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!
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."