Two years ago the Delaware State College football team traveled to Portland (Ore.) State, where it got a mention in the national news by losing 105-0. That and several other embarrassments in its 2-9 season led to another news item 2½ months later: DelState, a predominantly black college of 2,102 students, hired a new head coach, a 35-year-old assistant at the University of Delaware named Joe Purzycki, who is white. "We were looking for the man who best suited our needs," says DelState President Dr. Luna I. Mishoe. "That the young man happened to be white had historical significance. [He was then the first and only white head coach at a black college; there is now another, Dan Antolik, at St. Paul's in Lawrenceville, Va.] But from a practical standpoint it had no significance to us."
It did, however, have ramifications. Only three players attended Purzycki's first team meeting; 17 quit the team, 13 of whom walked out on their scholarships. There was a phony death threat. There were demonstrations. A petition was circulated urging the board of trustees to reconsider the choice, and the school paper, The Hornet, printed a series of unsigned letters that referred to Purzycki as the "Polish Prince" and questioned whether his hiring was a move by the state government either to turn DelState football into a program for whites or destroy it altogether.
But that was the worst of it, and nowadays, says Purzycki, "I'm accepted just as a football coach," and the DelState program is beginning to prosper.
Back in 1980 Athletic Director Nelson Townsend was looking for a responsible coach with strong statewide appeal, and Purzycki fit the bill. He was a defensive back at the University of Delaware from 1967 to '69, and made a school-record nine interceptions in his senior year.
Purzycki graduated in 1971 and got a head-coaching job at a small high school, Woodbridge, in southern Delaware. He was successful enough (15-12-3) in his three seasons there to move to a larger school, Caesar Rodney (named for the Founding Father whose tie-breaking vote put the Delaware delegation behind the Declaration of Independence). In Purzycki's first year, Rodney was undefeated and won the state Division I title. Over three years its record was 33-2. Purzycki became the defensive backfield coach for Delaware in 1978, and the next year the Blue Hens won the Division II title.
In mid-December of 1980 Purzycki drove to Dover to talk with Townsend about the job. Their interview lasted four hours, with Townsend playing Branch Rickey to Purzycki's Jackie Robinson, so to speak. Says Purzycki, "He said to me, 'Look, it's you who's going to have to see everybody else's side of things. Some of the faculty and staff have been here 40 or 50 years, and they have scars. What you're going to endure is nothing.' "
Delaware State was founded in 1891 by the state assembly "for the education of colored students in Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts." Among the vestiges of Jim Crow are the private residences on campus that were built for faculty members, who were excluded from good housing in the Dover area. What is now the weight room was once equipped with 50 cots for visiting black teams, which were barred from the local hotels.
Purzycki was given the job over two "extremely attractive" black candidates: Billy Joe, the former AFL running back who was then the fullback coach for the Philadelphia Eagles; and Jim McKinley, the head coach at North Carolina A&T. It came down to a meeting of the board of trustees on the evening of Jan. 22, 1981. All three were interviewed, and the board chose Purzycki. Afterward Townsend went to a men's dormitory to talk to the members of the team, who were, well, mad as Hornets. He fielded questions such as, "How could you have given our program away to white people?" and "How could you have chosen anybody over Billy Joe?" A recurring theme was that whites never give blacks the kind of opportunity that Purzycki was getting, so why were they wasting the opportunity.
It's a valid point. There are now two black head coaches among the 96 in the NCAA's Division I-A: Dennis Green of Northwestern and Willie Jeffries of Wichita State. (DelState is in I-AA.) And there are none at all in the NFL. Townsend told the worried players that they should have faith in him, if nothing else. "I told them that we hadn't 'given away' anything to anybody. We hired a coach, and that's all there was to it."
One of the signers of the petition urging the board to reconsider its choice was Richard Williams, a fullback from Washington, D.C. "I was definitely concerned," Williams says. "I didn't exactly disagree, but I didn't exactly agree either. My main concern was his ability to coach the team. I'll say now that he's tough and he's fair."
Purzycki's first season was a success of sorts. The record was the same as in '80, but opponents scored 226 fewer points. The two victories, oddly enough, were over McKinley's North Carolina A&T and Central State of Ohio, coached by Billy Joe.
This season begins with home games against the two toughest teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: South Carolina State on Sept. 11 and Florida A&M on Sept. 18. An upset over either one would make Purzycki's season.
"One thing we were not guilty of," said Townsend last month, "was being color-blind. We were totally aware that Purzycki is white. But we were also aware that he'd be the best person for our program. 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."