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Worth Clucking Over Success? Tradition? Crazy fans? Delaware's Blue Hens have 'em all

Sept. 15, 2003
Sept. 15, 2003

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Sept. 15, 2003

Worth Clucking Over Success? Tradition? Crazy fans? Delaware's Blue Hens have 'em all

When entering Delaware on I-95, a driver is greeted by a sign that
speaks volumes about a state known worldwide for, ahem, almost
nothing: WELCOME TO DELAWARE. HOME OF TAX-FREE SHOPPING!

This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2003 issue Original Layout

Delaware is, in fact, home to tax-free shopping, as well as to a
lot of Du Ponts, a few beaches, a half-decent pizza chain
called Grotto and, last but not least, George Thorogood and the
Destroyers. "People don't pay this state much mind," says Edgar
Johnson, the University of Delaware's athletic director, "and
it makes me mad." Why, a few months back he was on a rafting
trip in the Grand Canyon when a fellow traveler asked where he
was from. "When I told him Delaware," recalls Johnson, "he
wanted to know where that's located. How stupid can a person
be?"

Johnson sighs. Such ignorance is hardly new. Although Delaware's
official nickname is The First State, it is truly The Passed
Through State--as in, I think I passed through there once on my
way to Philly. It should not be surprising, then, that many of
the 783,600 residents attach themselves to the one thing that
makes the place unique. New York has the Statue of Liberty.
California has the Golden Gate Bridge. Delaware, and only
Delaware, has the Fightin' Blue Hens football team.

Stop laughing. Yes, the team's mascot is strangely hued poultry.
(Explanation: During the Revolutionary War, Delaware formed the
Fightin' Blue Hen battalion, named for a local breed used in
cockfighting.) And yes, Delaware plays in Division I-AA, against
such gridiron lightweights as New Hampshire, Northeastern and
Rhode Island. And yes, the Blue Hens stole their uniform design
from Michigan because Dave Nelson, the late Delaware coach, began
his career at Ann Arbor and always admired the Wolverines' duds.
But on Saturdays at Delaware Stadium in Newark--say it with an
ark, not an erk--when the marching band plays the school fight
song and the Hens sprint onto the field, something singular and
magical happens.

"It's not like Pennsylvania, where you have Penn State, Pitt,
Penn and Temple," says Connie Cecil, a 13-year season-ticket
holder and president of the Blue Hen Touchdown Club. "Delaware
football is Delaware. It's the one thing that unites us. Everyone
here follows the Blue Hens."

Delaware is the only I-AA program to have averaged crowds of more
than 20,000 in each of the last four seasons. Last Saturday night
20,612 turned out for the season opener against The Citadel. They
watched the 14th-ranked Blue Hens roll to a 41-7 win behind
senior quarterback Andy Hall, who threw for a career-high 283
yards and three touchdowns, guiding an offense that outgained the
Bulldogs' 476 yards to 266.

Results like that are part of the reason for the rabid interest.
In the last 35 years Delaware has had only three losing seasons
while winning three national titles (1971, '72 and '79) and
producing a handful of NFL players, most notably Oakland Raiders
quarterback Rich Gannon. Since Bill Murray arrived from Duke in
1940, the school has employed four--count 'em, four--head
coaches, three of whom are members of the College Football Hall
of Fame. The most recent inductee was Harold (Tubby) Raymond, a
portly curmudgeon who retired before last season with 300
victories. In a state so tiny that at one point it's only nine
miles wide, the 77-year-old Raymond can go nowhere without being
swarmed by well-wishers. "His face," says Johnson, "is a Delaware
landmark."

So, too, was his style of offense. Raymond took over the Blue
Hens in 1966 from the legendary Nelson, and over 36 seasons he
turned his predecessor's three-back offense, the wing T, into a
system both admired and feared. As the Hens routinely confounded
bigger, stronger, faster opponents with a dizzying assortment of
backfield slants and misdirections, the attack came to be known
as the Delaware wing T. From near and far, high school coaches
flooded Raymond's summer camps, eager to learn the intricacies of
a maddeningly confusing and consistently effective offense.

The Delaware wing T had no finer day than Dec. 5, 1992, when the
Hens traveled to Monroe, La., and stomped No. 1-ranked Northeast
Louisiana 41-18 in the Division I-AA quarterfinals. The star of
the game was 5'9" quarterback Bill Vergantino, who slashed and
dashed his way to two touchdowns while repeatedly pulling the ol'
shell game on the Indians' defense. "I've played against the wing
T before, and I know how to implement it," said Dave Roberts,
Northeast Louisiana's bewildered coach, after the Hens rushed for
376 yards against his club. "But I sure don't know how to stop
it. I don't think anyone does."

Hence it was quite a shock when, shortly after Raymond's
retirement, Delaware chose as his successor K.C. Keeler, the
coach of Division III Rowan College in Glassboro, N.J., whose
specialty was (egad!) the no-huddle, West Coast offense. At the
first Blue Hen Touchdown Club meeting after the hiring, several
members were in an uproar, wondering whether the athletic
department was sacrificing the team's identity for the pizzazz of
a modern system. That lasted until Raymond, of all people, drove
a nail in the wing T's coffin. "The truth is, we haven't really
been running the pure wing T for a while," he told anyone who'd
listen. Citing a 59-17 win over UConn in 1998, he added, "What
kind of wing T produces 556 yards of passing offense? K.C.'s
doing the right thing."

As would befit the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution,
the new coach's acceptance came down to history. Though Keeler's
offense was foreign to Newark, he was not. Well before guiding
Rowan to four New Jersey Athletic Conference titles in nine
seasons, he had been one of the finest Blue Hens linebackers
ever. In a 1978 playoff victory against Jacksonville (Ala.)
State, he intercepted passes on three consecutive defensive
series, and the following year he helped Delaware win the
Division II national championship. "If he didn't have the ties to
the program, it's safe to say people here wouldn't have been so
welcoming," says Johnson, "but K.C. Keeler is a Blue Hen through
and through."

As if one needs proof, inside Keeler's office is a
taxidermist-stuffed royal-blue hen, as ugly as the midseason
scabs on a linebacker's knees. Whenever a recruit comes to Newark
for an official visit and asks, "What the heck is a Blue Hen?"
the coach need only point to the preserved fowl. In a way, Keeler
admits, the unfamiliarity is one of the best things about the
program, which has been around since 1889. Unlike Notre Dame,
where players arrive knowing of Paul Horning, Joe Montana and
Rocket Ismail, those new to Newark must learn what it means to be
a Blue Hen. Wide receiver David Boler, a transfer from USC, says
that until Keeler recruited him, "I never even knew the
University of Delaware existed. I was like, Dela-where?"

Keeler has made it his objective to not only coach football but
also educate his men on tradition. Before his first game as the
team's coach last September he told them, "Today is not about me.
It's not about Coach Raymond's retirement, either. It's about the
responsibility of playing for everyone who wore your colors,
about the men who built this program up.

"More than anything," Keeler continued, "it's about the pride of
being a Blue Hen."

With that, Delaware upset heavily favored Georgia Southern 22-19.
Afterward, some of the players went out to celebrate. And
everything they bought was tax-free.

For more about sports in Delaware and the other 49 states, go to
si.com/50.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY HALL MARKS The Hens' quarterback opened the season with a career day.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY BLUE HEAVEN Decades of winning are just one reason football passions run high on the Newark campus, where Youdee the mascot leads the cheers.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND The school named the field at its often packed 22,000-seat stadium after the Hens' third straight Hall of Fame coach.
"It's not like Pennsylvania, where you have Penn State, Pitt,
Penn and Temple," says Cecil, a longtime fan. "Delaware football
is Delaware."