I am an outlier.
I'm a fan of a 1-6 college football team, and I'm headed out to Bucknell next weekend, rain or shine, to watch two Patriot League squads with losing records face off against one another.
I realize somewhere in my head that normal people don't do this type of thing.
I have no kid playing for Lehigh or Bucknell. I'm not paid by either school. I am not paid to watch the game. But I'll still go. Like I've done so many times before, I'll still preview and watch the game.
And I might get excited, or mad, or want to rip my hair out. The outcome might cause a deep, gnawing pain deep in my gut or an overwhelming sense of cathartic relief. But I'll still do it.
Why? It's a question I've asked myself many times over the years.
Certainly a game like this weekend against Georgetown, a game were I look at my ripped-out hair, the deep, knowing pain deep in my gut, and the completely irrational anger I feel, definitely does make me pause. Why?
Wouldn't the more logical, rational reaction to seeing your team go 1-6 to abandon ship - to hop on a bandwagon of a more successful team? Possibly.
But I am simply not built that way.
I'm not the type of guy that leaves a game early, or abandons my team at the first sign of trouble. I am no front-runner. If anything, my writing career is living proof: after all, I went from chronicling Lehigh Patriot League Championships and FCS Playoff victories to losing seasons and dwindling national relevance. I'm still here. I still care. If anyone thought that I would stop doing this because times got tough, you were wrong.
It is so very easy to be a fan during the good times, casually reading the newspaper or checking the internet every week and seeing your college pound Rivals or play the role of plucky underdog upsetting the higher rated team.
But my fate lately has been to be a fan of a college football program that has gone from league championships and FCS Playoff victories to a very rough cycle of rebuilding that has involved watching, in person and at home, a lot of losses.
At some level, though, you have to believe that the pain is worth it, and that it will not last forever. All genuine fans can take some level of suffering. But only if that suffering leads to greatness later.
After after this weekend's loss to Georgetown, the crushing part is that it feels like greatness for Lehigh seems just that much farther away, making it feel like the program is stuck in the same hamster wheel it's been since 2015.
This past Saturday, Lehigh lost to Georgetown 17-7 at Murray Goodman Stadium. I've been to Goodman too many times to count, seeing iconic wins over Lafayette, gut-wrenching losses to Lafayette, FCS Playoff wins, an FCS Playoff defeat, and a lot of everything in between.
Losing at him is not an unusual occurrence for the Mountain Hawks lately, as Lehigh has only won three times at home since the 2020 football season.
What was unusual was that Georgetown that was the team that beat them.
Since entering the league in 2001, Lehigh had dominated Georgetown. In 2017, Lehigh hadn't lost to Georgetown once, anywhere.
So when Georgetown finally beat Lehigh for the first time in 2018 at home, it was viewed as a disaster.
Not so much from the actual outcome - looking back at the tape, Lehigh was actually in a tailspin at the time, and Georgetown was "favored" to win, the balloon of the season having been punctured well before that game.
It was more about what the loss represented.
It's not like Georgetown has been horrible for 20 years. They have had some good teams and have come close to winning the Championship before.
One time in 2011 they came to Murray Goodman with the Patriot League title on the line, a game that was close throughout and could absolutely had gone the other way - it was 20-12 midway through the 3rd quarter - but Lehigh, behind QB Chris Lum and WR Ryan Spadola, prevailed. I know. I was there.
That 2011 game kind of sums up how the rivalry with Georgetown had gone overall during those "golden years".
The Hoyas had beaten every Patriot League team at least once through the ebbs and flows of the years, and has had some teams that have risen to compete for the title from time to time, but it seemed like Georgetown's best teams always seemed to run up against juggernauts like the 2011 Lehigh squad, that famously went 10-1 during the regular season and upset Towson on the road in the FCS Playoffs in one of the best, most satisfying non-Lafayette games in school history. (Lum was a Walter Payton Award finalist that year and was robbed of the award by Bo Levi Mitchell. Never forget.)
It's not right and it's not OK, but for a very long time games against Georgetown always were seen inside and outside the program a line in the sand, one that only became more pronounced the longer the streak got. "Even though we went 3-8 and lost to Lafayette in Yankee Stadium," I imagine other Lehigh fans said at the time, "at least we're not Georgetown."
So in 2018, after an excruciating, ugly 22-16 loss to Georgetown, I wrote a piece "So this is what rock bottom feels like."
"Here we are, in a brand new world where Lehigh can lose six straight and can lose to Georgetown," I wrote. "We are in a world where Georgetown and Lehigh are coaching and talent equals, tied at 9 after regulation and separated only by the will to win in double overtime. Simply put, Georgetown wanted it more. With zero disrespect meant to Georgetown, who 100% deserved their win over Lehigh, the Mountain Hawk program is right now at rock bottom."
I can't lie - there was so much in that 2018 loss I saw this past weekend, too.
It is now 2023. I had to honestly pause and think: Have we progressed from that "rock bottom" day in 2018?
Both games saw 60 minutes of football with Lehigh's offense scoring single-digit points: 9 (2018, three field goals) and 7 (2023).
Both games saw Lehigh with less than three trips to the "red zone": 2 (2018, one ending in a field goal and the other a touchdown in overtime) and 1 (2023, ending in a touchdown).
Both games saw Georgetown out-gain Lehigh and gain more than 350 total offensive yards against the Mountain Hawks: 363 (2018, vs. 358 for Lehigh) and 457 (2023, vs. 337 for Lehigh).
Both games were sloppy: both games had combined 11 penalties, with 3 of them becoming 1st downs from the other team.
In both games Lehigh lost the turnover battle: Lehigh -2, Georgetown +2.
There are more similarities too, ones off the stat sheet - what I'll call the "Chuck pulling his hair out" stat.
Watching both games was a pull-my-hair-out experience in the sense that it didn't seem to take much more in the form of execution or coaching to change it from a L to a W. As much credit Georgetown should receive and deserve from this win - Hoya QB Tyler Knoop had a tremendous, efficient passing day, getting first down after first down, at one time completing 16 of 16 pass attempts and holding onto the ball for more than 40 minutes - it's very hard to not also see very huge errors on the Lehigh side, like 12 men on the field during a Georgetown punt, that were hair loss leaders.
As the game went on, I was wondering why Lehigh didn't try to establish the run more - and after the game, I was still wondering. Lehigh averaged 5 yards per carry running the ball. Why only run it 25 times, especially when you're only down 10-7 and need to give your defense a break?
The 2018 game was little different. QB Brad Mayes kept throwing the ball even when it was no longer working, going 16 for 40 with 2 interceptions, including the crusher in double-overtime. The only reason the game was tied at 9 at regulation was because Lehigh scored a touchdown, tried to kick the extra point, and it was returned for two points the other way by Georgetown.
In both games you can point to one or two plays like that which were such huge differences. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Georgetown won both games because the staff and players were more mentally prepared, had the right gameplan to win, and were tough enough to force the issue late to seal the win.
Is this a hard thing to communicate? Damn straight it is.
The 2018 season and the unfolding 2023 season are not identical. Few remember that the 2018 team was receiving poll votes when they started the year, coming off an improbable 5-6 Patriot League championship year and seen as the preseason favorite to win. The preseason expectations of that team were extremely high, and each loss that year felt inexplicable.
2023, on the other hand, was a rebuilding year from the get-go, and the rest of the Patriot league knew it, picking the Mountain Hawks to finish fifth in the preseason. Head coach Kevin Cahill figured out pretty quickly that his main task is to rebuild the culture here at Lehigh and to build up the team, and that it wasn't going to be an instant fix.
And I understand that there have been a lot of additional challenges this season in particular in terms of continuity and injury. For example, the Mountain Hawks lost starting center and team captain George Padezanin the first week of the year and have been shuffling the offensive line every week due to injury ever since.
Yet that can't be an excuse, either. You still have to be mentally tough and find ways to succeed against the opponent, As coach Cahill himself might say, "the opponent doesn't care about your excuses".
Culture building and program building is hard. It can be a long process (just ask any Georgetown fan) and certainly coach Cahill and the staff deserve some leeway for them to build and present their vision of Lehigh football, and one game doesn't change that.
But there's "rebuilding" and rebuilding, and while it was certainly understandable to see the team struggle against Villanova and a team with a lot of injuries struggle against Monmouth, Lehigh Nation (and I think a lot of other people) expect to see enough improvement over the course of five games in order to beat Georgetown, or at least make it feel like a close game. Fair or unfair, that's a program bar that was set, and now Georgetown has broken the seal.
And I think more than anything that's what the crushing reality was that came along with the 17-7 loss - that Lehigh feels even further away than fans thought. We thought that the 2023 team was different enough, that culture was changing and outcomes were improving, but what was presented last Saturday was the same product Lehigh Nation has been seeing since at least 2018, ending in something that's been seen far too often this decade at Murray Goodman Stadium - a depressing loss.
Maybe it was a one-week regression, and maybe it wasn't, but the fact is the 2018 and 2023 losses were scarily similar. It would be reporting malpractice to not say so.
I make zero apologies for having high expectations for the Lehigh football program. I don't expect Patriot League Championships every year, but I expect the team to be put in a position to win games and the players to improve every week and to beat Lafayette every year.
I've also seen the roots of future championships start at the end of losing campaigns the prior year, where young teams start to "get it" and then the remaining athletes take those building blocks and become contenders in future years.
Frankly, I still don't know what this 2023 team will end up being. The only thing for sure is that I'll be there next week, starting the process of discovering what exactly that is. Because for better or for worse, I'm the type of fan that is waiting for the hamster wheel to break, and I want to be there when it happens.