Fabulous at Forty
Oct. 6, 2008
By Katie Meier
For some, 40 years may seem like a lifetime. To others, it may seem to pass by in an instant. For the members of the 1968 football team, the memories and events of that historic campaign are remembered as if they happened just days ago.
"It's hard to believe 40 years have passed," Harry Gamble, the head coach of that squad, said. "For me, it all seemed like it was just happening yesterday."
The members of that 1968 team were part of one of the most successful seasons in Lafayette football history, which says a lot for a program with 127 years to choose from. Now 40 years later, members of that team are gathering on College Hill to celebrate the historic season. Mike Miller, a senior wide receiver on the 1968 squad, is one of many players who is making his return to Fisher Stadium.
"I haven't seen many of the folks on that team so it's going to be exciting to get together to compare how we look," Miller said with a laugh. "It's been a blur these past 40 years."
Heading into the 1968 campaign, Gamble was entering his second season at the helm of the program. He was attempting to help improve a program which was 4-5 the year before, but only returned 15 letterwinners and a handful of seniors. While that 4-5 record marked the most wins since 1960, the 1968 squad was young and the common belief was that fans would have to wait yet another year to see a winning record from their Leopards.
Gamble took a bit more of a positive approach.
"I always enter every football season with the idea that we could have a good football team," he said. "I didn't go into that season with any apprehension and I frankly never do. I go in with a positive attitude and let chips fall where they may."
Those chips did not fall according to plan to start the season. The Leopards opened with a 37-7 loss at Rutgers in a contest that featured four Lafayette interceptions. The sloppy play of the Leopards gave no indication that the season would be anything but what everyone had expected--a losing one.
How quickly a situation can change. One week later, Lafayette responded to the season-opening loss with a 36-14 road victory over Columbia that sparked a four-game winning streak. A 7-0 shutout of Hofstra seven days later helped avenge the Flying Dutchmen's 28-0 shutout of the Leopards just one season before. Quarterback Ed Baker pointed to that win as a season-changing one.
"I saw that as the turning point in the season," he said. "I really knew we had a good defense after that win."
The momentum carried into the following weeks with a 27-7 road victory at Washington and Lee and a 27-0 shutout of Drexel. A loss at Bucknell in the season's sixth week snapped the win streak, but it barely put a hitch in the Leopards' stride as the team recorded its second shutout in three games with a 37-0 win over Gettysburg.
It became clear the following game just how good the Lafayette defense was when the Leopards faced one of their toughest opponents of the season in Kings Point. Entering that game, Kings Point was undefeated and ranked in the top five among small colleges in team defense. The Kings Point defense had given up just five touchdowns--and none through the air--all season.
However, Lafayette itself had the top-ranked defense in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and proved to be the better unit that day. The Leopards handed Kings Point a 7-0 loss, thus ending the Mariners' undefeated season. One of senior linebacker Rick Lettieri's most vivid memories from the 1968 season came following that Kings Point victory.
"We won on a defensive play on a punt return," Lettieri, the team captain, said. "Coach Gamble, Gary (Kolarik) and I were in our clothes, jumping around, laughing. We had won our sixth game which ensured a winning season. Kings Point couldn't understand why we were making a big fuss like we'd won the Superbowl. We laugh about it to this day."
Other teams probably weren't laughing. In fact, they most definitely would not have been laughing if they had learned that one of the star members of that defense--senior Bob Pettiti--had not played a lick of college football until his senior season. Lettieri says that Kolarik convinced him to recruit Pettiti.
"I didn't think it was a good idea," Lettieri admitted. "I said, `No, he's not committed. He's a party guy.' Gary convinced me to recruit him and we met at an ice cream shop and we spent the afternoon talking to Bob and getting him excited about the prospect of playing. It was a great move; Bob had great year and fit right in with us and really helped us become the great defense we were."
Seven days after the Kings Point win, Lafayette continued to make history, this time in the form of a 14-10 victory over Colgate on a field that Gamble said "was surrounded in five-to-10 foot piles of snow." The victory extended the team's win streak to three but more importantly was the Leopards' first win over the Red Raiders since 1907. That win stood out for many members of the team.
"When we beat them we thought maybe now people other than ourselves will believe we're a good team," Miller said. "I don't think anyone expected us to win up there."
What may have been lost as the wins continued to pile up for the Leopards was that they had shut out all four of their home opponents, the first time a Lafayette team had recorded four shutouts since 1944. With that streak on the line, the Leopards faced arguably their toughest test as they hosted their archrival Lehigh. Unfortunately, the Engineers became the first team to score on the Leopards at Fisher Field that season en route to a 21-6 win over Lafayette.
Despite the bitter taste that loss left for Leopard players and fans alike, the monumental success of the season was cemented with a lengthy list of accomplishments and program-firsts.
The Leopards rattled off their first four-game win streak in 10 years, a significant feat in a season that was only 10 games long. Lafayette's four shutouts were the most in a single season in 24 years and six players were named to the All-MAC squad. The team also had a winning season for the first time since 1960, boasted its best record (7-3) since a 6-2 mark in 1955 and had two running backs--Tom Triolo and Bob Zimmers--rush for more than 500 yards for the first time in 10 years. In fact, Baker felt Triolo had professional football potential and believed, "the running game was key to us moving the football that season."
The team wasn't all business, however. In addition to naming weekly offensive and defensive players, Gamble made sure to recognize players whose contributions may not have been so evident. Following each game, one "Bad Cat" and one "Headhunter" were recognized. The Bad Cat was a player who, in Gamble's words, "has been a little ornery out there but who has come up with a number of outstanding plays." The Headhunter was "a boy who makes the highest score on individual tackles and assists."
Fun was not solely reserved for game days. Gamble made sure his players enjoyed every aspect of playing collegiate football.
"We were trying to develop and put together a good team and my approach was to allow players to enjoy themselves at the same time," he said. "If we had practices that were getting to be a drag we might have a rope pulling contest, get some laughs in. I always tried to leave the field in the evening after practice on a good note and we found ways to do that."
Players on the team appreciated that Gamble saw the little things they did to contribute to the team's success and that he took their well-being into consideration.
"Coach Gamble said he knew how tough it was for us to be out there practicing every day, so he wore shorts to every practice all season long and he did that for all four of my years there," Miller said. "When it was cold and snowy, his legs were as red as the maroon shorts he wore. He sacrificed along with us and that meant a lot."
Gamble admitted to wearing shorts in part to motivate his team but also to cut down on the griping.
"In latter part of the season the weather would get chilly and sometimes very cold," he said. "I thought, you know I'm going to eliminate the griping among the players about the cold weather and I'll go out and continue to go out like I did in September in shorts and they won't be able to be gripe as much. They'd look at me and think if he can do it, I can do it."
Everything Gamble did was done with a purpose, and his influence on the team was felt by each and every player.
"He was a difference maker because he allowed our senior leadership to come forward," Lettieri said. "We had a lot of fun that year. We were more relaxed and he understood that in order to win you had to engage people. He had some good leadership in the seniors to rely on and he made use of us. As a result, we all played above our potential and played better than the talent on the team would have indicated we could."
Baker gave a little more insight on just how good of a football mind Gamble had.
"After Lafayette he became the coach at Penn," Baker said. "The team was not doing too well and they asked him to dismiss his staff, most of which had come with him from Lafayette. He refused. He was very loyal to his staff so Penn dismissed him. He then went to Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil and said `I'll do anything--scout, gopher--for no pay.' Dick welcomed him, got to really like him. Leonard Tose, the owner, liked him and next thing you know he was the general manager."
Working at the professional level might seem like the pinnacle of a football coach's career. While Gamble enjoyed his time there and was tremendously successful, he looks back on his years at Lafayette with nothing but fond memories.
"In the era I was coaching in at Lafayette there was a purity to the whole thing," he said. "There was a desire among the players to play the game just for the sake of playing it. The guys were so sincere about the game and playing. I've said before and I continue to say the best four years of my adult life I spent at Lafayette."
Gamble's football knowledge and love for the college game, combined with the winning mindset of the team, created a "perfect storm," as the sum of the whole proved greater than each individual part. Lettieri's message to the team prior to the start of the season exemplified the type of senior leadership Gamble relied upon to produce such winning results.
"I was very determined our senior year would not be a losing season," he said. "We were determined, our group of seniors, that defeat was not an acceptable alternative and that we would turn this team around. We took some heat for that. When you go out on a limb like that, you put yourself at risk but our goal was to have a winning season and turn around the football program and under Coach Gamble's leadership we were able to do that."
Lettieri's bold prediction got the attention of fans at the beginning of the season and each victory continued to hold their attention.
"People were absolutely shocked at what we said we'd do and what we did," Lettieri said. "That made it exciting because we were definite underdogs. People every week were watching to see what we'd do."
There may have been doubt about whether a young team with a second year coach could put together a winning campaign but Gamble and his Leopards laid to rest all skepticism with one of the greatest seasons in program history.
"I still relish it and I still think about it and seeing these guys once again," Gamble said. "Hopefully we'll have an enjoyable time reminiscing and bringing back some of the old glory. Those stories get bigger and better when you sit around and talk about them."
Forty years may have elapsed, but this weekend Gamble and his team will be able to tell those stories. The "old glory" has not gone anywhere, however, because memories don't come with an expiration date.
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