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Lehigh Wrestling Gets Superstar Treatment at PPL Center. Lehigh Football Needs The Same At Murray Goodman.

"We knew it would be nice," Lehigh wrestling head coach Pat Santoro said. "But it was even better than we expected."

Pat was talking about the reception his Lehigh wrestling squad experienced at Allentown's PPL Center this weekend, when a sellout crowd over nearly 10,000 people came to watch No. 1 Penn State grapple with No. 5 Lehigh in a collegiate wrestling event.

It was, by all accounts, something special to behold. 

"I thought it was really cool and an exciting place to wrestle," said Penn State wrestler Nick Nevills. "These fans were really into it, a rowdy bunch. It's a lot more fun as an athlete to wrestle in an environment like this. I'd say it was one of the most exciting times I have had in my career."

The sense of spectacle at the PPL center, though, puts a spotlight on what more can be done at Lehigh itself to make their athletic contests into spectacles.  It requires money to be spent and energy to be expended.  But the result is the extra excitement that makes the student-athletes' careers.

Lehigh football is very fortunate that they get what amounts to a bowl game at the end of their regular season.

Their Rivalry with Lafayette, the most-played college football rivalry, is something special, and everyone who has ever attended the game can attest to that.

And throughout its history, "spectacle" is what has had the Rivalry thrive over the years.

In the early 1900s, "spectacle" meant smokers in a sold-out gymnasium the night before, with speeches and rallies, complete with basketball and wrestling exhibitions.  "Spectacle" meant Bethlehem Steel's brass band playing in the stands in the 1910s, followed by Lehigh and Lafayette forming their own student marching bands and playing during, and after the games.  And "spectacle", of course, has always involved fans storming the field after the games.

Spectacle in all the different Lehigh sports competitions is different, but this weekend provided a primer as to what it can be, and how special it can be.

"As the Penn State-Lehigh dual came down to the final two bouts," The Centre Daily Times reported, "Nittany Lions fans — with their team trailing by two points — tried to rally the crowd with shouts of “We Are!” That cheer was met with resounding “boos” from Mountain Hawks fans."

Smoke machines for the intros, a beautiful band around the main mat where Lehigh's logo peeked out, the PPL Center's video display in the middle of the venue, detailing the action - it was a big-time atmosphere that both Lehigh and Penn State athletes won't ever forget.

"We were smiling like nerds out there, because it was so cool," NCAA Champion and all-American at 125 lbs, Darian Cruz, said afterwards.  "That was the coolest thing I've been a part of since nationals.  And it's hard to top that.  We were kind of overwhelmed with it.  We couldn't stop smiling, and trying to act tough, because it's a wrestling match, but the elevated mat, the lights... Lehigh did it up for this, and it was so cool."

Pictures from the event were truly amazing, and everyone to a person I've heard from, Penn State or Lehigh, was deeply impressed by what Lehigh and the PPL center were able to do to make this into a spectacle.

What it also does, however, is showcase what needs to be done at Murray Goodman Stadium.

More than most, I think, I try to make Lehigh football games into spectacles in my own way.  I cover the games the best I can.  I go to almost all the home games, and I volunteer to go to many road games as well.  Online, I try to express the entirety of the show that Lehigh football puts forth on the field - whether it's a success or not.

In fact, I hope I make the game a spectacle.  The games are worth watching, and following.  Every week, Lehigh athletes do special things on the field at Murray Goodman Stadium.  It is worth your time to follow it and watch it.

But I can't express to all the fans in attendance a particularly great instant replay on a video board, or surround the field with a graphic bar, or broadcast light on the field to allow for a night game to be played.  As much as I'd like to deliver this type of spectacle for these fans, I cannot.

This weekend's dual at the PPL center reminds us exactly the power of spectacle in terms of collegiate athletics. 

A well-executed spectacle, even in a losing effort, will not only do all those things that Lehigh fans love in terms of their sports programs - i.e. help recruiting and field nationally-ranked teams - but most importantly, it gives the student-athletes something to treasure for the rest of their lives.  That is what is within the power of athletic departments everywhere - to give the kids a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In terms of football, Lehigh does have at least one spectacle every year - the season-ending bowl game against Lafayette.  Is that a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a player?  Absolutely.

But once inside the stadium, couldn't that spectacle be modernized to be at least somewhat on par as what we saw at the PPL center?

Remember the 150th meeting of the Rivalry at Yankee Stadium?  Remember the cheers that came up from the Lehigh sections when C.J. McCollum came up on their video board? Remember how great you felt when Lehigh came up in the LED "ribbon" around the stadium? 

Certainly Lehigh can't, and probably shouldn't, try to go that far. 

But small things could be added - like an outdoor LED video screen - that not only are not all that expensive to add, but also are a common sight in all of Lehigh's away games. 

Every one of Lehigh's away opponents this year, Monmouth, Wagner, Colgate, Fordham, and Bucknell, are able to afford modest outdoor LED screens to show things like replays and graphics to pump up the crowd.  And increasingly, these types of things are seen as an integral part of the gameday experience.

Maybe there was a time where a video board seemed gaudy or ostentatious, but not anymore.  In fact, many high schools have found the money from donors to add a modest LED video board.

There are multiple ways to pay for a LED video board - a donation to the athletic department from a wealthy donor.  Or another possibility is to play a game against an FBS team for a one-time guarantee of six figures to pay for the one-time installation of the board.  This is how other schools do it.

But the key thing to remember here is how it would do two things - it would give people more reason to head out to Murray Goodman to take in the gameday experience, and it would also add a lot to the experience of the "bowl game" atmosphere that is present when Lafayette comes to town.

It could also be something that makes another unforgettable event for every graduate of Lehigh even more special - graduation.

It also would, as I've argued before, make it better for Bethelehem Steel FC, the minor-league soccer team that is also renting the field, as well.  I've even argued that maybe both sides could split the cost of something like this, to mutual benefit. 

I love the Lehigh football game experience as much as anyone.  I love listening to the Marching 97.  I love watching the games.  And whether there's an LED video board there or not, I'll still be there, watching and covering (and commenting) on the games as they happen.

But I can't help feeling, after seeing the great spectacle that was Lehigh wrestling at the PPL center that similar types of "spectacle" was missing around home Lehigh football games.  There needs to be something extra that bring the experience into the 21st century, and it's going to require more than just one guy with a Twitter account. 

It's going to require something like an LED Video Board, and the added gameday experience it brings, and the sooner folks realize that, the better.  Of course, maybe they could just look at the pictures from the PPL Center this weekend to see how awesome Lehigh football's game experience could be.


Anonymous said…
I know you don't write much, if any on Lehigh basketball, but something needs to be done about the pathetic excuse Stabler Arena is. It's outdated, off campus and WAAAAYYYYY too big for the team.

Traveling to a place like Sojka at Bucknell last year for the PL Champ game makes you realize what a basketball arena for a school like Lehigh should be.

I can't imagine how many recruits Brett Reed has loses over nothing over than game atmosphere.
Anonymous said…
Few typos there...last sentence should read...I can't imagine how many recruits Brett Reed has lost over nothing other than game atmosphere.
Douglas said…
I thought they had added a video board at Stabler but the off campus location compared to our much smaller peer colleges.. The size and location certainly also hurt wrestling as well which is why they moved almost all of their meets back to Grace. Lights and Video are a big part of modern stadiums today.. The excuses about parking etc seem a little strange when the can have night events at Stabler in the same parking areas.. They could rent some lights for the maybe 2 events a year.
Anonymous said…
Stabler should be imploded. Sucks the life out of any sport. Suitable for flea markets but that's about it.
Anonymous said…
Stabler, and to a degree, Goodman, were built during an unfortunate era filled with unfortunate short sighted visionaries. The trend in pro sports everywhere- move downtown, in college sports- the on campus excitement. The Saucon Valley is a beautiful place, but its how each person defines game-day experience. Chuck's essay about Taylor Stadium should get everyone a little bit frustrated in that there really is not a whole lot- besides a nice LED board- that can be done for a setting such as Goodman, which is pastoral and laidback by its very setting- with stands built far from the field, and in the middle of a giant field. Its gorgeous in the late 4th quarter of a warm, sunny October day, but just not conducive to making the place "ROCK" (except during close Lafayette games). It sure would be interesting to imagine a modern LU football stadium in something like the old Taylor footprint..and a new and improved Grace Hall for sports like basketball.. We can only wonder what would have been- if Taylor could have held out for another 10 years or so, I wonder if the planners of the late 90s would have prioritized another on-campus football facility..
LUHawker said…
Good article LFN, but this has been a consistent topic for some years now and Sterrett and Co. haven't done anything about it. I thought I read some post that stated that donors have lined up for a video board and lights, but Lehigh seems to be finding ways to say "no".

With respect to the comments regarding Goodman's location, I can only say that when tailgating was more open and games started at reasonable times (i.e. 1pm), Goodman was perfect. I never had the chance to attend a game on campus at Taylor, but I don't think that is the issue at all. For a once every 2 week event, Goodman's setting is just fine. I know that I'd rather tailgate at Goodman than most other on-campus venues where space is highly confined.

The experience has become stale. Part of that is the scheduling, too. Attendance has dropped sharply and Lehigh seems unwilling to address the issue.
Anonymous said…
LUHawker, the location is definitely not an issue for older alumni or local fans, but its an issue for STUDENTS, and its an issue for upping the stadium game experience. The on-campus site would make a massive difference for the student body. For any alumni who has tried to park or tailgate at Goodman vs. Taylor, the preference is obviously the beautiful setting of the Saucon Valley.
LUHawker said…

Goodman’s location wasn’t a problem for students in the 90’s, are today’s students having a hard time finding it on Google maps? 🧐
Anonymous said…
There are vastly more options today for college kids to occupy themselves.
Goodman is all we have in our lifetime, but you would get a better, louder turnout with an on-campus location. The students aren't analyzing this stuff in great detail, they just want a fun experience with their fellow students, with minimal transportation hassles. All about maximizing their time.

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