You want to feel old? To me Debian is a relative (and somewhat unwelcome) newcomer to the Linux community. Back when I started using Linux there were still plenty of NetBSD-style "roll your own" instruction pages out there that told you how to make a Linux filesystem, copy the Linux kernel and other stuff onto it etc. Distributions like MCC and SLS and Yggdrasil were what passed for Linux distributions back then. Slackware was the only really user-friendly distro at the time, mainly because it consisted of many floppy disk images that, with the kelp of a small DOS (later Windows) utility called `makeflop' could be used to make a multitude of install disks. Back then most software was installed on floppy media; the CD-ROM drive was a pricey aftermarket product back then, and there wasn't much media to put in the drives either.
I can remember staying after office hours at work, using a half-dozen or so PCs with a DOS IP stack and Windows for Workgroups to download what were then massive files at 1.44MiB each, using the T-1 line we had. I'd start a FTP session with ftp.cdrom.com (remember them?) on a machine, move to the next and start another session for the next image, and continue on in round robin fashion until I had downloaded the whole set. Then I'd go around the same PCs, writing the raw disk images to my collection of cast-away floppies.
Because I was poor but honest back then, I rarely had enough new blank floppies to make a full install set, and since one bad sector could corrupt the entire set (a, ap, d etc.), I often found myself writing to one good disk, using it to install Slackware, taking it to a spare PC for a full reformat (to make sure it still had all good sectors), then downloading the next image. This was before AOL made free floppies ubiquitous--remember that? I felt like a king when I had saved enough money to buy 3 10-disk boxes of new blank no-name floppies to keep an entire Slackware install disk set on!
Why was Debian unwelcome? At the time, UC Berkeley; Computer Systems Research group was shutting down, and in order to make its suite of UNIX® utility programs freely available to the public after they were gone, they created their own OS for the utilities that worked more or less like AT&T UNIX®without having a shred of actual UNIX®code in it (many lawsuits saw to that). The people who took up the source code of what is known as 4.4BSD-Lite tried to make a UNIX®work-alike product (with varying degrees of success) to compete with the then new Linux (and Minix) operating systems.
To make a long story short, the free (as in beer) BSD developers tended to be egotistical, not play with others and the result was a constantly fracturing 4.4BSD-Lite community at the same time that Linus Torvalds was making history by building a complete, full-featured UNIX®work-alike OS by enlisting the help of people over the Internet. As the BSD crowd was busy fighting amongst themselves, thousands of people who had never met each other in person were making Linux into a superior product. The GNU utilities were a generation ahead of the old BSD ones. Having a fresh "clean sheet of paper" kernel to work with also produced excellence rapidly as the BSD crowd spent most of their time infighting.
Debian has had the same kind of culture ad the "baby BSD" community did, with too much (IMO) counter-productive arrogance and extremism. Putting GNU in front as if it was the most important part is an insult to Linux, Linus and the community of Linux developers. Like raising a state flag above the stars and stripes. The extremist views that everything should be free always has put Debian behind the curve when it comes to being practical. In short, it's too damn political.