I really wanted the Tom Gilmore Era to work.
I did not first meet Tom Gilmore when he was a fiery defensive coordinator for some of the best Lehigh teams in history, but I thoroughly enjoyed what he created.
His defense was the final piece of the puzzle in 2001 when the Mountain Hawks earned a first round game in the I-AA Playoffs, a 27-24 win over Hofstra that was one of one of my favorite all-time non-Lafayette wins in program history.
In that game, Lehigh fell behind 14-0 and lost their starting QB, but his defense, led my guys like LB Tom McGeoy, held them to 10 points the rest of the way and ended up winning the game in overtime - where, fittingly, the Mountain Hawks prevented the Pride from scoring.
I did later meet Tom Gilmore in person after a rainy afternoon at Murray Goodman Stadium in 2005. By then, he had taken over a program profoundly in trouble, the Holy Cross Crusaders, and he was in his second year at the helm.
When he took over at Holy Cross in 2004, it seemed like a pretty foolhardy decision by him - it seemed like they were on the brink of folding the program, and after taking over for head coach Dan Allen, who struggled to a 1-11 season before he got there, Gilmore helped make a program that had struggled mightily since giving up football scholarships into a Patriot League football contender.
In that game in 2005, it was a miracle the game got played at all. The game was played in an eerie overcast and consistent downpour, and Murray Goodman, Stadium famously, doesn't have lights, and the current field drainage system wasn't in place. It was won by Holy Cross 13-10, and Tom Gilmore's team won the game on true grit - Lehigh's vaunted passing attack was grounded by the weather and Holy Cross' defense, and the Crusaders relied on a 66 yard punt return by RB Steve Silva and a late touchdown pass by QB John O'Neil to get the win. The Crusaders flopped in an enormous puddle in the end zone when they upset No. 10 Lehigh in that game.
In 2007, Andy Coen's second year at Lehigh, Gilmore came to Murray Goodman again and sent a message, with one of the biggest home beatdowns at the time, a 59-10 butt whooping that was comprehensive and humbling. It was the definitive end to the Lehigh mini-era of home playoff games and success that was started by Kevin Higgins and thrived under Pete Lembo. Lehigh wasn't going to coast off legacy any more; Tom Gilmore not only was going to make a statement, he was going to comprehensively show that the Lehigh era was over.
I remember asking a question of Tom Gilmore that day. I asked him something along the lines of whether he took some satisfaction of beating the team on which he was formerly the defensive coordinator. His response surprised me. "I fully expect Lehigh to rebound and learn something from this, just like we would," he said at the time. "It's a tough pill for them to swallow, but I know what the people here at Lehigh are all about, and I know they are going to respond in a positive way."
There is something about Lehigh that many people love, including Tom Gilmore. He loved the sense of family around the place, the Rivalry, and the added coverage and scrutiny that teams like Bucknell, Georgetown, and Lafayette simply don't have.
And it's something that Tom alluded to when he came back to Lehigh to be head coach in 2018 - a very big surprise to many, including me. He knew the people, he knew the culture, and he wanted to build the program back into what it had been during the height of the Andy Coen era. After his openign press conference, I realizes that I was surprised he came back to coach here, but I thought I probably shouldn't have been. He's always been in love with the place, even when he was up in Worcester.
Like I said, I really wanted the Tom Gilmore era to work.
He had a 72-81 record overall, but some of those years were spent on a ground-up rebuild with a 3-8 record. Those post Dan Allen years were very lean, and it took time for him to build the program back up, building to a run of seven straight years of winning records, including a Patriot League championship and FCS Playoff game when QB Dominic Randolph was his signalcaller. I remembered those days a lot more than the struggle years.
When Randolph graduated, it felt like Holy Cross was a program just on the brink of being perennially in the Patriot League title chase, but then things started to level off and some of the struggle years returned. I didn't pay much mind to the end of his time at Holy Cross, where he was terminated on a bye week by an ambitious athletic director that left Holy Cross for Air Force shortly thereafter. But the record didn't lie. There were some tough 2-9 seasons and no season better than 6-5.
At Lehigh, in Andy Coen's final years as head coach, the Mountain Hawk defense had devolved. In 2017, Andy's final title year, the Mountain Hawks gave up a staggering 41 points a game, including 56 to Yale, 65 to Penn (losing that game 65-47!), and 37 points to a Wagner team that wasn't exactly an offensive juggernaut. At 5-6, Patriot League Champions they were, but they definitely felt like flawed champions.
If there is one thing Tom Gilmore, an all-time linebacker a Penn knows, it's defense, so in a way it made sense - if you paired Lehigh's offense scoring 30 points a game, and match it with a Tom Gilmore defense, that could be a potent combination. I saw the vision. I thought it could work. I wanted it to work.
But there was a lot going on at Lehigh.
When Tom came to South Mountain, he inherited a very hard situation - one that nobody could have imagined.
The end of the Andy Coen era was very tough. His final season in 2018 was 3-8, and at the conclusion of the season it was revealed that Andy was retiring so that he could battle early-onset Alzheimer's. Andy got through the season - barely, just enough to tie Bill Leckonby for head coaching wins at Lehigh in his final game - but it was hard on everyone in the program to keep things together.
Gilmore came into the program with the task of bringing the program back. And for a stretch in 2019, it felt like it might have been close by.
That season, Lehigh started out slow against some really tough competition - Villanova, of course, but also a trip out to UC Davis of the Big Sky - but after those tough games, all losses, it seemed like they were ready to turn the corner with four straight wins.
They weren't the types of wins Lehigh fans were used to getting - 10-3 over Merrimack, a last-second 21-14 win preserved over Colgate - but they were wins, giving Lehigh fans hope that the rebuild would be short. Especially when the offense started to gel.
It never happened.
It didn't work out that way fans wanted. The Mountain Hawks would lose their next four games to Holy Cross, Bucknell, Sacred Heart and Lafayette to finish 4-7. The total number of Lehigh offensive points scored in those games: 46, or less than 12 points per game. The loss to Holy Cross in particular stung - as it turned out, Tom Gilmore never won a game against the Crusaders as head coach at Lehigh.
It wouldn't get any easier once COVID-19 made its way around the world.
A mini three game season was played in the spring of 2021 that resulted in three losses, but it's hard to call them games in the traditional sense because all three games the Mountain Hawks only barely had the personnel to actually field a team.
There were a ton of postponements, and the Tuesday before their second game, Lehigh was told they were not going to play against Lafayette, but would be suiting up against Bucknell instead. When they did suit up against Lafayette the following week, Lehigh only had eight healthy linemen, meaning two defensive players had to prepare to play offensive line to be able to field enough players in the game. It would have been a thowback to the 1880s type football for the wrong reasons.
So in that sense, it feels unfair to judge the Tom Gilmore era on these pseudo-"games" with seriously undermanned teams in a unique and crazy situation. Yet the Mountain Hawks didn't win those games, and only scored two touchdowns in the spring - a 49 yard TD run by RB Rashawn Allen and a 4 yard TD pass to WR Jorge Portorreal, both against Lafayette in a 20-13 defeat. QB Nigel Summerville, who came in for the injured Cross Wilkinson and was sacked three times, was in position to win the game with a miracle heave, tried, but it fell incomplete.
In the spring, Lehigh QBs were sacked a staggering 15 times in 3 games, including 6 times vs. Lafayette.
But Tom Gilmore never made excuses for losing. He did make a plea for more time to get his team in place, to find more consistency, but he understood that winning was the most important thing, and that the wins were not happening. He knew this is a results-oriented business.
When the fall of 2021 started with a a six game stretch without an offensive touchdown, it was something was clearly broken. It was beyond recruiting classes or COVID-19. Though it wasn't all on the offense, their struggles clearly put a lot of pressure on the team.
The Mountain Hawks did rebound to win their last three games and played Fordham tough in the Bronx in a 35-28 defeat, making it seem like perhaps the offense had finally started to figure things out. A 17-10 win over Lafayette, however, wasn't an offensive showcase - the highlights were a blocked punt return for a touchdown, and a pass from QB Dante Perri to RB Jack DiPietro for the only other touchdown. Lehigh won with 244 yards of total offense and averaging 2.0 yards per carry on the ground - and Gilmore's only win over Lafayette as head coach, as it would turn out. Still, it was a joyous occasion to beat their Rivals and gave the fan base something to look forward to next season. It would be the only time Tom Gilmore would end up beating Lafayette as head football coach.
The fall of 2022 opened with some promise, but quickly it became apparent that Lehigh wasn't going to be able to keep up with the teams on their loaded schedule.
Villanova, Monmouth and Princeton were all legitimate CAA and Ivy title contenders for most of the year, while Richmond, Fordham and Holy Cross all made the FCS Playoffs. The losses to these teams were substantial, even if it seemed like every single week Lehigh was facing off against Walter Payton finalists or future NFL players. Still, Tom Gilmore carried very high expectations in these games. He expected to win them. I know this because he told me.
Despite the losses, Tom was quick to point out that there were definitely good things happening at times, but the consistency wasn't there. To his credit, he never tried to cast the blame elsewhere for that inconsistency. You didn't need to remind him that it was ultimately on him. He made that clear.
Eventually, though, losing two heartbreakers to Cornell (19-15) and almost unforgivably, Bucknell at home (19-17) showed that the record was not going to correct itself. Overall, the team shot itself in the foot too many times - both the team and the staff.
Lehigh would manage a highlight win on Senior Day against Colgate, 36-33 - a game where everything seemed to come together, finally, on a game-winning drive - but the Gilmore era would end with Lehigh losing 14-11 to Lafayette, unable to put the ball in the end zone with two minutes to play, with four shots from the 15 yard line. In that game Lehigh would have 404 total yards on offense, but only one touchdown to show for it - an amazing one-handed grab by WR Eric Johnson. Lafayette, conversely, won with 180 total yards on offense and their scoring coming on two big plays - one a 50+ yard run, and the other a pick six.
In a way, this weekend's game was a microcosm of the Gilmore era.
The defense was a huge improvement from 2017, for the most part. At times, the offense could manage highlight-reel grabs and great individual play. The offense threw for more than 300 yards, and move the ball well most of the game. Number of sacks by Lafayette: One.
The defensive front stuffed the Leopards offense for the most part. They handed the ball over to the offense, and gave the team opportunities. At times it felt close to all coming together.
But they couldn't do it consistently. They kept falling victim to big plays, often at the worst possible times. Key mistakes on punts, and a missed makeable FG, loomed large. And they kept shooting themselves in the foot after positive plays.
If you're not consistently executing at the Division I level, and keeping your mistakes small and big plays at a minimum, you're not going to win football games. And Lehigh didn't win against Lafayette this weekend because of it. It's hard to escape the conclusion that this game was very winnable, and a better executed play here, a penalty-free play there, a made FG here, a reception there - this came could have been won. That's on everyone who was on the sideline during the game this weekend, but ultimately the buck stops with the guy on top. And Tom Gilmore knew that.
It's strange wanting someone to "work" at Lehigh, then looking at the record and seeing how it didn't happen.
I look back and saw much to like about Tom's time here, weirdly. I never felt like he put himself over the program, like so many head coaches seem to do - he seemed to very much cherish what Lehigh is.
In terms of the tradition of Lehigh, talking about the Rivalry, and talking about his players, he definitely seemed to understand Lehigh the institution backwards and forwards - in fact, he knew coming in what he was getting himself into, both the good and the bad. He didn't always agree with me personally, but he never refused an interview with me, even when things were tough, and never treated me badly.
Tom Gilmore, the man, seemed like a stand-up person, if a bit of a perfectionist at times. He was a straight shooter from Philly, and never played to athletes' egos, which I heavily suspect is why some people in the fan base seemed to dislike him.
My impression from him every week for four seasons, and talking to his players, is that he looked out primarily for their success in academics and football - which makes sense from an Ivy League graduate (Penn) and someone who has been around Lehigh so extensively.
It also said an awful lot to me that during the course of this tough season not a single player entered the transfer portal - even though times were tough, they stuck together and didn't quit. Every week the kids went back to practice, and in the words of DE Dean Colton, "tried to see how we could get better". That's a true credit to the players, especially in a season where they wanted more success, but that's credit to Tom, too. I will always remember that.
In many ways, I really liked Tom, even when the results weren't there. I really was rooting for him, and the kids, to succeed. It just didn't turn out that way.