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Frank Tavani Retires After Thirty Years Of Rivalries And Thirty Years At Lafayette

The first time I asked a question of Lafayette head football coach Frank Tavani was in 2004.

It was at Fisher Field, and I had just spent my first game ever in the press box.

I had gone into that press box hoping to cover an expected Lehigh victory over Lafayette, the final crowning glory to yet another Lehigh football season.

I barely knew what I was doing, how I should act, or how to set up a computer in the press box.  But there I was, taking notes for a "game diary" for a national website called I-AA.org.

I had proven my bona fides for writing by penning a very long, very detailed summary of the Lehigh/Colgate game a few weeks prior.  That game, a Lehigh victory that went down to the wire, was sort-of a precursor to the type of coverage I do now during Lehigh games in terms of tweeting, except rather than tweet it out instantly to followers, I would write all the observations down, shuffle them up, edit them, and put them in a thousand-word article.  (Trust me when I say it made sense at the time.)

But Lehigh did not beat Lafayette in 2004.

Instead, fourth year head coach Frank Tavani's team would dominate the Mountain Hawks on both lines of scrimmage to secure a well-deserved 24-10 victory, and in so doing punched their first-ever ticket to the I-AA Playoffs.

It was in this environment where I would first ask a question of Frank Tavani, that year a finalist for the Eddie Robinson award for the best head coach in I-AA football.

Someone asked me today, on a scale of one to ten, how surprised I was after I got wind of the fact that Frank Tavani was "not returning" to Lafayette, to use the specific language that FootballScoop.Com used when describing his job status.

I told that person my "surprise level" was a four.

My "surprise level" came more about the timing and the circumstances around the announcement, ten days after his press conference after the Lehigh game.

Not so much the fact that he was retiring.

Though I'm obviously not "Lafayette Football Nation," nor am I Paul Reinhard (The Morning Call) or Brad Wilson (Lehigh Valley Live), the two guys on the Lafayette beat that were there from spring training to the end of the 2016 season, Leopard news or Leopard goings-on is never very far from the people who work at Lehigh or who cover Lehigh.

And Lehigh people have eyes.  They see the message boards of unhappy Lafayette fans, those who were deeply critical of the Leopard footbal program, the writings of demoralized Lafayette loyalists.  They were clamoring for Frank Tavani to go.

(Photo Credit: Lehigh Valley Live)
Fan pressure usually isn't enough to have someone elect to retire, but there was more - whispers through the grapevine that it was more than just disgruntled fans.  And the noise had gotten so loud that it ended up in the post-game press conference of the 152nd meeting of The Rivalry.

"The vultures can circle, but there's no dead meat here -- and that includes me." Tavani said, answering a question from Brad Wilson. "That stuff that people put out there, I got news for them: they owe me a lot of money. All those people that are looking for that crap, maybe it'll happen, but tell them not to feel too bad because my bank -- it's not coming from my end. And everyone's asked me about my health; I've never been better. Oddly enough, as tough as it's been, I am feeling better than ever. ... This is a great school and a great league to be involved in. I'm comfortable in my own skin and how we run the program, how we treat these young men and how they graduate, how they handle themselves on and off the field. I'm going to coach here until someone says stop or I die."

Tavani delivered those lines with the emotion and gusto you might expect, which definitely tamped down my expectation level a little bit that he might be let go.  And in that postgame press conference, I didn't ask any questions, deferring the questioning to Paul Reinhard and Brad Wilson, the passionate keepers of the Lafayette flame.  Even by accident, I didn't want to ask a question that could be construed as a sort-of victory lap.

Oddly enough, I thought that the fact that he didn't announce his retirement before The Rivalry did make me think that he was probably going to stay around.

But that changed this week.

"I'm proud of the way we have conducted our program and of the young men who have dedicated themselves in the classroom as well as on the football field," Tavani said this week after his retirement announcement, in a touching piece from Paul Reinhard of The Morning Call.  The fire of the press conference ten days ago was gone, and finally, he has a chance to look back.

Announcing ones retirement before riding off into the sunset is not an uncommon occurrence in The Rivalry; in fact, the head coach Tavani replaced in 2000, Bill Russo, did just that in 1999, taking his 3-7 team and scaring the living daylights over the Mountain Hawks, who only barely eked out a 14-12 win over the Leopards.

(Though it was a loss for the Leopards that day, it was a justifiably proud moment for their program, who were desperately outgunned by QB Phil Stambaugh and head coach Kevin Higgins' squad.  Lafayette was deeply overmatched, but played their eyes out, and were one offensive possession away from coming away from that game.)

Frank Tavani was quite aware of Bill Russo's retirement game: he was an assistant at Lafayette at the time.  But that was not how Tavani chose to end his seventeen year head coaching career in Easton.  He chose, "I'm going to coach here until someone says stop or I die."  And either Frank had a change of heart ten days later, or someone close to him did tell him to stop, for on Wednesday, Lafayette announced his retirement.

As it was announced, I couldn't help but remember back to that weekend in 2004, where I was headed to the post-game press conference, still a Lehigh fan inside, dying a little, but ready to be a professional.

Lafayette had not only won that 2004 game fair and square, but they did so in convincing fashion, dominating both lines of scrimmage and using great read-option from QB Brad Maurer, who won the MVP trophy and notched more than 100 yards rushing.  Lafayette would be headed to their first-ever postseason NCAA Tournament in football, and Frank Tavani was the head coach that put all of those pieces together.  He deserved credit for that.

I don't remember what I was expecting in that press conference in 2004.  I don't even remember what I asked him - probably something about what they saw in Lehigh that day that they could exploit.

But what I got was a head coach that was bursting, at once thrilled for his team and staff, but also talked of Lehigh more in the terms of a defeated, worthy opponent.  For a moment, it was easy to put aside my pride, and see the joy he had brought to Lafayette on that day.  He didn't gloat, or call Pete Lembo or RB Eric Rath names.  He knew what to do, and say, when he got there.

That didn't mean that Tavani wouldn't sometimes get caught up in the grammar feuds of The Rivalry, pointedly calling it "the Lafayette/Lehigh Rivalry" instead of "the Lehigh/Lafayette Rivalry", never once slipping up.  Frank had this way of talking about The Rivalry that at once rose up the Lafayette side of the argument, gently needling the pro-Lehigh side, but never crossing that line of outright disrespect.

He never failed to show respect to the Rivalry and the Lehigh coaches on the other side.  Perhaps that's because Tavani, first as an assistant for Russo for many years and then as a head coach, knew better than most human beings about the meaning of The Rivalry and how important that is in a season.  When you've spent thirty years around The Rivalry, you probably have a lot of respect for it.

File Photo: Morning Call
As you might imagine, his passion ran deep in the Rivalry.  There was one year when coach Tavani got upset at Lehigh for celebrating on Lafayette's "L" in Easton, thinking that it was a moment of unnecessary disrespect against the Leopards.  He would always defend his program, and his players, and wouldn't be afraid to tell you about it.

During games, too, he had a reputation as being an, ahem, extremely animated coach.  No official seemed safe when he was there.  He would defend his team at almost costs, all the time.

He also had some choice words for the media, too, a group with whom Frank did not always get along.

"I should thank the media; they just can't stop helping me," he said after Lafayette's win over Lehigh in 2004.  "One of the articles on Saturday morning, we had copies on the tables for the kids at breakfast saying that we didn't have anybody besides RB Joe McCourt. Just keep throwing gas on that fire and then bring those birds into the Leopards' den. Five years ago people questioned that we could compete with these people and should we even be in the Patriot League, and all of those questions. For all of those naysayers out there, I hope you enjoyed it."

Frank never showed any loathing to me on the media trail, in all the Lafayette games (most of them Lehigh/Lafayette, of course) that I covered.

I'm sure I might have contributed a time or three to his narrative of "disrespected Lafayette," and maybe a printout or quote from Lehigh Football Nation ended up on the Lafayette bulletin board at one time.

But he never treated me badly, disrespected me, called me out personally, or barred me from a press conference.  Though I never talked to him about it, I like to think that I, like Frank, present my own side of The Rivalry argument, yet still show a common level of respect for the opponent in The Rivalry.  In that sense, I don't think Frank Tavani and I are that different.

As a head coach, in 2004, and at other times, Tavani seemed like a master motivator, playing the disrespect card for all it was worth.

In 2005, after QB Pat Davis' Hail Mary touchdown heave to RB Jonathan Hurt left an indelible mark on the psyches of a generation of Lehigh fans, he was cementing his reputation as a master motivator, especially where The Rivalry was involved.

"Erik Weihenmayer is a blind mountain climber that has made seven summits," Tavani shared in 2005, "including Mount Everest two years ago. When I heard about him, I though to myself that would be something to get the guys motivated. Weihenmayer is a friend of our Friends of Lafayette Football president, Jack Bourger. About mid-season this year, I was thinking about having him speak to our guys, thinking it would fit in great. We had a 19-minute film of his climb of Mount Everest, prefaced by some private comments from the head coach, and then Erik spoke to the team via speakerphone. He gave a very inspirational speech to our football team. We had shirts made, bearing the words, `Climb Higher.' It's just a tremendous story."

Every year, it seemed like Tavani had a new trick up his sleeve, a new slogan, a new T-shirt, a new pitch to his team to keep them focused on the goals of the season, one of which was always to beat Lehigh.  In 2004, it was unveiling the black alternate jerseys, done before it was popular to change them all of the time.

Part of being a head football coach is being a salesman for your school, and it seemed like Tavani was doing a really good job with it.  And for a long stretch, it worked.

His Leopard teams largely maintained their success, winning three consecutive Patriot League championships from 2004 to 2006.  And of course, the graduation rate of Frank's players speaks for itself as well.  Not only was Tavani winning football games, he was winning them in the right way, the Patriot League way, with kids that are graduating and for the most part staying out of trouble.

File Photo: The Morning Call
He also had some other highs, like the improbable Patriot League championship of 2012, and his guiding of the Leopards to their epic win over Lehigh in the 150th meeting of The Rivalry in Yankee Stadium, giving every Lafayette fan a smile and pride for as long as they will live (and, by extension, a constipated look from all Lehigh fans, who are still trying to block out that unpleasant four hours of our lives.)

But also, for whatever reason, Lafayette never seemed to advance much beyond that high of glorious Patriot League championship they earned in 2004.

In his whole Lafayette career, Tavani never could get Lafayette better than an eight-win season.

The Leopards made the playoffs, and put a mighty scare in Appalachian State, Delaware and UMass - but never could close the deal.

Even as Lafayette surged, Tavani still couldn't solve Princeton - he would lose an amazing eight straight to the Tigers, including a head-scratching 35-18 loss to them in 2004.  If the ultimate bar was duplicating or eclipsing Lehigh's highest successes, Lafayette ultimately would fall just short.  Lehigh would win the Patriot League, get past eight wins, and also go on the road and win some games against teams like Northern Iowa and Towson.   Lafayette came close, but couldn't get over that last hump.

And then the eight win seasons became six win seasons, and then four win seasons, and then the grumbling coming out of Easton got louder.

Then the last two years for the Leopards, a 1-10 season and a 2-9 season, seemed to ultimately be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Certainly the slow decline was not all Frank Tavani's fault.

"Tavani survived for very good reasons," Brad Wilson of Lehigh Valley Live accurately pointed out.  "He weathered a financial storm at Lafayette that trimmed his roster depth significantly. He graduated his players at rates that consistently put the Leopards at the top of NCAA ranks and saw many of his athletes recognized for their academic achievements. He ran a clean and well-respected program with players whose accomplishments stayed in the sports section of the newspaper, unlike many teams who are common presences in the police blotter."

But I openly wondered about Tavani's job security when he entered last year's Rivalry game at 1-9, opining whether the board of trustees would accept a 1-10 season and a rough loss to Lehigh, even with the win in the 150th the year before.

"At some point, winning matters," Lafayette athletic director Bruce McCutcheon somewhat ominously said about the situation.  Losing nine games last year, and seeing a not-sold-out stadium start to empty out after halftime of the Lehigh game, showed exactly how much.

In a way, I wish Frank Tavani had embraced the Bill Russo method of retiring.  That would not only have possibly made for a more entertaining game, but it also would have allowed media members - not just myself - to truly mull over Frank's service to The Rivalry over an extraordinary career.

I've been to nearly thirty years of Rivalry games, but Frank not only has me beat, he's also coached in exactly thirty of them.  At this years' Rivalry, it would have been nice to be able to celebrate him more, rather than focus on a mismatch on the field and empty seats.  Frank Tavani has a Rivalry legacy worth celebrating, and the way he left, we didn't get a chance to celebrate it in the way he deserved.

File Photo (Morning Call)
From the Lehigh side, Frank Tavani was a great Rivalry opponent, one that understood The Rivalry and rightfully caused us fits in some of the biggest games I've ever seen.  The disappointment of 2004, the Jonathan Hurt game in 2005, the "it's supposed to suck" game in 2013 - all with Frank Tavani as the bedeviler-in-chief, the one that caused the pain that allowed the highs, like this year's 9-2 Lehigh football season, to feel so great.

People forget in this game of college football that there are always two sides to every game - for every "agony of defeat" moment for Lehigh, there is an opposite "thrill of victory" for Lafayette.  In The Rivalry, we share this symbiotic relationship, and feel pain when we lose, and joy when we win, but that doesn't mean that the opposition doesn't also earn our respect, too.

For that reason, he will be missed by his Rivals.  It's not clear that whomever will replace Frank at Lafayette will be able to live, breathe, and understand the Rivalry the way Frank Tavani did.  Frank was an opponent worthy of respect, and for that I am very grateful.

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