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LFN Look Back: Two Blocked Kicks Save the Rivalry

In 1927, the Rivalry was in trouble.

“Thousands of vacant seats at Saturday’s game, mostly on the south side of the field, were a silent protest to Lehigh’s poor teams,” the Easton Express wrote after another lopsided Engineer loss to the Leopards.  “The dear public was asked to part with $4 a ticket to see Saturday’s game.  Of course, the public doesn’t have to go.  They can stay at home.  That is what many did on Saturday.  But there are thousands of Alumni of both institutions who deplore the situation and a crying for relief.“

The game in question was a 43-0 shellacking by Lafayette, capping off a dismal 1-7-1 season for Lehigh where the Brown and White were outscored 196-31 by their opponents.

For Lehigh, losing to Lafayette had become routine.  It was their eighth straight loss to their rivals.  The Brown and White had last scored a touchdown against Lafayette in 1921.  Three entire classes had gone without scoring a touchdown against them, let alone come close to victory.

In the span of two years, though, Lehigh would break Lafayette’s spell - first by scoring their first touchdown against the Maroon and White in nearly a decade, and then by beating them in one of the closest games in Rivalry history.

Only a decade earlier, Lehigh athletics had been in a golden era, winning championships in lacrosse and wrestling, while also beating their bitter rival in football six times in a seven year stretch.

But it was a faculty decision that caused Lehigh’s athletics to take a turn in the other direction.

With the inauguration of president Charles Russ Richards in 1922, shortly after a bloody World War in Europe and a tentative peace back home, Lehigh quietly started to de-emphasize intercollegiate athletics.

In the September 26th, 1922 edition of The Brown and White, alongside several pages describing Lehigh’s “foot-ball” prospects, was Mr. Richards’ inaugural speech to Lehigh’s undergraduates.

“I have often heard it asserted that a student who did indifferent work in the classroom, but who was recognized as a leader among his fellow students,” Richards said, “was more likely to be successful than the student who has been characterized as a grind.  While I recognize the importance of college activities and their value in training young men for leadership, I do not believe in the assumption is generally a correct one.  I urge you to regard them as incidental to rather than the chief object of your college life.”

While football was not mentioned specifically, the mention of “leaders among their fellow students” was a clear shot at the football team, and on the schedule in place of teams like Penn State and West Virginia, colleges deemed more similar in terms of academic requirements were added, like Colgate, Bucknell, and Brown.

Walter Okeson '99
Lehigh students, too, seemed to overwhelmingly agree with Professor Richards, going as far as facing off against alumni who “take athletics too seriously, and attach too much importance to victories,” Lehigh’s treasurer, former football player Walter Okeson, reported in the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin.  “Too much system, said they, tends to eliminate real sport and promote the porfessional spirit.  Alumni demanded impossible schedules and wanted our teams to play Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Penn State.  They fail to realize that undergraduates come to Lehigh to be educated and that sport is a secondary matter.”

After a 4-4 record in 1921, Lehigh struggled against their competition in the following year.  Colgate, with its scholarship athletes, crushed Lehigh 35-6 in Binghamton, New York in their only early meeting against the Maroons.  Bucknell, too, who had national aspirations despite a strict commitment to academics, also dominated Lehigh 14-0.

In the Rivalry, Lehigh fought “heavier and more formidable” Lafayette to a 3-0 defeat in 1922, settled only after a late field goal.

“Much has been written of the Lehigh University’s wonderful fighting spirit in times of distress,” The New York Times wrote in regards to the Brown and White’s tough, injury-riddled season, “yet it is doubtful if ever a team of the past made a stand like that of Coach Jim Baldwin’s men here this afternoon in the face of overwhelming odds.”

Stalemated at 0-0, and driving with 3 minutes to play on Lehigh’s 16 yard line, “it was decided to stake all on a drop kick by [halfback] ‘Bots’ Brunner,” The New York Times continued.  “He dropped back to the 27 yard line and then calmly booted the ball between the uprights for the only score of the game.”

Little did Lehigh fans know that Lehgh would only score a field goal over the next five contests vs. Lafayette, getting outscored 112-3 by the Leopards over that stretch.

Many injuries - including one death - unfortunately became the hallmark of this low point in Lehigh athletics.

In 1925, a daunting schedule which included powerful Georgetown, didn’t do much to help Lehighbreak the streak.  The “Hilltoppers”, as Georgetown was then known, crushed the Brown and White 40-0, and later Lafayette would also shut out Lehigh - but only by a 14-0 score.

In 1926 the gap between Lafayette and Lehigh would never seem greater.

Led by head coach Herb McCracken, the Leopards would go a perfect 9-0-0 and lay a claim to be one of the best teams in the entire nation.  Fittingly, they would dominate Lehigh, 35-0, in their final game of the season.

“As the sun, transmuted by the haze of November, into a sphere of flaming orange,” The Lafayette said, “sank in the Bushkill Valley on Saturday, that cry, once a call of appeal, of hope, became an exultant Paean of victory on the lips of the followers of the Maroon. The Maroon battered down a fighting Bethlehem team to score a 350 triumph. Chill, northwestern blasts did not daunt the crowd of 17,000 who came to watch the sixtieth battle between Lafayette and her rival of rivals, Lehigh.”

Bob Davidson and Todd Donchez of Legends of Lehigh - Lafayette also implied that the final scores could have been worse.

"The 1927 contest was more notable for the no-shows and injuries than the play on the field," they wrote.  "In addition to injured all-American Mike Wilson, absent from the game was Lafayette captain Harold Cothran, who was honeymooning.  Two weeks earlier, after a game in Washington against Georgetown, Cothran married a DC co-ed from George Washington University."

Lehigh alumni were not taking the beatings in stride.

 “A letter arrived in my mail a week or so ago,” Okeson reported in the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin of 1927.  “asking that instead of writing articles about the football team I give a plain answer as to what is wrong with Lehigh football.”

“New scholastic standards wiped out a lot of players,” he continued, also noting that a big proportion of the team was flunking out each year, which Dr. Richards had warned him must stop.  “New eligibility rules erased others, cessation of financial inducements choked up a big channel of supply.  The devotees of the old system maintained that it was impossible to get and keep football material without paying for it both with money and special scholastic favors.  They further claimed the administration and faculty were against football and were trying to wipe it out.”

Even with these new standards, Okeson dismissed those that claimed that the administration was against football.

“Equally good and better material can be secured each year if the advantages of Lehigh are brought home to the boys in the prep and high schools,” he also said.  “For poor boys we have scholarships available.”

Though the 1927 season was a disaster for Lehigh, Okeson did see some promise with a strong freshman football team, who played very well and would soon be working their way into the varsity.

Austin Tate
These fab freshmen, coached by a former Lehigh alumnus and former Bethlehem High School coach, Austin Tate, would be the beginning of Lehigh’s turnaround - with the types of students that everyone at Lehigh wanted, academically and athletically.

At first, 1928 seemed to be more of the same for Lehigh’s struggles on the field, though the Brown and White showed some promise with close wins over Muhlenberg, Widener, and St. John’s at home.

Against the rest of their schedule, however, Lehigh would only score three points, and with Lafayette beating Penn State 7-0 the week before, there was little reason for the casual observer  to believe that the Brown and White would be able to score against Lafayette.

“It has been nine long years since the Brown and White has registered a victory over the Maroon,” The Brown and White observed.  “The last tally against Lafayette was a well-directed field goal by “Honey” Lewis in 1923.  It has been seven years since the Brown and White has crossed the Maroon goal line.  But this has made the team of 1928 all the more determined to go down in gridiron history as the team that put a stop to this reign of Lafayette supremacy.”

Outmanned, Lehigh would fall behind 38-0 to powerful Lafayette - but finally break their scoreless streak.

“With Lehigh in possession of the ball on her own 29 yard line, Bob Harris completed a pass to Sam Hall, Lehigh wingman on Lafayette’s 32 yard line,” The Brown and White describes, “and three plays later directed the ball into the very shadows of the Maroon goal where Bob Many, Lehigh basketball star playing the end position, leaped skyward to grab it out of the hands of three Lafayette men and jog five yards for the first touchdown scored against Lafayette since 1921.”

Lehigh would tack on another touchdown to make the final tally 38-14, “the largest score piled up against Lafayette since the Armistice was signed in 1918,” The Brown and White continued.

“Practically their entire cheering section moved on the field and celebrated,” The Lafayette added, “more than the Lafayette fans who were watching their team roll up their tenth successive victory.  Lafayette was scoring on every few plays and seemed to be on their way to surpass last year’s one-sided score when Coach McCracken started to use the reserves.”

With the scoring drought finally over, it set up one of the most thrilling Rivalry contests ever in 1929.

With Lafayette having an off year, the Leopards entered the game 3-5, but still fully expecting to beat the old rival that they had been regularly beating for a decade.  But with Lehigh going in with a 3-3-2 record, hopes were higher than they had been in some time that the streak would finally be over.

The game started with the quarterback, Ed Davidowitz, leading Lehigh to a game-opening touchdown, giving the Brown and White their first lead over the Leopards since 1924.  Though it didn't seem important at the time, he connected perfectly on the kick, making the score 7-0.

A few series later, he would connect with halfback Tom Nora twenty yards downfield, then, eluding Lafayette’s safety, ran thirty more yards to score another Lehigh touchdown.

They missed the extra point, however, leaving an opening for the Leopards.

Soon, Lafayette would roar back and get a touchdown of their own.  The extra point, though, would be blocked by tackle Tubby Miller, making the score 13-6 as the clock ticked down to halftime.

The second half would be a series of thrilling defensive stops for Lehigh.

Three times the Leopards got very close to the goal line, and elected to go for it.  All three times, Lehigh stopped Lafayette short of the goal.

Lafayette’s star diminutive halfback, Al Socolow from Brooklyn,  had to be taken off the field in a stretcher, but Lafayette still kept surging dangerously close to Lehigh’s goal.

When Lafayette finally came through and scored a touchdown, “Cook, one of the most accurate placement kickers in the East,” The Brown and White reported, “confidently stood on the ten yard line waiting to score the tying point.  But half a dozen Lehigh linemen surged through and Tommy Ayre, who had replaced McLernon at center, just touched the ball with his fingers, deflecting it to the right and spoiling the kick as the Lehigh stands went wild.”

Lehigh had to frantically hold on as the final quarter came to a close.  One Lafayette drive came close, but an interception stopped that drive.  With one Lafayette drive getting to the goal with five minutes left, Cook would try a field goal that would give Lafayette the lead.

The Rivalry 1929
"The crowd of 18,000 was silent as Cook again casually made his preparations,” the students reported.  “The ball was snapped.  Cook stepped forward and kicked.  No Lehigh player was close enough to block the ball, but the Lafayette tackle was so hurried that his kick went wild to the right of the goalposts.”

Lehigh would withstand the constant Lafayette pressure, and break the streak by the narrowest of margins, 13-12 - thanks to a blocked kick by a substitute player.

“It’s been done!  It’s been done!” The Brown and White exclaimed in their recap.  “For three days bonfires, cheers, paint, and wild celebrations have proclaimed this fact; but Lehigh students are still trying to make themselves believe that it is true, that after 11 years of expectant hopes and bitter disappointments their football team finally triumphed over the Lafayette Leopard.”

After the game, the band stormed the field, as did thousands of Lehigh supporters.  The Packer Hall bell, silent since the Armistice, the last time Lehigh beat Lafayette in Bethlehem, finally rung out on the Lehigh campus.

The Rivalry was a game again - one where Lehigh, once again, could expect to win.

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