The Legend of the Darp

By Kevin Graber

“We take great pleasure in welcoming Mr. James E. Ostendarp to the position of Head Football Coach at Amherst College. The position of a coach at Amherst is a nearly unique one. It is an exceptional man who can produce excellent teams while accepting the priority of academic work, and who can join the faculty in discussing and voting upon matters of importance to the whole College. In his past training and his fine coaching record, Mr. Ostendarp has shown himself to be just such a man.”

These words, which appeared in the lead editorial in The Amherst Student nearly 50 years ago, could not have been more prophetic.

“I was a sophomore on the football team during his first year at Amherst,” says Paul Abodeely ’62, now retired and living in Seattle. “He came to a chapel meeting and was introduced for the first time, and he described himself as the
oratorical equivalent of a blocked punt. We knew then and there that this was not your typical football coach.”

His name, like the man himself, was striking and iconic. He wasn’t just Darp or Coach Darp, he was the Darp, the one and only. Resplendent in his signature charcoal-gray suit and short-brimmed fedora, he was Amherst’s version of Vince Lombardi or Connie Mack—a black-and-white photograph come to life. He had the numbers to match: 169 wins, 91 losses and five ties in 33 seasons, good for a .681 winning percentage, which was fifth best all-time in Division III when he retired in 1991. But neither numbers nor football could define a coach, professor and family man who meant so much to so many people.

Ostendarp, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died on December 15, 2005, at the age of 82, in the company of his wife and children. On October 14, 2006, the Darp’s family, friends, former players and colleagues gathered on campus to celebrate his extraordinary life.

“He was a great listener,” recalls Al Deaett ’62, now a high school football coach and social studies teacher in Glen Rock, N.J. “He’d ask questions about your hometown and your interests. He was so interested in you as a person, like a father figure. You wanted to win for him, because you just loved the man. I model myself after him.”

Little Jim Ostendarp, a hard-nosed kid, grew up in Depression-era Baltimore. From the time he saw his first game at the age of 5, he knew he was destined for a life in football. Too small to play high school varsity, he traveled to the city’s sandlots to suit up in semi-pro games against grown men, just because he loved to play. He eventually earned a spot on the varsity team at Baltimore Polytechnic and parlayed an all-state senior season into a scholarship at the University of Maryland. But his freshman year gave way to the dawn of World War II, and he was off to prove himself once again, this time as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, fighting in Europe and playing football for the 7th Army team.

When the dust settled, Ostendarp returned to the States and transferred to Bucknell University, where he etched his name in the school’s record books as an honorable mention Little All-America halfback. His catchy nickname, “Smokey,” reflected both his gritty nature and his elusive running style. In fact, he was as slippery a runner as Bucknell ever produced, setting a single-game record that stood for 28 years, with 211 rushing yards in a 1949 win over New York University. That total included an 88-yard touchdown run that remains the third-longest in school history, and his 6.9 yards-per-carry average in 1949 is still the best ever at Bucknell.

Ostendarp’s improbable journey continued with the NFL. He played two seasons with the New York Giants as a 167-pound T-formation halfback alongside future Hall of Famers Tom Landry, Arnie Weinmeister and Emlen Tunnell. He did this while earning a master’s degree in teaching from Columbia University. He also played a season with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He then married his college sweetheart, Shirley, and returned to Bucknell in 1953 to begin a coaching career. He was there for two years before moving to Williams to coach the freshman team and work as a defensive coordinator. In 1957, Ostendarp left Williams to spend a year as the defensive coordinator at Cornell. He arrived at Amherst in 1959, and it was at Amherst that he became “the Darp.”

After a pair of three-loss seasons in 1959 and 1960, he guided the Jeffs to a remarkable 36–4 record over the next five years, highlighted by an undefeated season in 1964. A second undefeated season would come 20 years later. His teams clinched 13 Little Three titles over the years, and he earned countless coaching awards. He was named the United Press International Small College Coach of the Year in 1964 and the American Football Coaches Association/Kodak New England Coach of the Year in both 1961 and 1964. He was inducted into the Bucknell Athletic Hall of Fame in 1981. The American Football Coaches Association named him president in 1982. In 1984 he was named the New York Football Writers Division II/III Coach of the Year and the Gridiron Club of Boston New England Division II and III Coach of the Year.

Among his strengths were his penchant for defensive strategy and his predilection for forward thinking: Ostendarp was one of the first coaches to use computerized statistics in game planning. He produced an amazing string of players in the 1970s, sending Doug Swift ’70, Jean Fugett ’72, Freddie Scott ’74 and Sean Clancy ’78 on to the NFL—an achievement unheard of for a small New England college.

Despite his success, Ostendarp remained humble, and he invested himself fully in Amherst. An art enthusiast and classical music buff, he routinely squired football recruits to the Mead Art Museum, although he joked that his own creative ability was limited to diagrams on a blackboard. He often interrupted practice so his players could take a moment to admire the setting sun. A reporter once asked Ostendarp if he’d ever consider a high-profile coaching job at a larger school. He replied, dubiously, “Where would you go after Amherst?” In 1985, on the precipice of the 100th football game between Amherst and Williams, Ostendarp sternly refused ESPN’s offer to televise the event. “We’re in education,” he said, in a now-famous quote. “We’re not in the entertainment business.”

All the while Ostendarp was a devoted husband and family man who often said of his wife, “From the moment I saw her, I knew she was the one.” They raised three sons—Jim, Jan ’83 and Carl—and four daughters—Teresa, Anne, Beth ’87 and Heidi ’91. Jan played football at Amherst. “It was a nice thing,” Jan says, “to be able to experience my dad as a coach. He got his players to understand that they were capable of quite a lot, that they could rise to the occasion. He described football as another college course, with the tests coming on Saturdays.”

More than anything, Ostendarp invested himself in his players. They responded by forming a tight-knit network around him and one another. That network still exists today. Ostendarp rarely spoke of exploits on the playing fields. Instead, he lauded his players’ accomplishments in the working world and in their family lives.

“Coach was a hub for us,” says Tim Turmelle ’80. “He talked to us about former players who’d gone on to become dentists or art history professors. He helped us transition into the next phase of our lives and [figure out] where our priorities should be. He was the one who said, ‘Hey, this is what you can aspire to. You have it in you to do this.’ He built a true sense of community.”

Appropriately, his friends, colleagues and former students established the James E. Ostendarp Professorship in 1990 in appreciation for his keen interest in all aspects of the Amherst experience. Ostendarp continued his involvement with Amherst even after his retirement, attending sporting and cultural events and remaining present on the campus he so loved.

The Darp will never be forgotten. Held 10 months after his death, the October celebration began with a memorial service in Johnson Chapel. A tailgate picnic, football game against Colby and post-game buffet followed.

“Things move so fast in life,” says Dave Morine ’66, “and you often don’t get a chance to thank the people who’ve done so much for you.” To Morine, it seemed only fitting to choose game day to honor the Darp. “Coach used to tell us,” Morine says, “that any day Amherst plays is a special day.”

For more on Amherst’s tribute to the Darp, please visit: