Before Joe Purzycki entertained thoughts of his quiet legacy, he was adamant about how it shouldn’t be portrayed. No white savior fantasies, please. No, no, no. The former Delaware State football coach, the first with his light skin to lead a historically black college program, said he received more than he gave while resurrecting the team over four transformative years.
To oversimplify his role, to whitewash the story to make it perfect and happy and easily relatable, would be a shame. This is a hard tale of understanding and accepting. This is a hard tale of winning, of course. But most of all, this is a hard tale of the learning necessary to overcome difference and indifference, its poisonous sibling.
“Nobody wants to hear a story of a white football coach who saved a black program on the brink,” Purzycki, 72, said. “That’s a bad narrative. It makes me cringe.
“What I hope endures is an example of how to build a bridge, how we trusted in each other and created something great, how we found common ground and put aside the labels that we put on each other. My legacy? I hope it’s our legacy. It’s not the white coach and the black school. It’s a coach who was invisible until he earned trust coming together with a program invisible because of all the losing and humiliation. And when we made ourselves visible again, it was quite a picture.”
A decaying Delaware State program had just lost, 105-0, to Portland State. It needed a fixer. So in early 1981, Nelson Townsend, a bold and visionary athletic director, went rogue. This weekend, nearly 40 years after a decision of unprecedented, historic and sometimes forgotten nerve, Purzycki (pronounced Pur-ZICK-ee) will be inducted into the Delaware State Athletics Hall of Fame.
Purzycki will use the recognition to honor the players and assistant coaches who helped him transform the program from a punchline to a perennial winner. He will offer another tribute to Townsend, a legendary figure who died in 2015. And he will try to turn a reunion-like atmosphere into an opportunity to energize the Hornets’ athletic department, which could use a spark.
In the wide world of sports, this story won’t get national attention. But the unlikely union of Purzycki and Delaware State resonates because its message is applicable today. If the rest of our world — sports and beyond — could comprehend a 40-year-old lesson, perhaps the news cycle wouldn’t be so repetitive and depressing.
A year ago, Purzycki published a book with author Mike Gastineau. The two had met during their days at James Madison, Purzycki’s final coaching stop after he left Delaware State. Gastineau was the Dukes’ radio voice, and he remembers small-talk conversations with Purzycki about his experience with the Hornets. So they wrote a book titled “Mr. Townsend and the Polish Prince.” It’s a thorough and honest account of undervalued history told through many voices around the program from 1981 to 1984. But it’s largely an appreciation of Townsend for his wisdom and courage to turn the football program over to Purzycki, whom the student newspaper mockingly referred to as “The Polish Prince.”
Seventeen players quit after Purzycki, an assistant coach and graduate of Route 1 rival Delaware, was named the head coach. Students protested. Purzycki received death threats, and his office was vandalized. And those weren’t always the most difficult moments. It was harder when Purzycki would walk campus, see a student he knew and get ignored. It was harder when he had to sit alone in the cafeteria during lunch.
He didn’t feel sorry for himself, however. There’s no way Townsend would allow that. Leaning on the athletic director, Purzycki found a mentor whose example would benefit him for the rest of his life.
Purzycki, who idolized John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., considered himself a progressive thinker and a racially sensitive person. Now, at work, he was a minority. Even as Townsend defended Purzycki and fought to get the Delaware State community to accept the hire, he would tell the coach to keep his difficult transition in perspective.
“What you’re going to endure is nothing,” Townsend would say.
In the book, after telling a story about a 1983 accident involving the team bus in western Maryland and the crude treatment of his team by the police, Gastineau wrote of Purzycki’s mind-set: “He could honestly say he knew what it was like to be a minority. But what he had just been through reinforced his belief that he’d never know what it was like to be black.”
Learning to see the other side
There were so many experiences in which Purzycki began to see the world and race in a nuanced manner. That’s often the missing component in societal divides: one side being unable to consider the other side with appropriate compassion. In sports, you continue to see it in the Colin Kaepernick saga. It was a central theme in all the commotion over the protests during the national anthem, as well as other recent instances of athlete activism. It’s why Megan Rapinoe became such a polarizing figure during the World Cup. If you can’t understand people and their passions on a basic human level, there is no foundation to handle complicated disagreements.
At Delaware State, Purzycki improved the football team from a 2-9 record in his first season to 4-7 to 7-3-1 to 8-2. When he left for James Madison, defensive coordinator Bill Collick took over and led the Hornets to five Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles in his 12 seasons. Combine their tenures, and Purzycki and Collick led the program to 13 straight seasons with a .500 record or better. But more than setting the stage for Collick’s massive success, more than getting to coach former San Francisco 49ers great John Taylor, Purzycki remembers Delaware State as “my greatest coaching experience” because he figured out a critical aspect of the human condition: Acknowledgment means everything.
The trendy word now is representation. People of color and all minority groups crave representation because they are tired of being invisible. It’s the lack of acknowledgment that is the root of so much social evil.
‘We ignore too many voices’
“It’s the highest form of prejudice,” Purzycki said. “It’s that feeling of you don’t matter enough to make someone feel or think or change. I’m a product of the 1960s and the civil rights movement. So I’m really sad about where we are today. I thought that, 50 years ago, we got this out in the open and made significant progress. So to still see so many signs of racism existing in society, it’s upsetting. And it’s all because we ignore too many voices. We fail to appreciate what people have been through.”
At Delaware State, Purzycki was fortunate to gain a detailed understanding of African Americans. He also learned to exist on a campus where he was the different one. He managed to transcend that to lead and inspire.
This weekend, his reward will be Delaware State immortality. He will take the 45-minute drive from Wilmington to Dover to relive the best risk he ever took, and the best risk someone ever took on him. He will be among about a dozen honorees. While it would be only human that he feel some kind of validation, he expects gratitude to dominate his emotions.
Four decades ago, Purzycki came to Dover to revive a program because, well, that’s what good ball coaches do. He wasn’t counting on the perk of personal reinvention.
An invisible black football team and an invisible white coach found the light together. To matter, they needed each other. For certain, that’s not a bad narrative.