America’s Oldest Football Rivalry

Featured Article, Outdoors, Seasonal, Sports, Traditions
on September 9, 2012
Brian Reed The Lehigh Mountain Hawks and Lafayette Leopards face off at the scrimmage line.

Sleepy-eyed students do their best to comprehend professor Bill Best’s 8 a.m. lecture when, unannounced, 30 musicians blowing horns, beating drums and singing school fight songs barge into his Introduction to Engineering class at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

“I hope you guys are louder tomorrow,” Best tells the pep band, rallying students for last November’s football game between the Lehigh Mountain Hawks and the Lafayette Leopards of nearby Easton, Pa.

The archrivals have clashed 147 times since 1884 and the storied series, known as The Rivalry, is the most-played and longest uninterrupted in American college football history.

“It’s a great, great rivalry,” says former Lafayette quarterback Frank Downing, 85, who led the Leopards to a 21–12 comeback victory over Lehigh in 1949.

Gridiron tradition
When Lafayette and Lehigh first faced off, football was an emerging American sport derived from the English game of rugby. The earliest intercollegiate matches pitted teams in the Northeast, including Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Rutgers and Yale. Players sported hats or scarves rather than helmets, wore little or no protective gear, and kicked or carried a melon-shaped leather ball through wooden goal posts.

Because Lafayette had a two-year head start playing the rough-and-tumble game, the Leopards trounced the Mountain Hawks 50-0 in their inaugural meeting on Oct. 25, 1884, and again 34-4 three weeks later. Since then, Lafayette and Lehigh have grappled on the gridiron at least once each year, with the exception of 1896 when a player eligibility dispute interrupted the series.

Since the Lafayette-Lehigh series began, the Leopards and Mountain Hawks have played more games than any other two college teams, including the nation’s oldest football foes, Princeton-Yale and Harvard-Yale, which first met in 1873 and 1875 and have played 134 and 128 games, respectively.

From the beginning, winning the Lafayette-Lehigh game has been a point of pride that evolved into an enduring rivalry between the two private colleges in the Lehigh Valley.

“The Lehigh-Lafayette rivalry is rooted in the nature of the institutions, which are so similar,” says Joe Sterrett, 58, Lehigh’s dean of athletics and the Mountain Hawks’ star quarterback in 1975. “On top of that, there’s the added element that we’re 17 miles apart.”

Pre-game pep
Though competition between the Patriot League athletic conference members extends into academics and other sports, their football rivalry culminates before—and during—the annual gridiron game.

In the past, Lafayette and Lehigh students rallied around towering bonfires the night before the game, a practice dating to 1888, and pulled pranks such as painting campus statues in the other school’s colors.

“We went over and painted their leopard brown,” says John Deschenes, 59, a 1975 Lehigh graduate, recalling a memory of freshman mischief. “And we got caught. The Lafayette campus cops busted us.”

Today, pre-game shenanigans have been replaced by an array of Spirit Week activities designed to energize students and alumni before the opening kickoff.

On the Lehigh campus, students participate in bed races, run the Turkey Trot mini-marathon, and attend Laf-A-Palooza, a combination pep rally and concert. To rouse school spirit—and lethargic students—members of Lehigh’s Marching 97 band storm into classrooms to play and sing fight songs.

“Words only speak so much as to what the emotions are like during the week as a whole,” says Ryan Spadola, 21, Lehigh’s senior wide receiver from Howell, N.J. “You just have to live it to really understand it.”

At Lafayette, students can take a whack with a sledgehammer at the “Lehigh Car,” a derelict auto, for a dollar donation to charity. Meanwhile, during a pre-game practice at Fisher Stadium, Coach Frank Tavani’s Leopards continue a 40-year-old ritual called the Last Hit, a farewell to departing players, who each take a final “hit” on a blocking dummy.

“That ceremony’s pretty special,” says Tavani, 59. “It’s just the team out on the field, in a tribute to our seniors.”

Graduates of both schools also compete in the Lehigh-Lafayette Giving Challenge, an annual fund drive for student financial aid and athletics programs.

Friendly foes
Before last November’s game, avid fans and loyal alumni of both schools gathered in the parking lots outside Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium to enjoy food, fun and friendly verbal jousting.

“You’re wearing the wrong colored jersey,” shouts a Lafayette fan sporting a maroon sweatshirt to a tailgater decked out in Lehigh brown.

“Who’s won the last three games?” quips the Lehigh supporter.

As kickoff approaches, more than 16,000 spectators stream into the stadium until the bleachers are bathed in a sea of brown and maroon. Amid the roar of the crowd, both teams burst onto the field for pregame warm-ups, led by the schools’ mascots and cheerleaders.

In the Lehigh student section, Liz Zeffiro, 21, manager of the Marching 97 band, feels the magnitude of the moment. “This is the 147th time these two teams have played,” says Zeffiro, 21, a senior from Pittsburgh. “It’s really such a cool thing to be a part of.”

During the game, the  Leopards and Mountain Hawks foul and fumble, scuffle and score just as they’ve done throughout the celebrated series, but as the final whistle sounds, the scoreboard reveals Lehigh’s rout of Lafayette.

Asked how long it would take to get over the 37-13 loss, Jeff Weisel, 50, a Lafayette fan from Easton, shook his head, paused and smiled: “Oh, by the time we have turkey on Thanksgiving.”

Though Lehigh has won the last four games against the Leopards, Lafayette leads the series 76-66, with five ties.

Over the last 128 years, The Rivalry has morphed into a friendly feud between longtime foes. Some fans cherish the games regardless of which team triumphs.

“They’re all memorable,” says Bill Abbott, 81, of Green Brook, N.J., a 1953 Lehigh graduate. “Even when Lafayette wins, there’s something about the games that makes them special.”