“This is the event.”
That is how football coach Tom Gilmore described the Lehigh-Lafayette Rivalry game.
This is the event: The largest football game of the year always brings sold-out crowds and tons of school spirit. Campus is abuzz with the Marching ‘97 disrupting classrooms and first-year residence halls.
As the most-played rivalry game in college football, the Lehigh-Lafayette game holds particular importance to the Lehigh community. The intensity of the Le-Laf rivalry resembles that of major college football rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan or Auburn-Alabama.
“The Le-Laf Rivalry is very unique at our level,” Gilmore said. “It has all the elements of the ‘big game.’ It’s something special to be a part of.”
Psychology professor Dominic Packer said rivalry games and competition in general have much to do with mentality.
Packer is a social psychologist studying group dynamics and intergroup relations. He said rivalry games are more intense and exciting because identity is wrapped up in it. Because fans identify with the team, he said, team wins are the fans’ wins.
“I think rivalry in this context often feels good,” Packer said. “It helps us feel like we have a defined identity. We know who we are because we’re not them.”
When people join a group, Packer said they naturally feel competitive with other groups. Groups will often pick one group in particular to have more intense competition with.
“It’s the same group dynamics that play out in other contexts where it can be much more harmful,” Packer said. “If a country feels competitive or (sees) another country as a rival, it can lead to war. But when we use the field to have these rivalries, it’s often something we enjoy and people get really into and derive a lot of meaning from.”
For fans, rivalry games often give them a sense of belonging and pride.
“We all sort of bask in their reflected glory,” Packer said. “Because the team is a part of our Lehigh identity, when they win it feels psychologically good.”
But the Le-Laf Rivalry also adds a layer of pressure for the team and coaching staff.
“Beating your rival in front of the biggest crowd of the year, before your family, friends and student body gives you that special feeling because there is so much tied into it,” Gilmore said.
Quarterback Dante Perri, ‘24, said the team feels the pressure but is determined not to let the weight of The Rivalry keep them from succeeding.
“Whenever there is an important game like this one, pressure is bound to build,” Perri said. “One thing you have to remember is that pressure is a privilege and it’s an awesome opportunity to go play a great game for our school.”
The Le-Laf game is always the last regular season game of the year. Gilmore said, even in years when the team was moving on to the playoffs, this game always takes on a special importance — he said winning it can feel like a “separate entity.”
The team has a strategy of treating each week like it’s a one-game season. Gilmore said they do not change that strategy for The Rivalry game, despite its added significance.
“The Le-Laf game to me is a beautiful tradition where we get to showcase ourselves,” Perri said. “Obviously this isn’t the year we have wanted in terms of record, but we get the chance to wipe that away and go 1-0.”
Perri said he hopes the team can recreate the scene from last year when all the fans stormed the field after Lehigh’s win.
Gilmore said the team has to stay focused on having a great week of practice and winning the game.
Perri said all the Le-Laf activities and excitement don’t distract him.
“The excitement on campus makes us feel great knowing that the entire school is behind us,” Perri said.