Oct. 30, 2006
By Brian Curtis
Special to CSTV.com
Brian Curtis is a CSTV football and basketball analyst and a regular CSTV.com writer.
Abstract: In 1980,
The first person Joe Purzycki spotted outside the press room when he walked into the
As he walked into the elegant banquet hall in front of 500 guests, Purzycki couldn't help but feel overwhelmed with emotion. That so many former players came to watch him enter the Hall was almost too much for the man to handle. When it was his turn to speak, he made sure to thank everyone who helped him in his journey, and asked the back table to rise. It was they who had had the courage, Purzycki told the crowd, when everyone else on campus wanted nothing to do with him.
It was odd in a way, a middle-aged white man with black and silver slicked back hair joining an illustrious group of African-Americans who had made their mark on the state's sports scene. But for those who knew Purzycki and knew the whole story, it seemed only fitting.
In 1984, in his fourth season as head football coach at Delaware State, then the first white man to be the head coach at an historically all-black college, Purzycki's Hornets were losing on the road at James Madison, a predominantly white school nestled in the hills of Virginia. As the halftime whistle sounded and his players jogged back to the locker room, Purzycki began an almost full-sprint to catch up with the lead official, also walking off the field. After a few choice words about the officiating, the white coach asked the white official three questions:
"Why are you throwing so many flags on us? Why are you doing this to us? Is it because we're black?"
That's why Joe Purzycki was not out of place in April 2005. But it wasn't always that way.
It was a bizarre scene, but not an unexpected one. The William C. Jason Library on the campus of
Of the three finalists for the job, the odds-on favorite was Billy Joe, the offensive backs coach at the time for the Super Bowl-bound Philadelphia Eagles. He was credible, he was engaging, and he was black. Second in popularity was Jim McKinley, the head football coach at North Carolina A&T, another experienced black college coach who would be a safe choice. Then there was Joe Purzycki. Purzycki was a 33-year-old assistant coach at the
Purzycki grew up in the blue-collar town of
As Joe finished up his interview and walked out of the library meeting room, he shook hands, received hugs and headed over to the student dormitory to start getting acquainted with his soon-to-be players. Purzycki passed him by as he walked in to face the predominantly black Council, made up of faculty members and administrators, amid the stares of the students gathered around. The interview went well, but the coach was not optimistic. Days earlier, the local paper, the Delaware State News, had printed an editorial headlined, "Why
The coach had gotten this far in the process because of Townsend, the 45-year-old, chain smoking, black athletic director who was willing to stake his job on a coach he hardly knew.
"At the time, he [Purzycki] was a very hot commodity," Townsend insists. "Our program at that time was probably at its lowest. It couldn't have gone much lower. It needed a real shot in the arm." Not only did Townsend think Purzycki could get it done, but he admits that he knew the controversial hiring would bring attention to Delaware State and that the white coach could bring community members into the DSU fold. "We needed to do something different."
"Joe brought in a stack of papers for the interview," recalls Allen Hamilton, formerly the chair of the DSU Athletic Council and still a mathematics professor at the school. "He had a plan. Joe and McKinley just came in and said stuff we've all heard before. Joe [Purzycki] gave us a notebook which detailed the number of games we should win, a schedule, a plan to get more scholarships." That plan was "2-4-6-8," the number of games he expected to win each season.
After his interview, Purzycki headed home at around 8 pm, and waited anxiously by the phone with his wife and brother; the phone rang one hour later. It was Townsend. He offered the job. The Council had voted twice, first 8-1 in favor of Purzycki, then unanimously. What Purzycki didn't know and wouldn't know until the following morning, was that his selection had sparked massive protests in the school library and dorms after Dr. William Dix, the black President of the Board of Trustees, announced the choice.
Townsend had gone over to the dorm to pick up Joe, who at that time, was visiting with what he thought were his players. "I was going over to an environment that was going to be shocked, not hostile. I'm talking as an African-American male going over to inform African-American players that the African American coach they thought was going to be their coach, is not going to be their coach."
Joe and the players were indeed shocked upon hearing the news. Townsend was greeted with shouts of, "You sold us out!" and "You gave it to the white people!" as he walked through the dorm.
"We knew that this was not necessarily the hottest decision," says Townsend, now an assistant athletic director at the Maryland-Eastern Shore. "We were plowing fertile ground, virgin ground."
A press conference had been scheduled at 8:30 the next morning, and as Purzycki and Townsend walked over to Memorial Hall, there was no avoiding the throng of protesters conducting a sit-in at the
The press conference was packed--150 students, faculty members and media. There were no questions about football or the coach's plans to turn
Maxine Lewis was the Delaware State Sports Information Director at the time, in charge of media relations. "Race was not an issue for me. We just came off a season where we lost 105-0. To me, the university was ready for a change. He was a man with a vision; he had a plan."
Winning over the community would be difficult enough; getting his players on-board would be a whole different issue. Immediately after his hiring, a petition circulated among football players indicating that they wouldn't play for a white coach. Indeed, in the first team meeting immediately after the press conference, just five players showed, only two of them--Alfred Parham and Clyde Alderman--were scholarship players. It was not a good sign.
"You have to understand," the coach told the less-than-enthused group of five. "I just want to be a football coach."
It had been a traumatic day that was about to get worse.
When he got home, Purzycki was relieved to hear from his wife that so many friends and colleagues had called to wish him luck. It rejuvenated his spirit. And then he received a phone call. The Delaware State Police were calling to say there was a death threat made against Purzycki and they advised him not to go onto campus for a few days.
DSU football was a quagmire of poor coaching, shoddy facilities, academic ineligibility and simply put, bad players. In the 10 seasons before Purzycki took over,
But it was the 1980 team that made the Hornets a laughingstock. Head coach Charles Henderson had been on the job one season. The 1979 squad finished 4-5-1, but 1980 was different, with the debacle at
The football facilities were well below average; in fact, the football stadium wasn't much of a stadium. The offices weren't much more than closets. The weight room was a converted visiting team overnight room, where opposing teams used to sleep in 24 bunk beds because the local hotels wouldn't accommodate a black team.
This was the
The coach's first week on the job was not easy. He reluctantly worked from his rundown office on campus, with a shattered window after bricks had been thrown through it early in the week. There was a cracked blackboard, a filing cabinet with a two-inch hole in it and a dangling phone cord. It didn't take long to realize the enormity of the job ahead of him. This was not just a coach taking over a bad football team. This was a clash of cultures; the challenge of getting a group of men to trust the very type of man they had learned to distrust.
He quickly hired a staff--two white coaches (William Billings and Jeff Cannon) and three African-Americans (Walter Tullis, Greg McLaurin and Bill Collick), all of whom were required to coach something other than football at
Collick was an elementary school teacher in
"I thought there was a gold mine just waiting there," and as for the race card? "We thought we were just going to coach football. Yes, there was a segment on campus that wasn't happy, but I honestly never thought about the racial thing."
After the dismal attendance at the initial team meeting, Purzycki and Townsend had sent out letters to every current roster player with a simple threat--show up at the next meeting or lose your scholarship. Seventeen players had already quit just five days into his tenure. Sure enough, when the second "team" meeting was held, dozens of players filled the room.
Standing in the back were three seniors, Tim King, Calvin Mason and Marvin Blount. They had the least to gain from buying into the new coach. They had just ten games ahead of them and then life goes on. Mason stood up in that very meeting.
"Look, we're not here for Coach Purzycki. We're here for ourselves. We're really going to go out this year and do our best."
It wasn't Lombardi-esque but it kept many of the players listening--for now. Not all the players jumped on the bandwagon. There were player-only meetings where a few upperclassmen insisted they were "not going to play for a white coach." Players met with administrators, faculty members met with each other. Townsend was seen as a traitor.
The reception was very cool from the campus community. On a January afternoon in 1981, Purzycki and Townsend walked across campus headed for the school cafeteria.
"How can I coach this team?" Purzycki asked his new boss. "When no one on campus will even look at me?"
The pair stopped walking and Townsend grabbed Purzycki by the arm.
"How can you have the nerve to complain about a little indifference given what all my people went through?"
"My people" represented a majority of the
When Purzycki and Townsend made it to the cafeteria and chose a table, the seas parted as if Moses were walking through. Nobody would even sit at the same table.
A few days later, there was a small breakthrough. Purzycki sat and watched the
Things were less intense but still lonely on the recruiting road and it didn't get off to the best start. Taking a car from the
During the spring of 1981, Purzycki signed twenty high schoolers, two of whom were white. Uh-oh. Here comes the white invasion.
Seventy-one players went through spring drills and there was a lot of work to do. Purzycki installed the Wing-T offense made famous at
"I had no choice but to kick him off the team," the coach remembers decades later. "I had to send a message to the rest of the guys about what we were about."
Tragedy struck when assistant coach Scottie Elliott was killed in automobile accident. The loss shook the players and coach. It also put things in perspective that things could be worse.
Still, what had been a local story with national implications when Purzycki was hired in January, had become a national story a few months later. The New York Times ran a story in April 1981 that made Purzycki a minor celebrity in a small town. But no press coverage could bridge the still wide chasm between the coach and his players.
Eldridge "Ace" Comer had nothing when he arrived on campus in 1981. Well, almost nothing. The young black man from the tough streets of
Comer would eventually earn a starting spot on the Hornets and, more importantly, become the first member of his extended family to attend college. Along the way, he formed a unique friendship with his coach, who couldn't have been more different.
Not every player who reached out to Purzycki, or who he reached out to, became the ABC Movie of the Week. Herb Delaney was from the roughest part of
"Coach, I never knew my father and you're the closest thing to one," Delaney tearfully admitted. Despite Purzycki's best efforts, Delaney dropped out of school, returned to the streets, and was never heard from again.
There were other players who stood out along the way: future NFL star John Taylor, who would become a Super Bowl MVP; Frank Burton, now a senior manager for the FBI; Michael Colbert, a leader at the Homeland Security Department.
Matthew Horrace was a standout freshman from
One thing that Horrace noticed getting better in 1981 was practice. Instead of long, drawn out, mundane practice sessions, Purzycki brought a business approach. Efficient and organized with every drill intended to prepare the players for the upcoming season and opponents. "He was the type of coach, where, if a team ran a play twice in 10 years, we were going to be prepared to deal with that play. Because he knew we couldn't afford to win a game on a call."
Before coaching even one game at
The Joe Purzycki era at
Delaware State played tough defense and managed to score twice on touchdown catches by Johnny Rowe, but a missed extra point gave VSU a 13-12 win.
The following week, the team packed a bus and two vans in
In fact, even in 1981, there was still a great deal of racism in
There was rarely a time that first season when race was not at the forefront. Purzycki did what he could to connect with his players. The white man from the "North" (
"He was always there to back you up," says Horrace, who recalls many situations on the road where racism reared its head. "He [Purzycki] was always up at the front desk saying that things were unacceptable. If we were supposed to have 30 rooms and they only gave us 28, he would say it was unacceptable and demand 30." It was during those types of incidents when the coach earned the trust of his players.
Later on in his tenure, Purzycki and his players were traveling down the eastern shore as the team bus was following a truck carrying watermelon on the highway, when the truck overturned and watermelons spilled everywhere, closing the road. The players disembarked from the bus and began to walk a short distance to a nearby McDonald's while road crews cleared the mess. As the team walked along the road, they listened to insults strewn at them from passers by--racial comments about African-Americans and watermelon. "I was more offended than they were," Purzycki recalls.
Then there was the time driving home from
Six-foot linebacker Obbie Maull from Lewes, Del., didn't take the "Colored" reference very well and began to shout from the back of the bus, working his way up to confront the officer.
"There are no Colored on this bus," he insisted. His teammates and a coach quickly stepped in to calm the situation.
Before kickoff in Orangeburg, both teams took to their respective sides of the field and stretched. Purzycki was deep in thought and took a seat on the bench while the assistants mingled among players. Moments later, one of the
Two games, two losses. Not only was Purzycki white, he couldn't win.
The next week brought another tough road game, this one against national power Florida A&M in
It wasn't that bad at halftime, down by just seven, but all
The team finally played a home game in late September, marking Purzycki's debut on the sidelines in
"I saw it," Purzycki says. "Maybe our record wasn't great but I saw things improve."
After two more close losses at home to Bethune-Cookman and Howard, Purzycki earned his first win at
"I don't think I've ever been so elated, when they had me on their shoulders," the coach remembers. "I knew the players were with me from then on, no matter where everyone else was."
But the jubilation didn't last long. The following weekend against
With every loss, there was more criticism, and not the typical Monday morning quarterbacking you might find in towns around
Very few on campus warmed up to Purzycki during that first year, and much of the sentiment expressed after he was hired continued to be echoed--but not by the players. As the season progressed, the players began to understand what Purzycki was all about and that, in turn, created a trust. Enough trust that most of the players were able to resist the calls from their friends and family to rebel. They stayed united.
There would be one more victory in 1981, the second-to-last game of the season on the road against
The ensuing months revealed that while there had been change on the field, there hadn't been much off of it. The editor of the
The night before playing rival South Carolina State at home in the opener in 1982, Purzycki responded to a reporter's question with comments about the SCSU offense being overpowering, clubbing guys over the head with their size and physique. He used the word "cavemen" to describe their style of play and didn't think anything more of it.
The next morning, the quotes appeared in the local newspaper and
After starting off the season 1-3, things looked promising heading into a road game against Howard on Oct. 9. But the day before, Purzycki learned that his father, his idol, his best friend, had passed away. He had been in the VA Hospital outside
After DSU blew a 26-7 lead at home over rival
Harold Young and James Nilback, two of the more radical members of the team who were inspired by the anti-white sentiment on campus, began to raise their voices in the locker room. Young yelled out, "I'm not running for the white man anymore." The next day, both Young and Nilback were kicked off the team.
At season's end,
The 1983 team went 7-3-1, including wins over Division I-A Virginia and JMU. Purzycki was voted the MEAC Coach of the Year by his peers, a far cry from their reception two years earlier.
By the start of the 1984 season, Purzycki and his players had accomplished something that no one thought possible--they made
Purzycki was no longer a polarizing figure on campus, or in
"The difference between 1980 and 1984 is this," Matthew Horrace points out. "In 1980, we weren't supposed to win. In 1984, we were supposed to win." It took just four years to build
At JMU, Purzycki went 34-30-2, leading the team to a national ranking and a playoff birth in 1987, before stepping down under pressure in 1990. He interviewed for some assistant jobs in the NFL and in college, before taking a lucrative offer from MBNA to move into the banking world while he worked part-time as a scout for the New York Jets. Currently, Purzycki is a senior vice-president of Juniper Bank in
So what is the legacy of 1981? Of Joe Purzycki? Of Nelson Townsend? Of the historical hiring? Well,
What about the national ranking and on-the-field success by 1984? Well, the winning continued, as one of Purzycki's assistants, Bill Collick, took over in 1985 and led
"The legacy is that we were finally able to win, and win with class and order," Collick reflects. "And kids who typically wouldn't have gotten an education were now able to get a good one and stay close to home and play football. It was an opportunity. I can't tell you how many folks were looking for a way to have things better for their children."
Still, surely, the added exposure and popularity of DSU football under Purzycki led to a state-of-the-art stadium, new practice facilities and football offices. Nope. They play in the same stadium with electric hot aluminum bleachers and the offices haven't moved. Despite the meteoric rise in the early 1980s, the program continues to play in the shadow of the
Perhaps the legacy is in the players. The young men who suffered humiliation in 1980, only to work their way up to the top. The young men who learned about adversity, prejudice, acceptance and courage. The young men who have now become leaders in federal law enforcement and teachers and coaches and bankers and lawyers. To a man, they remember the good and the bad times at
"I think the legacy to me, is that a group of young African-American men, really were in every way, pushed on that campus to abandon me because of what they were afraid might happen to their institution. These young men all stood by me. They could have, on any day, gotten rid of me. All they had to do was side with what everyone on campus and in that town were saying--it's not working. We had a mutual respect for one another. So regardless of our color and our differences, we hung in there with one another. That is the legacy."
At the end of the Hall of Fame ceremonies, after all of the speeches and thank yous, Purzycki walked off the stage and headed to the back of the room, where he hugged his former players, man to man. He spent thirty minutes catching up with them, asking about their families, their careers, their memories. The room was almost cleared by the time the coach called everyone together for a group photo. The hair was grayer, the faces wore a few more wrinkles, but the picture could have come from years earlier, when a coach and a team came together and made history.