The program's long history began in the late 1800s, but the tradition did not truly begin to take shape until the arrival of Bill Murray in 1940. During his 11 seasons at the helm, the Fightin' Blue Hens compiled a record of 49–16–2 with one National Championship in 1946 which culminated in a win over Rollins in the now defunct Cigar Bowl. That was good for an impressive .747 winning percentage. After Murray departed to take over at Duke University in 1950, David M. Nelson came on board as head coach.
During his years at UD, Nelson developed the Delaware Wing-T offensive system. This system, strongly rooted in running the football and deceptive fake hand-offs, became the identity of Delaware football for nearly 50 years. Nelson also brought with him another icon of Delaware football: the "winged" helmet. The iconic "Michigan" style helmet was developed by Nelson's coach at Michigan, Fritz Crisler (who first used the helmet design when he was head coach at Princeton (albeit in black and orange)). Nelson played for Crisler when Crisler was head coach at Michigan, and Nelson brought the helmet design with him where ever he coached (Hillsdale College, Harvard, Maine and Delaware). Nelson stepped down as football coach in 1965, and in his 15 years (1951–1965), the Hens compiled an 84–42–2 (.664) record with one National Championship in 1963 and a bowl win over Kent State in the now defunct Refrigerator Bowl.
In 1966, an assistant football and baseball coach named Harold "Tubby" Raymond took over, and after a rocky start (the team recorded a 2–7 record in his second season) became the face of Delaware football for 36 seasons. While David Nelson developed the Delaware Wing-T, Tubby perfected it. When he retired in 2001, Tubby had racked up 300 wins against 119 losses and three ties, good for a .714 win percentage. His teams earned 14 Lambert Cup Trophies (as the best team in the east in a particular division), four national semi-finals, and three National Championships in 1971, 1972, and 1979. His 300 wins account for nearly half of the football victories in school history. These three men (Murray, Nelson and Raymond) are all enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana. Georgia Tech is the only other school to place three consecutive coaches into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The team has had much success on the field. In addition to the national championships listed above, notable program victories include multiple wins over Navy (including a win at Navy's Homecoming game during a year when they went to a bowl game), Maryland, Rutgers, and Temple. Speculation regularly exists regarding whether the Blue Hens will "move up" to the Football Bowl Subdivision at some point, joining a league such as the Big East Conference. The University of Delaware has more than 60 wins against opponents playing at the highest level, whether that was FBS (since 2006), 1A, or the University level (prior to 1978). However, whereas most I-AA schools move up because of the perception of increased money and prestige, UD has an extremely profitable football program, and it is already well-regarded academically and athletically.
"We're the LSU; we're the Georgia, the Florida of Division I-AA," UD Coach Keeler said in American Football Monthly. "We have every resource. There's some people who have better resources than we do, but in general, the college campus we have is in one of the greatest college towns in America, and the academics ... we led the nation last year in out-of-state applications, more than Michigan or Texas. But that's what this school has become – everybody wants to come to school here."
While most schools at the FCS level can expect 8,000–10,000 fans for a football game on a good day, the Fightin' Blue Hens can expect sellout crowds of over 22,000 at every home contest; they have been among the top programs in attendance for over thirty years. Since Delaware Stadium opened in 1952, it has undergone four major expansions to come to its current capacity of 22,000. (In the 1970s it actually seated over 23,000, but subsequent modifications have reduced the capacity to the current number.) The home attendance record was set in 1973 on October 27 against Temple University with 23,619 fans, and attendance has exceeded 22,000 fans frequently. When the Fightin' Blue Hens have a home game, the stadium population becomes the fourth largest city in Delaware—behind Wilmington, Dover, and Newark itself. Delaware's fan support is so impressive that opposing coaches have said that playing Delaware at Delaware Stadium is the highlight of many of their players collegiate careers. In 2011, Sporting News ranked Newark 162 on its list of the 271 Best Sports Cities.
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