FROM THE SPORTS EDITOR: Purzycki tells his DSU story in book

Purzycki with assistant coach Bill Collick on the DelState sidelines in the 1980s. Delaware State photo

The whole experiment almost blew up as soon as it started.

Joe Purzycki knew he was wasn’t a popular choice to be Delaware State’s head football coach in 1980.

But it wasn’t until he got to campus that it really sank in.

Seventeen scholarship players quit the team in Purzycki’s first two days in Dover. And there were student protests — some involving his own players.

Purzycki remembers going to DSU athletic director Nelson Towsend at the end of his second day and having a heart to heart.

“I said, ‘Nelson, I don’t know if this is going to work,’” the 71-year-old Purzycki recalls now. “It was kind of like sitting in front of your dad or your big brother while he tells you about life. It was just amazing.

“He said, ‘We are not letting a bunch of 18-year-old kids tell us what to do.’ He would say all the time, ‘Joe, you and I have bigger things to accomplish here.’”

Purzycki stayed, of course, and the outline of that story is well-known in Delaware.

Joe Purzycki

The white coach stayed at the historically black school and led the Hornets for four seasons, turning them into a winner by the time he left to take a job at James Madison.

Now, though, the story of what took place at DSU in the early 1980s has been put into a book, “Mr. Townsend & The Polish Prince.” The book, which was recently released, was written by Mike Gastineau in collaboration with Purzycki.

One of the reasons the book was able to be written in detail is that Puryzcki kept a journal during his time at DelState, then known as Delaware State college.

“Mike Gastineau asked me, ‘Joe, why did you keep a journal?’” said Purzycki. “I said, ‘Mike, because what I was going through was so unusual that, I thought, while I was living it, that this is an amazing story. I’ve got to make sure I capture all this because most people don’t know what happened when I took the job. Most people don’t realize the adversity that we had to face — which was monumental.’”

Ultimately, Purzycki sees the story as one of redemption led by Townsend, who was trying to bring some respectability to a football program which had just two winning seasons in the last 25 seasons and was coming off an eye-opening 105-0 loss to Portland State.

Townsend, who was DSU’s athletic director from 1979-86, passed away in 2015.

“To me he was one of the most courageous men I’ve ever known and a really good man,” said Purzycki. “We were able to really put our differences aside and focus more on what he and I had in common, what we shared and what we believed in.”

Townsend and Purzycki were both met with open hostility at the time — from within the DelState community as well as from other teams.

Purzycki’s office was broken into and ransacked. The ‘Polish Prince’ was a derogative nickname given to the former Woodbridge and Caesar Rodney High head coach by the DSU school newspaper.

Purzycki said Gastineau interviewed 45 former players for the book. He said there were some stories even he hadn’t heard before.

Purzycki said one of the other candidates for the job, future Florida A&M coach Billy Joe, was with the DelState players in their dorm when Townsend told them who he had hired.

“They went crazy, there were riots in the dorm,” said Purzycki. “They were screaming at Nelson. I didn’t know any of that.

“I knew there were problems that night because Nelson told me. But hearing it from the players was very different.”

For his part, Purzycki said he understood the players’ frustration. At the time, there were only two black Division I head coaches in the country.

“It all made perfect sense to me,” said Purzycki. “But, by the third year, my color was insignificant.”

While working on the book, Purzycki said he enjoyed hearing how many of his former players’ lives turned out. He’s proud of the number of them who graduated — a tradition continued under his successor, Bill Collick.

Purzycki said he’s Facebook friends with about 50 former players.

“They’re thrilled that the story is out,” said Purzycki. “We were able to build a team and set aside the color of our skin. We were able to set aside what had initially been a hurdle for me and turn it into a positive,”

Purzycki always remembers the words of former assistant coach Jeff Cannon when he had to cut a player who was trying to turn the team against the coaching staff.

“I said, ‘Jeff, what did you say to him?’” said Purzycki. “He said, ‘Joe, I told him we are much better off if we focus more on what we have in common than that which divides us.’ ”

Purzycki, who’s been an executive in banking and credit cards since 1990, calls coaching at DelState “the most rewarding thing I ever did in my professional life.”

“You don’t know how strong you are until you’re really up against a lot of adversity,” he said. “They say the strongest steel is made in the greatest heat. I think that’s where I grew. I think I was in white-hot heat and that made me a stronger person.

“I have no regrets whatsoever. It’s why I always wanted to tell the story.”

Extra points

• Senior Aniah Patterson recently became just the second player in St. Thomas More girls’ basketball history to score 1,000 career points.

Aniah Patterson

“Since the first day Aniah walked into the STMA gym her freshman year, she showed she was a natural born leader. Her teammates always look to her for guidance and inspiration,” athletic director Tim Freud said in a press release.

• Despite missing three games due to injury, former Delaware standout running back Wes Hills broke the school record by running for 1,734 yards with 17 TDs on 246 carries for Slippery Rock this past fall. Slippery Rock went 11-3 and reached the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.

• Dover High’s unbeaten boys’ basketball team has just one home between now and Jan. 19. That lone home date is against William Penn on Jan. 4.

• With Delaware football head coach Danny Rocco in the market for a new offensive coordinator, it’s worth noting that his son, David, is the co-OC and quarterbacks coach at FCS Division I Western Illinois.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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