I've written a lot about Lehigh/Lafayette history so much over the years. I've written a book about the early Rivalry between Lehigh and Lafayette, and I've blogged and recapped many Le/Laf games over the course of my life. Lehigh and Lafayette have met on the football field over 150 times, and each meeting is its own story. I know many of the stories well.
I've found during "Rivalry Week" for Lehigh and Lafayette that with the sheer volume of games, it's possible to find prior meetings that seem to match similar, but not exact, "vibes". There are narratives of titles on the line, teams with losing records upsetting teams with winning records... pretty much everything under the sun.
This week, 2-8 Lehigh will face off against 8-2 Lafayette. If the Leopards win, they win no worse than a co-championship with Holy Cross, win the Patriot League autobid to the FCS Playoffs, and - probably the best part of all - they get to celebrate a victory on Lehigh's home field, something Lehigh football hasn't been able to enjoy since November 12th, 2022.
Over and over I saw people bring up the year 1968 as a year in Lehigh football history that could, Lehigh fans hope, provide a blueprint, or at least a vibe, to provide hope going into this Saturday and into the offseason. The 1970s were a banner decade for Lehigh in many ways, including a Division II championship and multiple Lambert Cups. But it was that win over Lafayette in 1968, a disappointing two-win team beating an seven-win team expected for great things, that the alumni seem to all agree got the whole thing going.
The year 1968 today is commonly seen through the lens of history as one of chaos.
Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn't run for a second term, in a way making the country seem somewhat leaderless. The Vietnam War, which had escalated through the late 50s and 60s, had the Tet Offensive, a bloody stalemate that even had Walter Cronkite concluding there was no way to win in that Southeast Asian country. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had the country at a boiling point of race and class, the turmoil of the streets and the South broadcast in people's living rooms every night.
And even at all-male Lehigh, with a Board of Trustees filled with Bethlehem Steel executives that hated any sort of change whatsoever, there were signs that some winds of change were coming.
"We find ourselves in Bethlehem, PA at a supposedly fine American university," student editorialist Bob Weintraub wrote in the first issue of The Brown and White in the fall of 1968. "Lehigh is a very traditional institution in a society of institutions which serve to perpetuate the values of the day. The majority of students here are establishment-bred types. They are accustomed to the comforts of suburban living and will admit that their environment had a great shaping influence on their thinking."
He continued, "The Lehigh success story, however, has always retained its materialistic point of view and does not represent new thinking. It has not adjusted to the changing times. The all-too prevalent singular aim of the student here is the acquisition of profitable employment and subsequent flight to comfortable suburbia."
In many ways this reflected the same ossified thinking as Bethlehem Steel, who was an industrial giant in the early 20th Century but even by the late 1960s was starting to get shoved aside by more innovative steel companies that innovated where Bethlehem Steel would not. As Mr. Weintraub put it, "it did not adjust to the changing times."
Throughout the pages of The Brown and White and The Lafayette in 1968 football didn't occupy the front page headlines that they did in years past. Most of that was because the editorial staffs in 1968 was much more animated by issues of racial injustice, environmental issues, and pushing to make both Lafayette and Lehigh co-ed, but also because the place of football in daily life was changing, too. To more people, football was your Dad's sport, not yours, even though Nixon had a huge lead in the polls and football was unabashedly Nixon's sport.
But football remained wildly popular with both parents and alumni at both schools. The Lehigh/Lafayette Rivalry was a cherished institution, though patience with Lehigh head coach Fred Dunlap had worn pretty thin after a bleak beginning to his head coaching career.
Fred Dunlap took over a fairly moribund Lehigh program in 1965 who had most recently tied Lafayette 6-6 in Mike Cooley's final game, which happened to be the 100th meeting between the two Rivals. "A real stinker," one of the attendees once told me as 1-7-0 Lehigh and 0-7-1 Lafayette both managed to score touchdowns, set up by turnovers and miscues from the other team, but both missed extra points.
The historic nature of the game, however, meant that national television and media outlets, including The New York Times, had put its shine on The Rivalry. Interviews, articles and TV hyped up the contest, making it of national interest, despite the "stinker" of a game.
But signs of the turbulent times of the 1960s also were lurking around, too. "The 1964 game was pretty quiet," Sports Illustrated wrote about the run-up to game and its legendary excesses. "Lehigh's flagpole was painted a Lafayette maroon and the Lafayette Leopard statue was painted a Lehigh brown, but not much else of interest happened."
With the entrance of Fred Dunlap, the losing didn't stop in his first season in 1965. "It's fair to say that Lehigh football in 1965 was a real rebuilding project," Fred Dunlap's son shared in his book "The Dunlap Rules" with a gift for understatement. "But Dad was optimistic that he could revive it and return it to the top Division II program it had been in the 1950s."
That was borne out that year by Lehigh's 0-8-0 season going into Dunlap's first Rivalry game, where the "Packers" beat Lafayette 20-14.
In 1966 Lehigh would be winless again going into The Rivalry at 0-8-0, but this time Lafayette would come out on top by a 16-0 score, ensuring Lafayette head coach Kenneth Bunn would end his time in Easton with a winning record. Emblematic of the tough times both Lafayette and Lehigh were in at that time, Bunn retired with a 7-28-2 record overall.
By the end of the 1967 season, after dismal 1-8-0 1967 campaign ending in a 6-0 loss to Lafayette, Dunlap's career head coaching record stood at - are you ready for this? - 2-25-0. Think about this a second - exactly two wins, one against their Rivals, Lafayette, that was almost blown after giving up two late touchdowns, and the other against Ithaca College (NY), an overmatched opponent at that time. Currently, the Bombers compete at the Division III level.
In 1966, Lehigh embarassingly lost to Drexel 12-9 in a game deeply affected by weather and a game where the "Packers" blew three different chances to grab the victory. Drexel, Lehigh's home opener, was scheduled for the expressed purpose of being a winnable game for Lehigh, and they couldn't manage it that season. That loss in particular had to hurt.
Going into 1968, Dunlap's contract was up at the end of the season, but according to his son, his father didn't think he would make it to the end of his contract after the loss to Lafayette in 1967. He thought he was going to be fired after the season.
"Dad and [Lehigh President] Dr.[Willard Deming] Lewis discussed the season," he wrote, "and how Dad thought the program was progressing. Dr. Lewis acknowledged that Athletic Director [Bill] Leckonby wanted to fire Dad. This explained why the meeting was with Dr. Lewis and not Leckonby."
He continued, "Dad presented data that Dr. Lewis had requested. Dad compiled the football budgets and financial aid allowances for all the teams Lehigh competed against. Dr. Lewis found the data enlightening. The meeting was an important milestone, eventually leading to more appropriate financial support for the football program."
According to his son, Dunlap was to get a one-year reprieve, while "admonishing him that the team needed to start winning." Hence, the 1968 season was a tense one for him, one he felt might make or break his name in coaching football. As detailed much more thoroughly in the book, it wasn't an easy decision for him and his family to stay for the 1968 season. Leckonby, and many Lehigh alumni, wanted him gone.
But he decided to stick out another year for his family and his players, and try to build on the foundation he was starting to build. 1968, for better or worse, would feature Fred Dunlap as coach.
One offseason to turn around years of lack of funding and scholarship money is a daunting task in any year. Today, with transfer students and the portal, turnarounds can happen somewhat quicker, but in 1968, it had to have felt like a truly impossible task.
Though Dunlap had several years of recruits, he didn't appear to have full political support, so there was really no tomorrow. As made clear in "The Dunlap Rules", he needed to show progress, now, or he'd definitely be fired. And though it's not present anywhere in any documentation I've seen, I know one of the non-negotiables was that he needed to beat Lafayette.
The first game of the year offered some promise, as a sophomore-laded Lehigh team trounced a Drexel squad weakened by the flu, 59-21. "The Engineers slew the Drexel Dragons 59-21, coming up with the best offensive performance by a Lehigh team since 1959," The Brown and White reported. "Dunlap's charges displayed a well-balanced attack, gaining 311 yards rushing and 177 through the air."
But the reality of the rebuild came down the following week in a 28-12 loss to The Citadel down in Charleston, South Carolina. RB Jim McMillan had a 3rd quarter run of 66 yards for a touchdown that broke open a close 14-12 game.
Lehigh would then lose three straight to what was tough competition at the time.
Wittenberg, a small college power, throttled the "Packers" 37-14 and Penn walloped Lehigh 34-0.
More encouragingly, Fred Dunlap's team would give "Middle Three" rival Rutgers a very tough battle at home, but several critical miscues allowed the Scarlet Knights to get their 11th straight win over the "Packers" 29-26.
A Rutgers safety from a Lehigh ball snapped out of the end zone, and two late missed extra points were critical in the 3 point loss.
"A 12 yard pass completion moved the ball to the 32," The Brown and White reported, "but with 35 seconds remaining QB Rick Laubach's long bomb fell into the hands of Rutgers DB John Pollock, and the Engineers had lost their final chance."
Looking past the box score you see a team that is battling hard and competing well despite their record. In 1968, Rutgers went 8-2 and their 29-26 scrape was the Scarlet Knights' smallest margin of victory in any of their wins that year. But it still was a loss, and another excuse for Leckonby, and the fans, to call for his job.
Meanwhile, in Easton, there was a Leopard resurgence.
After losing their season opener to Rutgers, the Leopards would run off four straight wins, trouncing Columbia, Hofstra, Washington & Lee and Drexel, not allowing a single point at Fisher Field.
The 7-0 win versus Hofstra in particular, the first in five tries for the Leopards, was a watershed moment with QB Ed Baker sneaking into the end zone in the 4th quarter for the game's only score. "It may be as the players say - we're on our way," Lafayette head coach Harry Gamble shared after the game.
Whereas there were plenty of moral victories and relatively hard-fought games on the Lehigh side, for Lafayette there were actual wins.
With two more home shutouts, one 37-0 against Gettysburg, and a 7-0 shutout against No. 18-ranked Merchant Marine who was undefeated at the time, Lafayette hadn't allowed a single point at home all season, and at 7-2 seemed poised to win their first-ever Lambert Cup.
"Pards To Clinch Lambert Cup Tomorrow As Maroon, Engineers Renew Rivalry" read The Lafayette's bold headline leading into the 104th meeting. "Lafayette's football team is already assured of its best record since 1948," the article notes, "but nothing is more satisfying than a victory over Lehigh."
Harry Gamble, noting that Lehigh "seemed to have more depth than prior years," didn't seem to be taking Lehigh lightly, but that was little solace for head coach Fred Dunlap, who seemed to think, win or lose against Lafayette, he would be out as Lehigh head coach.
"While Lehigh was losing most games, the team was far more competitive than it had been in the past," Fred Dunlap's son wrote in The Dunlap Rules. "Due to Lehigh's losses, the fans and the media in the area were calling for my father's head. The newspapers and the radio pundits were predicting there was no way Dad would keep his job. 'It's a formality at this point,' one reporter suggested. 'Dunlap will be removed after the season is over.'"
Even The Brown and White seemed to have forsaken the Engineers. "Something seems to be missing," the student reporter wrote under the headline Gridders Ready? Attidude Belies It. "In such a fierce Rivalry, exceptional spirit and psych [sic] are expected on both sides. The Lehigh football squad seems to have only a fraction of that spirit.
"As one of the players correctly said, yelling and screaming words does not produce a winning team. But on the other hand words -- including calmly spoken words -- do express an attitude. And the 1968 football team for some reason has not expressed a killer instinct for the Lehigh-Lafayette game."
The team, Fred Dunlap shared after the game, was "quiet all week, quiet on the bus coming over, and quiet in the locker room today," in seeming response to The Brown and White, the local and national press and the disgruntled alumni when his team scored three touchdowns on previously unscored-upon Fisher Field as Lehigh's killer instinct delivered Dunlap a sweet 21-6 win, denying the Leopards a win over their Rivals and also denying them the Lambert Cup in front of 16,000 fans.
Lehigh never trailed, scoring a touchdown on the first drive of the game and then never letting the Leopards, who were sporting special "Beat Lehigh" jerseys, truly back into it, delivering a fatal blow in the fourth quarter when Jack Paget scored a touchdown with seven minutes left to make it 21-6.
The MVP went to RB Jim Petrillo, who sustained a bunch of drives on 3rd down and gained the largest share of rushing yards on the day which set up the three touchdown drives. But Dunlap was the the one carried off on the shoulders of the players, obviously having won the respect of the players over a tough season.
Fred Dunlap got another extension after that season - and started Lehigh's next dominant stretch of football teams at their level. Against all the forces against change, happy to lose and keep things the way they were, Dunlap changed things and arguably set the table for a decade of success in the 1970s.
"How can a football season call its season successful when they finish with a 3-7 record?" The Brown and White's about-face began. "If the team is from Lehigh, and if one of the three wins is over Lafayette, the team can call itself successful."