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LFN Look Back: Lehigh's Youngest Head Football Coach Scores Big Rivalry Win In Undefeated Season

Bill Leckonby, The Hill School
"72 aspirants greeted Lehigh's new football coach, Bill Leckonby, on the first day of the six-week spring training session," a Lehigh Alumni Bulletin inauspicously announced in the spring of 1945.

It was reflection as to how low the Brown and White football team had sunk that the announcement didn't come with more fanfare.

After all, Lehigh was in the middle of a nine-year stretch where they had only been able to muster one tie in the span of eleven contests with their bitter Rivals.

Six times they were shut out.  Only once did they score more than 7 points against the Leopards.

It probably didn't register that hiring of the former St. Lawrence University star, and former pro football player for the AAFL's Brooklyn Dodgers, only a few years removed from military service in World War II, would forever change the direction of Lehigh athletics.

Few probably realized at the time that the inauspicious announcement would lead not only to one of the greatest Lehigh head football coaching careers of all time, but also would raise the Brown and White to a level of Eastern football supremacy among its peer colleges, as well as a spokesman for a different level of football, separate from the largest football schools like Alabama or Penn State.


After returning from the service where he both served in the Navy and coached football, Leckonby came to Bethlehem at 28 years old, making him the youngest head football coach in Lehigh history.

Rather than splash his name and quotations all over the local papers, though, the first thing Leckonby did was to being a brand-new style of offense to the Engineers, a formation that was known as the Faurot "T" Formation, or Split-T formation.

Invented by Missouri head coach Don Faurot, The Split T was a precursor to the many pitch-option plays we see today, where the quarterback has the option to pitch the ball to one of multiple players, or run the ball himself.

Leckonby quietly put it into Lehigh's playbook and patiently waited for the success to come - as well as the wins against Lafayette.

In 1946, Leckonby's first full year as head coach, both Lehigh and Lafayette struggled mightily in their regular season schedules, though there were plenty of milestones that both schools desperately wanted to achieve.

"Lehigh was gunning for its 250th all-time football victory," Legends of Lehigh-Lafayette tells us, "while Lafayette wanted a victory over Lehigh to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Maroon's undefeated 1921 National Championship team."

Lafayette would win 13-0 in a hard-fought game, their scores set up by an untimely fumble and a blocked punt.

Though that 2-6 season was a disappointment, the best was yet to come for the Engineers as the athletes started to be able to execute the "T".

From there, Lehigh would begin to have winning records for the first time since World War II broke out.

And for the first time in a long time, Lehigh and Lafayette would have fairly strong teams at the same time.

In 1948, 5-3 Lehigh and 6-2 Lafayette would face off as equals, with bowl representatives sniffing around, possibly inviting the winner to their postseason exhibitions.

Sixty-Minute Man Chuck Bednarik, Penn Lineman
One of the more intriguing people who attended that 1948 game was another college athlete who just a day later was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles - Penn's Chuck Bednarik.

Bednarik was born about three blocks from Taylor Stadium, living through grinding poverty and the Great Depression.  Sneaking onto the grass field to play football - and watch Lehigh home games - was a distraction from his surroundings.

"There was this guy that used to always run us off the field," he told columnist David Coulson back in 2010.  "I would climb the fence and then went into the bottom of the concrete bleachers. I'd crawl down into the bottom until the game began and then I would sneak into the game."

Bednarik actually was back in his hometown after a phenomenal senior year at Penn, where he was the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting.  He was one of 21,000 fans that crammed into Fisher Field to watch Lafayette rally from an early 13-0 deficit to thwart the Brown and White, 23-13.

Tied at 13 apiece, Leckonby would swear that the officials would turn the tide in Lafayette's favor after two penalties against Lehigh changed the course of the game.

The first was an ineligible receiver downfield penalty which negated a pass from QB Joe Scanella to WR Andy Morris and forced Lehigh to punt.

The second was the red flag of the referee hitting the turf after Lehigh CB Bob Kaulis was adjudged to have committed pass interference against Lafayette TE Joe Trickett, despite the fact that the ball was well overthrown.

Raw emotions from the Lehigh fans would greet the referee the rest of the game.

Soon afterwards, Lafayette RB Walt Gemusa would run through left tackle and give Lafayette a 20-13 lead they would not relinquish, and the 14th time in the last 14 games that the Leopards would not lose to the "Packers", as Lehigh was sometimes called then.

"To Lehigh followers, it was a classic, all right - a classic miscarriage of justice," The Brown and White reported.  "To Lafayette fans, it was a classic also - a classic example of what one official can do to boost a team's chance of victory."

In 1949, the soft-spoken Leckonby probably felt like this had to be the year that the Lafayette spell was broken.

Going into the Rivalry 6-2, Lafayette entered the game at 1-6, boosting enthusiasm that the Brown and White would finally have an opportunity to break the streak.  The game was played at Liberty High School's stadium, since Taylor Stadium was undergoing renovations,

Lehigh RB Dick Doyne
With Lehigh's potent junior tailbacks RB Dick Gabriel and RB Dick Doyne, just like in 1948, the Packers would surge to a 12-0 lead, and also make Gabriel the top scorer in the East.

But Leckonby would again tragically see the lead fall apart in the second half, with an inspired Lafayette effort to gain a 14-12 lead, and Lafayette C Carl Potter, playing in his last collegiate game, intercepting a desperation pass by Scanella and returning it for a score, his first, and last, collegiate touchdown.

"With their team leading 12 to 0 at halftime, Lehigh University football followers, dreaming roseate dreams of their first victory over Lafayette since 1936, were jolted into a rude awakening in the second half - and found themselves in a nightmare," The Lafayette reported.

Joe Scanella would graduate that year, where he would be one of only a few Lehigh football players of the era who would enter the coaching ranks.  He would embark on a career that would make him special teams coach for some of Al Davis' Oakland Raiders' teams in the 1970s, and ultimately would become head coach of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.

Leckonby would return in 1950 determined to break the streak, as would seniors Doyne, Davis, and as 5'8 FB Bob Borofski, who declared in The Brown and White that "This is Lehigh's year!"

Lehigh RB Dick Gabriel
There were plenty of indicators that Lehigh, with a proven offensive superstar in Gabriel, could have a very special season, especially after they cruised to a 4-0 start to the season.  When they took on a much bigger Eastern football power and won, beating Dartmouth 16-14 up in Hanover, new Hampshire, it even looked possible that the Engineers might finish the season undefeated.

A fair number of hearty Lehigh football fans made the trip to Hanover, where they celebrated the win over Dartmouth by tearing down the goalposts at Alumni Memorial Stadium.

As Lehigh's football team flew back into ABE Airport on Sunday, they were greeted by firecrakers, noisemakers, bells and bugles.  As they went back to campus, Packer Bell, which hung in Christmas Hall, was rung in celebration.  Traditionally the bell was only rung after Lehigh had beaten Lafayette - but they had been silent since 1936, the last time Lehigh had managed the feat.

Lafayette fans had to know, too, that the tides seemed to have been finally turning in Lehigh's favor, seeing their Leopards struggle to a 1-4 start, their only victory coming against Delaware.

A winning season assured, Lehigh's next step was to play their other conference rival, Rutgers, to see if they possibly could win the "Middle Three" championship and the rotating trophy given to the winners, the "Little Brass Cannon".

Jack Bergman carried off field vs. Rutgers
In a thriller, Lehigh came from behind to beat Rutgers 21-18, and jubilant Brown and White fans carried Leckonby, Doyne, and many other Lehigh football players off the field in celebration.

End Jack Bergman was the hero against Rutgers, hauling in a key pass to complete the comeback as well as converting the winning touchdown.

Only three games remained in the way of an undefeated season, and Lehigh would pulverize Mulhenberg and Carnegie Mellon in two of them.

The final game would be the capper - finally burying the ignominious losing streak to Lafayette, and giving coach Leckonby his first-ever win in the Rivalry.

In what must have been one of the sweetest victories ever, Doyne, Gabriel, Borofski and QB Herb Weiss, or "Lehigh's Four Horsemen" as they were known, used their powerful option attack to overwhelm Lafayette 38-0.

There would be no opportunities for the officials to affect this victory.

It was a complete performance, with Lehigh's defense holding Lafayette to under 100 yards of total offense in front of 20,000 fans at Lafayette's Fisher Field.  Gabriel and Doyne would end their senior seasons with touchdowns against Lafayette - and that win that eluded the Brown and White for over a decade.

"The post game tumlt saw Dick Gabriel and coach Bill Leckonby carried off the field on the shoulders of a victorious and happy football squad," The Brown and White reported.  "The band remained on the fied and played a series of Lehigh songs, then they marched out of Fisher field playing the Old Silver Goblet and the Victory March."

Lehigh's "Four Horsemen"

*****

I wrote a 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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