It’s been a rough stretch to be a Lehigh football fan. Trust me; I’m a subject matter expert.
When I was an undergrad at Lehigh University, the football team spent time in the I-AA Top 25 as a member of the Patriot League.
And many times over the course of Lehigh fandom, the Mountain Hawks earned the right to be voted into the Top 25.
But for a variety of reasons lately, Lehigh has fallen off the national map.
The last time Lehigh had any sort of presence in the national FCS Top 25 rankings was in 2017, when they started the season in the Top 25 and quickly exited. They limped through non-conference play and rallied just in time to win the Patriot League Championship with a 5-6 record, making the FCS Playoffs, but getting dispatched in short order by Stony Brook, 59-29.
Since then, there have been no repeat trips to the FCS Playoffs or Patriot League championships for Lehigh – or even an appearance in the lower reaches of the FCS Top 25. Holy Cross took over the league, emerging as a dominant force in league play, winning a stunning four straight conference championships and FCS playoff bids. The Mountain Hawks, meanwhile, became an under .500 team.
My son now is a student at Lehigh, following in my footsteps.
And it got me thinking: what would I want for him to experience as a student as an official member of Lehigh Nation?
As the biggest Lehigh fan you know, what would I want my son to experience over the next four years? I developed a list of “fan asks” to say exactly what I think would be an excellent way for my son, and indeed anyone in and around the Lehigh football program, to experience.
I don’t think my “fan asks” are inaccessible goals. Many other FCS schools in recent past have been able to achieve them. With some investment in time and energy, and maybe some positive bounces of the football, all them them could be achievable in the next four years.
A Night Game at Murray Goodman Stadium
Lehigh is a world-class university, with a world-renowned engineering department, a distinguished business school, a tremendous arts and sciences department, a great college of Education, and has very recently established a state-of-the-art College of Health.
What they haven’t been able to do, however, is host a night game at Murray Goodman Stadium.
I’d like to just simply say: it’s time.
Bucknell has done it – hosted a game past 3:30 in the afternoon. Delaware has done it. Villanova has done it. Georgetown has done it. Fordham has done it. Many, many high schools have done it. Most, and in fact almost all FCS teams have done it. All the Ivies have done it. Even Lafayette has done it.
But Lehigh has not. It’s time to change that.
Look, I understand how wonderful Murray Goodman Stadium is on a beautiful brisk October afternoon. Daytime Lehigh football games have become as much of a tradition at Lehigh, as the Marching 97 and morning cocktails* I mean tailgates, and they are great – even if it’s because Murray Goodman Stadium does not have permanent lights.
And though late October and early November football games at noon are charming and no better place to be, I think everyone can agree they’re a whole lot less charming in noon, 100 degree heat on Labor Day. Don’t get me wrong; I’m going. But I don’t think most Lehigh fans necessarily share my opinion in this area.
Why not at least try an early September game with temporary lighting around the stadium and lighting some designated parking areas? It could be a 6pm kickoff – if there’s a concern about lighting up walkways or parking areas over the grass fields adjacent to the stadium, perhaps even 5pm – and the game has a fighting chance to be over before the sun completely sets. Adding to the fan experience, it would allow for an extended tailgate that doesn’t require coffee and breakfast foods.
It also would inject some real excitement to the home opener – the novelty of the first night game at Murray Goodman Stadium, at a comfortable viewing temperature. How isn’t that a better player and fan experience than a day game at noon in 100 degree heat?
A Home-And-Home With An HBCU – With The Bands
I’ve been a fan of FCS football for a long time, and some of my best memories of non-Lehigh games involved trips to HBCU’s. I’ve attended the Urban League Classic at the old Meadowlands, and games at Howard and Bethune-Cookman, and the band displays at those games were incredible.
I’d love for Lehigh to organize a home-and-home with an HBCU, with it codified in the contract that both bands were required to make the trip.
I’ve seen the Marching 97 play for years, and I’ve seen up close how great an experience it is for all during a game where both schools bring their bands. And I’m dying to see a top-notch HBCU band perform at Lehigh, and I’d be equally as excited to make a trip to an HBCU to see Lehigh’s band play there as well.
There are many possibilities for opponents that are only bound by creativity and budget. Louisiana-based Grambling and Southern would be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but they would be expensive. But scheduling Howard, Morgan State or Delaware State would involve buses, not charter flights.
Other intriguing possibilities for an HBCU visitor for a home-and-home might be a bit further afield. Hampton, now a member of the CAA, is an HBCU with a tremendous band, the Marching Force. Norfolk State, home of the Spartan Legion, is another – and also home of the other 15 seed to upset a 2 seed on the same day Lehigh beat Duke in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (Maybe the bands could get together at halftime to play “One Shining Moment”.)
But the most intriguing possibility to me is another HBCU that has recently made a home in the CAA – North Carolina A&T. Their Blue and Gold Marching Machine is headed to perform at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena this upcoming New Year’s Day, and just imagine this sort of display at Murray Goodman on a football Saturday. Who couldn’t get behind this?
It’s easy to see a possible collaboration with an HBCU marching band, Lehigh’s music department, and the athletic department. Imagine an HBCU marching band playing the afternoon and an associated concert in Zoellner in the evening – a terrific campus weekend.
A Game Against An FBS School
Holy Cross has done it more recently. Colgate has done it more recently. Delaware has done it more recently. Bucknell has done it more recently. Fordham has done it more recently. Even Lafayette has done it more recently.
But ever since Lehigh traveled to Annapolis in 2018, Lehigh hasn’t played an FBS opponent. That’s in stark contrast to the rest of the Patriot League with the exception of Georgetown, and it’s in contrast to most of the schools of FCS.
I’m not thinking it’s a requirement for Lehigh to play FBS schools every year, nor should they just simply choose any FBS school for the heck of it. But certainly sometime in the next four years, Lehigh football players deserve the ability to compete at least once against FBS competition, preferably (to me) against a similar high-academic school.
Part of being a Lehigh football player is to test how far you can go as an athlete, how far you can take your ability, and the occasional FBS game can be that test. There’s nothing wrong with this. In 2018, Lehigh had that chance to test themselves against Navy, and anyone who saw or watched that game had to have seen how much of a positive experience it was for the athletes – even in defeat.
I think every Lehigh football player deserves that type of experience at least once during their playing careers. As a fan, I don’t need multiple FBS games every year, but I don’t think once every couple of years is too much to ask.
And if it’s something fans should want to experience in person, too. Everyone who was at the 2018 game against Navy I think would agree.
Does anyone remember that Delaware and Lehigh used to have a little-r rivalry? I do. (It has a not-very-active Wikipedia page, in fact.)
One of my most treasured fan memories was traveling down to Delaware Stadium in 1999, tailgating on the grass fields outside of Delaware Stadium and watching Lehigh upset Tubby Raymond’s team 42-35, a game which almost certainly eliminated Delaware from postseason consideration that season and put Lehigh in the I-AA playoff field that season.
Every Lehigh player who played in that game, I’m certain, remembers that game and smiles. Even as a fan it was a treasured memory to hear the stunned silence of the crowd that afternoon.
Since then, regular games against Delaware have been hard to come by, the more recent matchups aided by pairings in the FCS Playoffs. That shouldn’t have to be the case.
Lehigh should put Delaware back on the schedule, some how, some way, in the next four years. It doesn’t need to be a regular thing – though that would be an excellent idea. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a straight home-and-home – though I’m sure those games would be circled on the calendar for both Delaware and Lehigh fans of a certain age.
But even just one game, maybe even a one-off, would be a great small-r rivalry experience for fans and players alike.
i think people tend to forget that college football, at its heart, is local. Fans want accessible away games where they can make a day trip and sleep in their own beds against local rivals. Lehigh plays local rival Villanova a lot, and those games are great – I circle them on the calendar every year. But it would be equally as valuable to play the occasional game against another regional rival, too.
Win A Patriot League Championship And Practice Football on Thanksgiving
It also almost goes without saying that I’d like my son to witness something that used to be a regular occurrence at Lehigh – winning Patriot League Championships and playing (or perhaps even hosting) FCS Playoff games.
Former Fordham head football coach Tom Masella once said their team goal was to practice on Thanksgiving, because that would mean that they qualified for the FCS playoffs and (likely) won the Patriot League Championship. I’ve always loved that as a team goal, and I think Lehigh should adopt it for the next four years.
There is something special at the FCS level about getting a level of national recognition. In the Patriot League, it is something that is completely earned, which isn’t something you can always say about teams in other conferences. While the 6th placed team in the Missouri Valley or 5th placed team in the CAA seem to get automatic Top 25 votes. the top Patriot League teams seem to have to earn every vote by beating FBS schools, CAA schools, or preferably both. (It’s arguably taken four straight years of success – including two FBS upsets! – for Holy Cross to get some measure of national respect.)
Lehigh is currently in a position where they have to earn the right again to get that level of national respect, by first getting a winning record, then dethroning Holy Cross, and then winning the Patriot League. It’s not going to be easy, but that is the task at hand – a Patriot League Championship in the next four years.
Although someone like me will be going to the games rain or shine, losing streak or winning streak, 100 degree heat or freezing temperatures, there are many, many fans who are waiting for the five game winning streak -if and when it happens – to hop aboard the train. And when they hop on the train, and only then, does Murray Goodman becomes a place where opposing teams do not want to play.
And that’s what I want for all the Lehigh fans over the next four years.
If four years from now we can look back and see all of these goals met – that will be an unforgettable undergraduate, alumni and fan experience for everyone.
That’s my dream journal.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
Reach him at: this email or click below: