The brother’s Purzycki have been having an impact in Delaware since their football days at the University of Delaware.
While older brother Mike has chosen to serve Delaware in some very high-profile public roles, most recently Mayor of Wilmington, Joe has followed a somewhat lower profile. One major exception to this course for Joe was his four-year stint as head football coach at Delaware State University.
At Del State, he would become this country’s first “white” head coach of a historically black college or university (HBCU). This tumultuous experience is described in detail in “Mr. Townsend & the Polish Prince: An American Story of Race, Redemption and Football,” a book just released by Joe and sports show host and author, Mike Gastineau.
Many in the First State will recall opening their newspapers in November 1980 to read that Del State had been humiliated by Portland State by a score of 105 – 0. The University under the leadership of recently appointed Athletic Director Nelson Townsend quickly decided it was time for a change for their football program.
Townsend was influenced by the great success of the University of Delaware and was particularly attracted to the young defensive backfield coach at Delaware, Joe Purzycki. Townsend was familiar with Purzycki due to the former Blue Hen standout and team captain’s success at the high school level. Purzycki had recently led nearby Caesar Rodney High School to a state championship and a 33-2 record over three years.
While Townsend wanted radical change and a new attitude for Del State football, they would both soon learn that many others thought hiring a “white coach” at the HBCU was a bit too radical. Before Purzycki arrived, seventeen players quit the team and protests were erupting on campus.
Mr. Townsend and the Polish Prince (a derogatory label hung on Purzycki by the school newspaper) found themselves isolated at first and it would only get worse. Not only was Purzycki battling racial resentment, he was struggling to turn around the program. After only two wins his first season, the losing ways continued through much of year two. Through all the challenges and rising self-doubt, Purzycki held on, backed by Nelson Townsend.
While many of us know about Joe Purzycki’s ultimate success at Del State, we understand that better days are just around the corner. But the book reads like a movie script and you feel all the emotion as the hard work and sacrifice begin to pay off in the win column. When “The Hornets” finally capture their first win mid-way through the 81’ season, Purzycki told his team, “I have to be the happiest 1-6 coach in the country!”
In addition to the raw challenge of inspiring his players to execute on the football field and in the classroom, the reader will be surprised by the near deprivation that existed on the DSU campus in 1980.
The team “locker room” had no lockers and the “weight room” only had a few barbells. One great anecdote in the story is when brother Mike and his father-in-law, Ed Richitelli go to friends at the Wilmington Country Club and they chip in the $6000 to bring the locker room up to par.
In the end, this book is as much about race relations and how Joe Purzycki adapts when he finds himself to be a “minority” in an environment initially full of resentment. Athletic Director Nelson Townsend draws upon his own life experience facing racial prejudice to help his struggling new coach understand how to deal with this unfamiliar world.
There are excellent profiles of Del State coaches such as Bill Collick, who succeeds Purzycki and leads the Hornets to their first MEAC title; Herky Billings, a legendary star quarterback during Middletown High School’s historical run; record-breaking fullback, Gene Lake, discovered by a Purzycki assistant playing “flag football;” and future NFL superstar receiver John Taylor.
For those of us who thought we knew a little bit about Joe Purzycki and his Del State days, “Mr. Townsend and Polish Prince” will be an eye-opener. For others, you will enjoy a fascinating slice of Delaware history.