A Legacy Like No Other
 
 

Oct. 30, 2006

By Brian Curtis

Special to CSTV.com

 



BRIAN CURTIS

Brian Curtis is a CSTV football and basketball analyst and a regular CSTV.com writer.
E-mail here!

Abstract:  In 1980, Delaware State University's football program had hit such a low, that they lost to Portland State 105-0 and became a national joke.  A few months later, the athletic director of the predominantly black school, Nelson Townsend, hired a brash, young, white 33-year old, Joe Purzycki, to become the first white head coach of any black college football team in the country.  Despite the opposition from the community--and death threats--Purzycki and the players (who didn't quit) formed a unique bond that led to the resurrection of the Delaware State program and a national ranking within three years.  Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and many other publications wrote features on the historic hiring and turnaround.  This is a remarkable story about courage, adversity, prejudice and football.  

 

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The first person Joe Purzycki spotted outside the press room when he walked into the Modern Maturity Center in Dover, Delaware, that April night in 2005, was his old assistant and friend, Bill Collick.  Collick shook his hand, gave him a hug, and thanked him.  Maxine Lewis, who worked in media relations back in the day, came over while Purzycki stood in line to be introduced and she, too, embraced the 57-year-old and even gave him a small gift.  A few minutes passed as the former football coach stood anxiously with the ten other Delaware African-American Sports Hall of Fame inductees, and still more familiar faces; Victor Heflin, Todd Drew and Michael Colbert, three of his former players.  In fact, there was a whole table full of them in the back of the room.

 

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. 

 

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It was a bizarre scene, but not an unexpected one.  The William C. Jason Library on the campus of Delaware State University was packed that January night in 1981.  Hundreds of students had gathered, including football players and members of the media.  They stood with an excited hush as the Athletic Council of the school met behind closed doors to interview candidates and to select its new football coach, and boy, did they need a new one.  The previous season, the Hornets had lost to Portland State 105-0.  The score made national headlines and the school became a laughing stock.  They were perennial losers, suffering a drug epidemic on campus and among athletes.  Something had to be done. 

 

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 University of Delaware who had been a successful high school coach in the Dover area.  He was a Polish kid from New Jersey who had never been a head coach at the college level.  And he was white.

 

Purzycki grew up in the blue-collar town of Newark, N.J.  His father, Mike, was an outstanding basketball player who starred at Villanova outside of Philadelphia and was named one of the Top 100 players ever to come out of the Garden State.  Purzycki himself excelled at basketball, baseball and football and soon became an all-conference defensive back at Delaware, under legendary coach Tubby Raymond.  After a few years as a high school coach in Dover, leading powerhouse Caesar Rodney to a state championship and a 33-2 overall record, Purzycki joined the staff at his alma mater in 1978.

 

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 Delaware State College Has To Hire A White Football Coach."  The column spurned a firestorm in the black community.  How can we let a white man take over a leadership position at Delaware State? The community cried,  What's next?  White faculty members taking control?  A white person simply doesn't get it.

 

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 Martin Luther King Student Center.  They held up signs that read, "Go Home!"  Earlier in the day, the Delaware State student newspaper had printed an editorial chastising the Board of Trustees, Athletic Council and Townsend, insisting that Purzycki was not welcome on their campus and labeling him the "The Polish Prince."

 

The press conference was packed--150 students, faculty members and media.  There were no questions about football or the coach's plans to turn Delaware State around.  They were only about race.  As he fielded the questions, the normally calm and collected Purzycki began to rethink his decision.  What had he gotten himself into?

 

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.

 

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Delaware State was founded in 1892 on a 100-acre lot comprised of three buildings.  One hundred African-American students studied a liberal arts education that first year, taught by an all-black faculty, some of whom were former slaves or sons and daughters of slaves.   The century would change and decades more would pass before blacks could even attend the state university, Delaware.  Over those many years, DSU expanded to include thousands of students on a sprawling campus just blocks from the state capital in Dover.

 

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, Delaware State won 33 games, lost 66 and tied two.  Only two coaches in the school's history had finished with a winning record.

 

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 Portland State one of many, which sealed Henderson's fate, including a 59-6 whitewashing at the hands of "rival" Florida A&M.  They lost to Massachusetts 39-0, to Howard 49-7, to North Carolina A&T 52-0, to Towson State 30-0 and those were before the 105-0 loss in Oregon.  Delaware State was outscored by its opponents 437-109.  In addition to the on-the-field woes, the coaches routinely played players who were academically ineligible, in and out of the court system and on probation.    

 

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 Delaware State that Joe Purzycki inherited. 

 

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 Delaware State.  Tullis was his first hire.  He coached receivers and women's track but more importantly, he bridged a gap between Purzycki and the players and was instrumental in recruiting the first class. 

 

Collick was an elementary school teacher in Southern Delaware, happy to be teaching, when Purzycki gave him a call.  He knew Collick from his playing days at Delaware and as an assistant high school coach in the area.  "I was just excited to get an opportunity," the now head coach and Dean of Students at Sussex Tech High School in Delaware remembers.  His uncle had graduated from Delaware State in 1949, in a time when African-American kids had little choice of education after eighth grade. 

 

"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 Delaware State campus and formerly represented the only people on campus.  The all-black faculty were the sons and daughters of the Civil Rights Movement who had grown up being beaten by police batons, forced to eat at segregated tables and otherwise existed as second-class citizens.  The pain and distrust had not gone away by 1981, though there were many more white students attending DSU.

 

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 Delaware State men's basketball team play a home game and at halftime, he got up off the bleachers and went into the packed lobby to grab a drink.  With few friendly smiles around, Purzycki was suddenly approached by a beautiful young woman, who introduced herself as Velda Bowles, and who welcomed the coach to campus.  The most popular girl at Delaware State stood in the middle of the lobby with the white man and everyone watched.  She knew what she was doing.  She knew the statement she had just made.

 

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 Delaware State motor pool, Purzycki barely got a mile off campus when the brakes stopped working in the car.  He was able to successfully pull over, but not without the thought that his car had been tampered with (he never used an official car again).   On the road, high school coaches and fellow college coaches believed he was mistaken when he introduced himself as the head coach at Delaware State.  "You mean the University of Delaware," they would always reply, referring to the predominantly white state institution.

 

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 Delaware and a 4-3 defensive alignment.  Despite the pathetic 1980 season, there was some talent on the roster--at least those who hadn't quit.  Johnny Rowe looked promising as a running back; Calvin Mason anchored the offensive line, Tim King led the defense.  There were four quarterbacks in camp, though none looked too good.  The best player never even suited up.  Clarence Weathers, the younger brother of NFLer Robert Weathers, never showed up for offseason weightlifting or conditioning.

 

"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. 

 

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Eldridge "Ace" Comer had nothing when he arrived on campus in 1981.  Well, almost nothing.  The young black man from the tough streets of West Philadelphia showed up in August with a wagon-full of family members.  He was one of seven children and it seemed like they all were on hand to see him off.  His only possessions?   A laundry basket and cardboard box full of some ragtag sweats and a few personal items.

 

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 Washington, D.C., the place that no one ever truly leaves.  Delaney and Purzycki clashed from the moment they met, and the push-and-pull relationship was challenged almost daily.  The coach saw his job as to keep Delaney in school and away from a sure premature death on the streets.  Delaney was in and out of the court system and Purzycki was a character witness for him in court.  Before Delaney left DSU, he sat with his coach in the office and the men shared tears. 

 

"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 Germantown, Penn., during the 1980 debacle season.  "For most of us, being freshmen, we were new to college football.  We really didn't have a measuring stick.  We knew we were 2-9 and that things had to get better." 

 

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 Delaware State, Purzycki knew that he and the team would be marked men, especially on the road.  Not during every game and not by every official, but it was a real possibility the calls would go against them.

 

The Joe Purzycki era at Delaware State officially kicked off on the road against Virginia State in Petersburg, Virginia on Sept. 5, 1981.  The coach was something of a spectacle, being one of a handful of white people in the stadium, let alone on the sidelines, and there were racial epithets shouted at Purzycki during the game from fans. 

 

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 Dover on Thursday night and drove ten hours to Orangeburg, South Carolina.  Before heading South, Nelson Townsend had pulled his friend aside to warn him about the hostile racial climate in S.C.  Orangeburg was the site of a massacre in 1968, just 13 years earlier, when three South Carolina State students were killed and 27 injured by the police during a rally on campus, protesting the segregation of a local bowling alley.  The massacre became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement.

 

In fact, even in 1981, there was still a great deal of racism in America, particularly in the Deep South.  To avoid any potential problems, the Delaware State team would board their bus and vans and depart from Dover at midnight.  Why so late?  So by the time the buses entered into the southern states of Virginia, the Carolinas and beyond, it would be daylight--a much safer time for African-Americans from the North.  The players slept above the bus seats on the luggage racks.

 

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" (New Jersey) learned all he could about African-American culture and history.  His former players recollect practice sessions or pre-game speeches when the coach would huddle the team up and talk about a great African-American in history, like Olympian Wilma Rudolph.  He would wax poetically about the obstacles in her path and how she overcame adversity.  There was the oft-told story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, who rose from poverty cleaning floors to become one of the few millionaire women of her time.   And, of course, there were continued references to Dr. Martin Luther King.  But Purzycki had to do more than talk about famous African-Americans to win over his team.

 

"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 Wilberforce, Ohio, after a win over Central State, when the team bus hit two horses on a dark highway in Maryland.  The bus' front window and door were shattered so the players and coaches sat on the bus, awaiting the police.  When an officer did arrive, he boarded the bus and explained that he needed to fill out an accident report, including the names, numbers, addresses and race of everyone on the bus, "White or Colored."

 

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 South Carolina State assistant coaches began chanting, for everyone to hear, "White man sitting down, black man standing up."  Perhaps he was trying to fire up his all-black squad, but it incensed a few Delaware State players.  It also opened Purzycki's eyes to what the Deep South was all about.

               

Against South Carolina State, the Hornets allowed their opponents to rush for 262 yards.  Delaware State fumbled the ball seven times, losing three of them.  The Hornets lost 29-0.

 

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 Tallahassee.  In those days, Rudy Hubbard was the head coach at FAMU and often came across as if he were Paul "Bear" Bryant.  Wherever he went, he traveled with two policemen, even on the field for pre-game handshakes.  The crowd was hostile, as always.  Many shouts were directed at Purzycki.  The coach approached Hubbard at midfield to shake hands and jokingly said, "Coach, I think I need those two more than you do," pointing to the officers.  Hubbard didn't crack a smile.

 

It wasn't that bad at halftime, down by just seven, but all Delaware State could muster in the game was a measly field goal in the second quarter.  But hey, the 27-3 loss was better than last year's 59-6 blow out to FAMU.

 

The team finally played a home game in late September, marking Purzycki's debut on the sidelines in Dover.  The game was against West Chester State and, after giving up a late 95-yard punt return touchdown, DSU lost a heartbreaker, 19-16.  As Townsend and his wife walked out of the stadium, they were accosted by a group of angry students who screamed that the athletic director had "sold us down the river."  There were a few bright spots so far on the season; DSU was holding opponents to significantly fewer points than the previous season and they were putting up more points of their own.  

 

"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 Delaware State with a shocking 21-17 win over North Carolina A&T, a team coached by one of the finalists for the DSU job, Jim McKinley.  Delaware State exploded for 21 points in the second half and clinched the win on quarterback Pat Spencer's three-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.  After the final whistle, many of the Delaware State players hoisted their coach atop their shoulders and paraded him around the field.  Things had come a long way.

 

"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 Towson State at Homecoming, the Hornets fell back into familiar failings--sloppy play, stupid penalties, instigating fights.  After the 24-7 loss, Purzycki grabbed linebacker Troy Wing and walked over to the Towson locker room.  In front of their players and coaches, Wing apologized for the poor sportsmanship of Delaware State.

 

With every loss, there was more criticism, and not the typical Monday morning quarterbacking you might find in towns around America.  No, the pointed shots at the coach were often about, or because of, his color.  Every loss was one more reason why a white man couldn't get it done.  Every loss was another reason that the "traitor", Nelson Townsend, should be run out of town.  Every loss was simply more of the same.

 

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 Central State and their coach, Billy Joe.  Purzycki's two wins in his inaugural season came at the expense of the two men he beat out for the Delaware State job.  In the season finale in Charlestown, Illinois, against I-AA power Eastern Illinois, the opposing players scoffed at the visiting team in their pregame huddle, chanting, "Fifty points, 500 yards!" before kickoff.  But this was not last year's DSU team.  Despite a 17-0 halftime deficit, the Hornets rallied on the running of Johnny Rowe and lost 24-16.  It was an L in the loss column, but a victory in how close a game it turned out to be. 

 

Delaware State finished the season 2-9, the exact same record as they recorded the year before.  So what was different?  A close look at the statistics revealed improvement on both sides of the ball.  In 1981, DSU rushed for 2,080 yards, compared to just 905 the previous season.  They held opponents to fewer than half (211-437) as many points as the 1980 team.  Rowe had a huge year, becoming the first DSU player to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season and expectations were high heading into spring practice.

 

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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 Delaware State student newspaper and his associates continued to push for Joe Purzycki's ouster and inflamed anti-white sentiment on campus.  The coach was still white, the school was still black.  In a Sept. 1982 interview with Sports Illustrated, Nelson Townsend said, "The one thing I'd hope is that this will be the last interview I have to do on the subject of Joe Purzycki's being white, because we have passed that stage here.  America may not have passed that stage, but we have."  Or so he hoped.

 

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 South Carolina State coach, Bill Davis, read it.  And he was incensed.  His team was a heavy favorite in the game, but he was hardly in a mood to be jovial.  Davis thought the comments from the white coach of Delaware State were racially motivated and he confronted Townsend--not Purzycki--on the field before the game, calling Purzycki a racist.  Needless to say, the Hornets won 17-7 in a stunning upset.

 

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 Washington, D.C. for two weeks with heart problems and Purzycki knew his Dad was not well. Still, there was shock.  The coach didn't make the trip to D.C. and the Hornets lost 22-14.

 

After DSU blew a 26-7 lead at home over rival Central State and Billy Joe in early November, the opposing coach (Joe) was carried off the field on the shoulders of the home team's students.  In the locker room after the game, there was plenty of tension.  Alfred Parham, the son of a minister and an offensive lineman for Purzycki, pulled his distraught coach aside and told him that he is who the players want, not anybody else, despite the victory ride for Joe just minutes earlier.

 

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, Delaware State was still on the Purzycki 2-4-6-8 plan.  They won two games in 1981 and managed four wins in 1982.  By the start of 1983, it was clear Joe Purzycki wasn't going anywhere, though his Hornets were.  With a schedule that included black powers Florida A&M, Central State and Howard University, Delaware State played very good football.  Led by the first white player on the black All-American team, offensive tackle Franz Kappel, John Taylor, defensive tackle Joe Lane and fullback Gene Lake, they beat Florida A&M on the road, and celebrated so long on the field after the game that the grounds crew started sprinklers to get them off.  The Hornets kept winning and earning respect.  So much so, that by late September, they were voted in the Top 10 of the Division I-AA national poll.  It was a long way from 105-0. 

 

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 Delaware State a legitimate football team, one to be reckoned with.  There was so much respect that they were a preseason favorite heading into September, and didn't disappoint.  They finished 8-2 and were the top rushing team in I-AA and second in the nation in scoring and total offense.  The eight wins included a 55-17 thrashing of then No. 1 ranked and undefeated Central State.

 

Purzycki was no longer a polarizing figure on campus, or in Dover.  In fact, he was the toast of the town.  It would be a better story to say that Purzycki's teams kept winning and he's been at Delaware State for twenty-five years.  But after the 1984 season, James Madison came calling and the coach went to Virginia.  Despite his success at DSU, some critics were quick to scream out, `See, we told you he wasn't committed.'" 

 

"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 Delaware State football into something.  The coach, his assistants and his players created something from nothing.  They proved everyone wrong.  Along the way, they changed some minds, but not all; they won some games, but not all; they created a new legacy, for all.  

 

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 Wilmington, Del.

 

So what is the legacy of 1981?  Of Joe Purzycki?  Of Nelson Townsend?  Of the historical hiring?  Well, Delaware State has not had another white head football coach since Purzycki.  In fact, no other school in the all-black MEAC hired a white head coach until 2005, when Norfolk State, a traditional black college, hired Pete Adrian.  In many of the newspaper reports announcing Adrian's hiring, there was a reference to Joe Purzycki's hiring 24 years earlier.  But at DSU and elsewhere, Purzycki's hiring did not open the flood gate for white coaches at black colleges.

 

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 Delaware State to eleven straight winning seasons but never back to the Top 10.  Things soon began to crumble.  The losses began to mount again.  Players were back in trouble with the law.  Current head coach Al Lavan was hired in 2004, after former coach Ben Blacknall amassed a 16-24 record.  There isn't much talk about a national ranking anymore. 

 

"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 University of Delaware, the 2003 Division I-AA National Champions. 

 

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 Delaware State.  They remember what it meant to play football.  They remember Joe Purzycki.  Maybe that's the legacy.  What does the coach think?

 

"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.


 

 


 
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