On November 8th, 1980, Delaware State College lost a football game to Portland State University by the astonishing score of 105 to 0.
The loss (the largest of several lopsided defeats the Hornets suffered that year) led to school president Dr. Luna Mishoe ordering his athletic director Nelson Townsend to completely revamp the school’s football program. Townsend began by searching for a new football coach and the man he wanted to hire was an assistant coach at the University of Delaware named Joe Purzycki. But there was one big issue with Townsend’s plan. Delaware State was a Historically Black College and no such school had ever hired a white head football coach. Townsend didn’t care about Purzycki’s skin color. He simply believed he was the best qualified applicant for the job. In this excerpt from the new book Mr. Townsend & the Polish Prince, a skeptical Purzycki first meets with Townsend and learns a lot about the situation in Dover (both on and off the field).
The way the program was staggering at the end of 1980 didn’t deter a long list of candidates who were interested in becoming the next head football coach at Delaware State College.
After all, there were only 183 people in the United States who had the job of Division I head football coach (138 in I-A, 45 in I-AA). Coaches’ salaries had not yet exploded, but if you had a Division I job you were able to make a comfortable living.
The list included Billy Joe, who quickly emerged as the favorite in the DSC community, having played football at Villanova and in the NFL, even winning a Super Bowl with the New York Jets. He spent seven years as head coach at Cheyney State (a Division II school in Pennsylvania), and then became offensive backfield coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1979. Thanks to Dover’s proximity to Philadelphia, players at Del State knew his name and were excited about the possibility of playing for a guy who had played and coached in the NFL.
Also interested was Bob Andrus, a successful head coach in town at the high school and junior college levels. Following a great run at Dover High, which included a 29-game winning streak, Andrus was amid a 14-year stretch at Wesley College in Dover. He had won four conference titles and in 1976 his 10-0 team was the second-ranked junior college program in America.
Then there was Joe Purzycki.
Although Purzycki didn’t have the credentials of some candidates, he had name recognition in Delaware. He had been a three-year starting cornerback and captain for Tubby Raymond’s powerful University of Delaware program and was an honorable mention AP All-American in 1969 when he led the country with nine interceptions. Purzycki had spent six years coaching high school football in Delaware, including three wildly successful seasons at Caesar Rodney High School outside Dover where his teams went 33-2 and won the 1975 state championship.
In 1978, the already legendary Raymond hired Purzycki to be the secondary coach at Delaware. The Blue Hens went 32-7 in the three years Purzycki was on the staff, winning the Division II championship in 1979. By 1980, the program had jumped into Division I-AA and finished the season 9-2.
As the Blue Hen staff began off-season recruiting, Purzycki felt he had reached a professional crossroads. Jumping from high school to UD to work with Raymond put him in the brighter spotlight of college football, but he was anxious to run his own program again. He considered himself a head coach, and beside his professional ambition, Purzycki needed the money that only a head position offered then.
He and his wife Sharon had two children and wanted more. He was just 33 years old, but after more than a decade in coaching, he was making just $12,500 as the defensive backs coach at Delaware. He couldn’t help but consider options outside of football, and while investigating a career in law enforcement, he scored well on the FBI exam. But the timing for that move couldn’t have been worse. Ronald Reagan had won the 1980 presidential election promising smaller government and speculation held that he would issue a federal hiring freeze – which he did within days of taking office. The FBI was not going to be a viable option anytime soon.
Purzycki was sitting at his desk one afternoon pondering his limited options when his phone rang.
Jack Ireland was a newspaper reporter who had covered sports in Delaware for more than a decade, first for the Seaford Leader then for the Wilmington News Journal. He had covered Purzycki’s stint as head coach at Woodbridge High School, his run at Caesar Rodney High School, and the return to his alma mater as an assistant. They were the same age and had spent a lot of time together. So, Purzycki wasn’t surprised when he heard Ireland’s voice on the other end of the line. The surprise came in Ireland’s first question.
“Can we talk off the record?”
In the reporter/coach relationship that question usually goes in the other direction. But here was Ireland asking Purzycki in advance to keep their conversation just between them.
“Sure,” Purzycki responded.
“Nelson Townsend called me and asked me to reach out to you to see if you have any interest in the Delaware State job,” Ireland said.
The Delaware State opening had been a topic of conversation around the University of Delaware football office, but the tone was usually one of sympathy. Coaches shook their heads in disbelief as they talked about the Portland State game, the still-recent scandal involving ineligible players, and the sorry state of the overall program.
Purzycki knew a lot about the Del State program. Like many, he believed the school could be doing a lot more with football. But there was more to it than that.
“Jack, I’d actually consider it,’ Purzycki said, “but they’ll never hire a white coach. I’ve been told that by a lot of people.”
Ireland had heard the same thing. DSC often interviewed white candidates for coaching jobs but did not hire them. At the time, only two black men held head coaching positions in college football programs outside the network of Historic Black Colleges and Universities, so it was easy to understand Del State’s desire to hire black coaches.
Ireland knew Purzycki wanted to be a head coachand he knew he was good. He had watched him steamroll his way to 33 wins at Caesar Rodney in one of the greatest three-year stretches in Delaware history. Just as significant, he was convinced big changes were coming at DSC.
“I think Nelson is serious about it this time,” he said. “They have to do something dramatic. They’re under a lot of pressure from the state legislature after everything that’s gone on there in the past decade. Townsend, Dr. Mishoe, and the trustees all feel like they’ve got to do something to get the program going.”
Purzycki was intrigued but still skeptical. “I don’t want to hurt my reputation with Tubby and be chasing something unless they are dead serious.”
“Call him, have a conversation, and decide for yourself,” Ireland said. “But I’m telling you, things are different this time.”
Purzycki couldn’t dismiss the thought. He wanted to be a head coach. He wanted to lead a team. He saw that at DSC, there was nowhere to go but up.
He also knew that on all levels, this was a long shot. But it was a shot. “I was still dubious,” he said later. “One conversation with Jack Ireland didn’t completely change my mind about what I thought was the likely outcome for me at Del State. But I decided to call Nelson anyway.”
When Purzycki called, it didn’t take long for Townsend to cut through the small talk to ask him about his interest in the job. Purzycki felt it was important to be completely honest from the start.
“Are you serious about this?” he asked. “Because I can’t hurt my reputation with Tubby unless you’re actually considering me as a candidate and not just someone to be interviewed.”
Townsend countered Purzycki’s direct question with a direct question of his own.
“Are YOU serious? Because I can’t put my neck on the line if you’re not serious. I don’t want you to use me for leverage with Tubby.”
It was a shrewd move. Purzycki’s concerns were real, but Townsend had even more at stake. Purzycki gauged Townsend’s response and quickly realized this was a situation worth exploring.
“No, no, no. I’m not using this as any leverage,” he responded. “I’m serious about it as long as I’m not being used as just a white candidate.”
“I promise you’re not,” Townsend replied. “Why don’t you come down to Dover and we’ll talk.”
Purzycki was now obligated to tell his boss about the conversation. Partially because he didn’t want to tip his hand at how interested he was in the job, and partially because he still harbored some skepticism even after talking to Townsend, he downplayed the situation to Raymond. He said he thought Del State wanted to talk to him primarily because of his six years as a high school head coach in southern Delaware. Raymond saw the benefits as limited.
“Go talk to them. It will be a good experience,” Raymond offered, before adding, “but you’d be crazy to ever go there.”
A few days later, Purzycki drove to Dover and met with Townsend. The two men quickly realized they had strong chemistry. “We liked each other from the start,” Purzycki said.
In discussing their families and backgrounds, they found they shared many personality traits. Purzycki was from the city and Townsend from the country but both had grown up in loving homes with a very strong parental presence. Each was comfortable being himself: gregarious, quick to laugh, and almost instantly of similar mind with the other. Neither had time for bullshit. Before long, they were discussing how to get Delaware State out of its mess.
Townsend told Purzycki that Delaware State was ready to invest in the program. He had worked with the college’s trustees to preload many of the anticipated improvements that any quality candidate would insist on. The coaching staff was already being restructured to turn assistants into full-time employees with benefits. The recruiting budget would increase, the 40 scholarships would grow to 60 – still below the maximum of 75 in Division I-AA, but a step in the right direction.
Townsend took Purzycki for a walk across campus on a chilly winter afternoon. They arrived at the weight room and the candidate was shocked by the meager offerings – a universal gym, a couple sets of barbells, and a bench. One bench. Purzycki gasped, “Any high school in the state of Delaware has a better weight room,” and Townsend could only laugh in agreement.
This, too, was an example of tangible progress for the program under a new head coach, Townsend pointed out, noting that when he was hired as athletic director, the entire “weight training facility” consisted of a single bar with a couple hundred pounds of weights. The bar and weights resided outdoors under the bleachers of the stadium in a pile of weeds. Some of the equipment had begun to rust.
Yes, there was room to grow at Del State. Purzycki wondered aloud what the room was being used for before Townsend moved in the school’s small stock of weights.
“For many years, this is where visiting teams stayed when they played Delaware State,” Townsend related. “The players slept in here on cots.”
Until the late 1970s, visiting teams couldn’t be guaranteed space in hotel rooms in many towns, including Dover. Throughout the MEAC and other leagues with HBCUs, it was standard procedure for the home team to provide some sort of sleeping arrangements for their guests. Visiting teams generally ate in the host school’s dining hall, too, since they couldn’t always get served in area restaurants.
The two men left the weight room and took a short drive to the back of campus, where Townsend pointed to a development of about 30 houses.
“Those houses are faculty housing,” he told Purzycki. “In the ’50s and ’60s, it was difficult for our teachers to find quality housing in Dover. The college purchased these homes, so they would have a place to live.”
Purzycki knew that there were inequities in the world that created difficult circumstances for black Americans, but in all his years traveling for football as a player and as a coach, he’d never even considered the notion of a team not being allowed to sleep in a hotel or eat in a restaurant. He had never worried about not being able to find a decent home for his family due to his skin color.
The idea of a group of young men sleeping on cots the night before a game created a stark, unshakable image in his mind. The idea of a college teacher being denied adequate housing was a level of discrimination utterly foreign to him, and his reaction was emotional and visceral.
He was starting to realize that taking the job at Delaware State would inject him into a different world from the one he’d been living and working in. He’d be taking on football challenges, financial challenges, and societal challenges that he understood existed but never had to face. Townsend wanted to be sure that Purzycki had a clear understanding of what he was getting into.
“Your biggest problem is this: you’re going to find out what it’s like to be in the minority. It’s you who’s going to have to see everybody else’s side of things. And I can tell you right now it’s not going to be easy. A lot of the people who work here have scars from years of segregation. Many of them had to attend all-black high schools. A lot of the faculty here know nothing but Delaware State College as both their college experience and their work experience. They’re not going to be open to the idea of a white coach.”
Townsend foresaw another potential problem he wanted Purzycki to think about. Outside the network of HBCUs, only two schools had African-American head coaches in 1981 (Willie Jeffries at Wichita State and Dennis Green at Northwestern). Townsend knew that would become an issue if he hired Purzycki.
“The other schools in our conference are all HBCUs, as are most of the schools we play in football. There are people who are not going to be happy with a white man taking a leadership position at Delaware State College.”
Purzycki started to interrupt to ask why Townsend would even consider such a step when the athletic director challenged him by saying he knew Purzycki was tough but wondered if he was tough enough to work in an environment where his every move would be severely scrutinized.
And then he told him why he was pursuing him as a prime candidate: “You played at and you coach at one of the great programs in the country. I need you to take that model of Delaware football that has made you successful and come down here and teach us how to build that kind of program.”
Townsend told him he was one of three candidates that would be interviewed. Purzycki’s original hesitancy about whether Townsend and Delaware State would really consider hiring him was fading to zero. As he shook hands with Townsend any lingering feelings he had about the sincerity of the DSC athletic director had disappeared. He was a candidate for the job. And if he was reading the situation correctly, he was the top candidate.