Editor’s note: Author and radio personality Mike Gastineau’s new book, Mr. Townsend & the Polish Prince, is now available. The book tells the story of Joe Purzycki, the first white head football coach at a historically black college, and Nelson Townsend, the athletic director who hired him in 1981 at Delaware State College. Townsend and Purzycki knew the move would create some news, but neither man expected the massive opposition to the hire from within the campus community.
In this excerpt from the book, Purzycki has just finished his first press conference, which included many more questions about his skin color and the fairness of his hiring, and his first team meeting, attended by just five players due to a team-wide boycott of the hire.
Townsend suggested they get Purzycki settled into his new office. As they made their way across campus, they couldn’t help but notice hundreds of students streaming to what was referred to in the Hornet, the student newspaper at Delaware State, as an “emergency
convocation to discuss the issue of whether new head football coach Joe Purzycki was, in fact, the best qualified for the job.”
The student paper left no doubt as to what they thought about Purzycki’s qualifications, derisively nicknaming him “The Polish Prince.”
“Someone told us that there were already 400 kids at the student center who were staging a sit-in protest,” Purzycki said. “Players and students were going to speak at the protest. There were placards on the walls of buildings and we saw several students carrying protest signs.”
The scene in the student center was passionate bordering on chaos.
“I remember Allen Hamilton (a DSC professor and member of the hiring committee who chose Purzycki) trying to calm everyone down,” wide receiver Walt Samuels said. Both times Hamilton tried to speak and explain the decision, he was shouted down by angry students. “I had to go in front of the students and explain why we hired him,” Hamilton said. They literally booed me off the stage. Players wouldn’t talk to me.”
At least two football players spoke. Freshman wide receiver Bobby Swoope told the crowd that, “a historic black college should have hired a black coach.” He pointed to the few opportunities for black head coaches in college football and that the DSC decision was making things even worse.
Calvin Mason had been vocal in challenging the school’s leaders since sportswriter Scott Wasser’s column had appeared two weeks earlier encouraging the school to hire Purzycki. Mason’s primary complaint was that Purzycki was being given resources that had not been made available to the previous staff.
“I was very active in student government, so I spoke up about a lot of things around campus,” he said. “I was one of the instigators of the protest. It was nothing against Purzycki. My question was why couldn’t you get this stuff for the guy before him and let him build a program? I got up at a podium and spoke my mind about how I thought this whole thing was wrong.”
According to a story in the Hornet, there was discussion among students between speeches that Purzycki’s hiring was obviously the first step in bringing more white athletes and more white students to Dover, thus eroding DSC’s HBCU culture. “All of us are talking about the fact of having a white coach,” a student yelled. “But what will we do about it?”
Meanwhile, Townsend and Purzycki made their way into the athletic offices. When he reached his new office at the end of the hallway, Purzycki looked around. Any hope that his day was going to turn around evaporated.
“It was a very small office,” he said. “There was an empty anteroom in front of it. There was a green chalkboard with a giant hole in the middle that someone had tried to repair with plaster. There was a filing cabinet with several drill holes in one side. It looked like someone had lost the keys at one point and then used a drill on it, so they could get in.”
Purzycki sat down at his desk and took it all in. He realized it was cold in the room and looked for a thermostat to adjust the heat. It was then that he noticed one of the windows was broken leaving the room open to the icy January breeze. The wastebasket was full. An ashtray spilled over. Purzycki looked at his desk phone and sighed.
“The receiver was hanging from the phone by the wires and athletic tape. It was caked with a yellow substance that looked like dried eggs. It was filthy.”
He picked the phone up and was shocked to find out that it worked. His first official act as head coach at Delaware State was to use that phone to call the phone company to order a new phone. Purzycki hung up and sat at the desk. At Delaware, even the defensive backs coach had a first-rate office. Now, as he sat in his overcoat in a room with no heat, looking at a phone held together by athletic tape, a broken file cabinet, and a chalkboard with a hole in it, and as he considered everything else he had been through, Purzycki had a chilling thought.
“Tubby was right,” he said to himself. “What have I done? I left Camelot
for this?” (Delaware head coach Tubby Raymond was Purzycki’s now former boss who had advised Purzycki not to take the job.)
Purzycki left the office and found Townsend. He had a few routine HR documents to fill out and he needed Townsend to show him where he had to go to get that done. As they walked Purzycki’s mind raced: “I was so exhausted. I didn’t expect 400 protestors. I didn’t expect the players not to show up for the meeting. I didn’t expect the office to look as pathetic and rundown as it was. I never expected the tidal wave that I walked into. I felt sick to my stomach. It was the loneliest day of my life. I began to think this might be
a huge mistake in judgment on my part.”
Finally, he stopped walking and turned to face his new boss. “Nelson, I just don’t know if this is going to work.”
Townsend looked at Purzycki in silence. He knew the day hadn’t unfolded in any way Purzycki could have possibly envisioned. But he liked how he had handled the news conference and he was convinced DSC had the right man for the job. So, he was taken aback to hear Purzycki gathering the white flag.
“I told you that you were going to have to be tough and that this wasn’t going to be easy,” Townsend said his voice rising in anger. “We’re not having a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds tell us what to do. This is going to pass, Joe. We have bigger things to do here.”
Townsend’s anger had a clarifying effect on Purzycki who suddenly realized the full extent of what his new boss had put himself through to give him the chance he’d wanted. Townsend had been getting hit from all sides since Wasser’s column had been published.
For two weeks the AD had been confronted by students, players, faculty, staff, and alumni, all wanting to know just what in the hell he was thinking promoting a white man as the new head coach at Del State.
Townsend was irritated with the tone of the questions at the news conference and he was furious that so many members of the team elected to skip the first meeting with their new head coach. He was angry, but he was not going to allow Purzycki to even consider walking
“We have bigger things to do here,” he repeated. “I don’t want to hear anything about this again.”
Purzycki knew, from that moment, he was not alone. He and Townsend were in the fight together.
“If Nelson had shown even the slightest bit of hesitancy,” Purzycki recalled years later, “if he had given any indication that he agreed with me that it might not work, I would have driven home and asked Tubby for my job back at Delaware.
“Instead, I knew I had his full support and I wasn’t going to back out because he needed me as much as I needed him. Quitting at that point would have been the wrong thing to do. He was dependent on me and I knew he was in my corner.”
Purzycki won 55 games as the head football coach at Delaware State and James Madison University between 1981 and 1990. He was captain and an all-America defensive back at the University of Delaware in 1969. After coaching, Purzycki became an executive in the financial services sector. https://www.thepolishprince.com/