in France.”


JS NJ said…
Pretty sure in the photo of the lined-up 1917 team, that's my grandfather, Joseph "Butch" Spagna, at left tackle.

Popular posts from this blog

How The Ivy League Is Able To Break the NCAA's Scholarship Limits and Still Consider Themselves FCS

By now you've seen the results.  In 2018, the Ivy League has taken the FCS by storm. Perhaps it was Penn's 30-10 defeat of Lehigh a couple of weeks ago .  Or maybe it was Princeton's 50-9 drubbing of another team that made the FCS Playoffs last year, Monmouth.  Or maybe it was Yale's shockingly dominant 35-14 win over nationally-ranked Maine last weekend. The Ivy League has gone an astounding 12-4 so far in out-of-conference play, many of those wins coming against the Patriot League. But it's not just against the Patriot League where the Ivy League has excelled.  Every Ivy League school has at least one out-of-conference victory, which is remarkable since it is only three games into their football season.  The four losses - Rhode Island over Harvard, Holy Cross over Yale, Delaware over Cornell, and Cal Poly over Brown - were either close losses that could have gone either way or expected blowouts of teams picked to be at the bottom of the Ivy League. W

UMass 21, Lafayette 14, halftime

Are you watching this game? UMass had this game under control until about 3 minutes in the second quarter, and then got an interception, converted for a TD. Then the Leopards forced a fumble off the return, and then converted THAT for a TD, making this a game. It's on CN8. You really should be watching this.

Made-Up Midseason Grades for Lehigh Football

 We are now officially midway through the 2023 Lehigh football season.  The Mountain Hawks sit at 1-5 overall, and 0-1 in the Patriot League. I thought I'd go ahead and make up some midseason grades, and set some "fan goals" for the second half. The 2023 Mountain Hawks were picked to finish fifth in the seven team Patriot League.  In order to meet or exceed that expectation, they'll probably have to go at least 3-2 the rest of the way in conference play.  Their remaining games are vs. Georgetown, at Bucknell, vs. Holy Cross, at Colgate, and vs. Lafayette in The Rivalry. Can they do it? Culture Changing: B+ .  I was there in the Bronx last week after the tough 38-35 defeat to Fordham, and there wasn't a single player emerging from the locker room that looked like they didn't care.  Every face was glum.  They didn't even seem sad.  More frustrated and angry. That may seem normal, considering the agonizing way the Mountain Hawks lost, but it was a marked chan