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Fifty years ago: Improbably, Lehigh claimed Eastern supremacy
Lehigh’s 2011 football team is mirroring what another Lehigh team did a half-century ago: claim a trophy.
Fifty years ago, Lehigh fielded a young team that did not seem destined for greatness. It also faced a formidable schedule that included an undefeated team and a nationally ranked team (both co-champions of the Ivy League), as well as long-time rival Lafayette.
Yet, Lehigh’s cohesive group of over-achievers went on to capture the Lambert Cup, emblematic of Eastern small-college football supremacy.
Bill Leckonby, who was a star halfback for St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and then with the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers, was in his 16th year at the helm of the Brown and White. He produced an undefeated team in 1950, and his 1957 squad, which went 8-1, was awarded the first-ever Lambert Cup.
However, with insignificant 4-5 seasons in 1959 and 1960, and with only five seniors and eight lettermen returning in 1961 to face an imposing schedule, the football picture on the South Mountain campus did not look promising.
The 1961 lineup
Fortunately, Leck’s inexperienced 35-man roster included many former Pennsylvania scholastic stars to lead the team. Two big tackles who became pro draft picks anchored the line. The backfield had plenty of capable running backs.
At end for the Engineers — as the team was known then — were John Chambers, Harold Milton, Billy Rezak and Lee Fry of New Freedom. At tackle were captain Mike “Semi” Semcheski (6-2, 215) of Chester, big Reed Bohovich (6-3, 245) and Charley “Hoot” Gibson of Verona.
The guards were Freeman Goodrich, Fred Schmidt and John Tench of Prospect Park. The centers were Charlie Craze of Wilkes-Barre and Wyoming Seminary, Jim Minnich of Emmaus (also the long-snapper), John “Kit” Fegley of West Lawn and Bob Schoff of Moylan.
Directing the “Split-T” offensive attack were quarterbacks Walt King of York Catholic and John DeNoia. The stable of versatile halfbacks included Pat Clark of York, Ed Winchester, Charley “Jake” LaMotta of Pittsburgh, Jim Wilson and Franklin “Bunny” Rushong of Camp Hill. Two bruising fullbacks were Boyd Taylor of Ridley Park and Pat Connelly of Sharpesville. Andy Larko of Forty Fort was an all-purpose back, end and kicker.
Leckonby’s coaching staff also included two former Lehigh Valley gridiron stars in Ed Hudak and George “Fritz” Halfacre. Hudak, of Bethlehem, Notre Dame Class of 1950, and a Steelers draft pick, was the defensive line coach. Halfacre, of Palmerton, Tabor Academy and Lehigh 1950, was the backfield coach.
The 1961 season
On the road in the opener at Delaware, a shirt-sleeved crowd of 10,000 watched Dave Nelson’s Blue Hens down Lehigh, 14-6. Lehigh lost three fumbles. A 33-yard scoring strike from King to Clark was the bright spot.
The following week in Cambridge, Mass., Lehigh defeated Harvard, 22-17, in a major upset. The victory was a team effort. It was also a lineman’s dream-come-true for Bohovich, who picked off a tipped lateral and rumbled 65 yards for a touchdown. The Crimson under head coach John Yovicisin, who was from Steelton, would finish the season as co-champions of the Ivy League.
At Gettysburg, the Engineers easily defeated the Bullets, 20-6, behind a strong 235-yard ground attack led by Clark and Taylor.
In their first home game of the season at Taylor Stadium, Lehigh hosted a new rival in the United States Marine Academy from Kings Point, N.Y. DeNoia’s 195 yards passing sparked the Engineers’ 20-6 win over the Mariners.
Back on the road, Lehigh lost, 32-15, to undefeated Rutgers before 17,000 rain-soaked fans. Pacing coach John Bateman’s Scarlet Knights were All-American center, Alex Kroll from Leechburg, the East’s top fullback in Steve “Six-Yard” Simms and end/punter Bob Flower of Emmaus. Rutgers finished the year 9-0 and ranked No. 15 in the nation by the Associated Press.
With a 3-2 record, Lehigh traveled to New York City to meet Columbia at Baker Field. In another upset, the Engineers, who trailed 7-0 at halftime, rallied behind touchdowns by Clark and Taylor to win 14-7. Under coach Aldo “Buff” Donelli, who previously coached nationally ranked Duquesne, the Lions went on to share the Ivy League title with Harvard.
Colgate, with a 4-1 record behind the running and passing of Dan Keating, came to Taylor Stadium in early November. Before 10,000 fans, Lehigh prevailed 20-15. LaMotta’s record breaking 90-yard TD run and an alert and hard-hitting defense were the difference.
Bucknell came to South Bethlehem and lost to the “Big Brown,” 12-7. The highlight was the halftime salute to Vincent J. “Pat” Pazzetti. He was Lehigh’s first All-American in 1912 and was then the general manager of the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Bethlehem. In December, Pazzetti would be inducted into the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
In the 97th meeting before 15,000 chilled fans at Taylor Stadium, Lehigh nipped Lafayette, 17-14. The game was a thriller and was tied at 14 going into the fourth quarter. The final 15 minutes were a roller coaster of excitement as the two teams turned over the ball six times with Lehigh’s Minnich recovering two Leopard fumbles. With time running out, DeNoia’s long pass to Clark set up Andy Larko’s 20-yard field goal with six seconds remaining. Taylor was named the MVP of the game.
Once again, Lehigh’s impressive grid fortunes brought national recognition to the school and the Lehigh Valley. Lehigh finished with a 7-2 record and was awarded the Lambert Cup for the second time in the five years of the cup’s history.
Semcheski, who was named Little All-American and drafted by the American Football League’s Dallas Texans, became a prominent collegiate football official.
Bohovich, drafted by both the NFL’s New York Giants and the AFL’s New York Titans, played for the Giants in 1962. His teammate was Dick Lynch of Phillipsburg Catholic and Notre Dame. The Giants lost the 1962 NFL championship to the Green Bay Packers.
King would be the head coach at Central Catholic for five years from 1971-75. His 1972 Vikings went 11-0.
Leckonby retired after the 1961 season to become Lehigh’s athletic director. In 16 seasons, he was the school’s winningest coach with an 85-53-5 record. Fifty years later, Leckonby remains the winningest coach in Lehigh’s rich gridiron history.
All three Lehigh coaches — Leckonby, Hudak and Halfacre — have been inducted into the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
Evan Burian of Emmaus is the author of six books, including Football Legends of Pennsylvania.
By Evan Burian, The Morning Call