WEST LAFAYETTE – Sometimes you have to go with your gut. Well, your wallet, too. Let's not forget that. Darrell Hazell didn't, but it was always more than that.
He stands in dark-suited style amid the media limelight at the Mackey Arena press room. It's his first few hours as Purdue's new football coach, and he contemplates the decision that changed his life and that of his family.
“It was very stressful,” he says. “You tell your family. A rush of emotion goes through them. You talk about all the things you can get out of this situation. Then you have to go with your gut feeling. Is it right or not? And that's where you go.”
Hazell has the direct stare and shaved head of a man who means what he says.
He got the job offer around 4:30 Tuesday afternoon, and the clock started clicking. He was still the Kent State coach, still the man who had turned a perennial loser into an 11-2 nationally ranked bowl team faster than seemed possible.
He could stay and keep the promise to the players he had recruited and the veterans who had bought into his system. Or he could embrace Big Ten opportunity, with financial benefits that would dwarf anything he could get at Kent State.
He looked at his wife, Annmarie, and his 11-year-old son, Kyle. He talked to his former boss at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, perhaps his biggest coaching mentor. He talked to incoming Purdue president (and current Indiana governor) Mitch Daniels. He weighed the pros and cons, and yes, they included Purdue's reported six-year, $12 million offer (he made around $300,000 a year at Kent State), plus a promise from Boiler athletic director Morgan Burke of an assistant coaches salary pool that would, Burke says, “put him right up there with all but a handful of SEC schools” and that “matches up very well with the top tier in the Big Ten.”
After five hours (in this era of mega-million dollar contracts, days of contemplation aren't an option), and with Kyle's blessing (“He's all fired up,” Hazell says.) he called Burke. He would be a Boilermaker.
“It's a chance to be very special,” he says. “Here's a program right now that's in the middle of the (Big Ten) pack, but I want to be at the top of the pack pretty quickly. I think we have an opportunity …
“It's kind of unique. When I took the Kent State job, people looked at me like I was crazy. They said, 'they haven't won there in 40 years, why could you take that job coming from Ohio State?'
“I bit my lip, and we went to work. That's what we're going to do here.”
“We're going to win championships here.”
We've heard that before, of course. Every new coach talks championship. Few deliver.
Now, it's Hazell's turn. He's the 35th Purdue football coach, and only six have won a Big Ten title. Joe Tiller was the last in 2000. That is too long for Burke, who repeats a mantra he started right after firing Danny Hope on Nov. 25.
“I want to go back to Pasadena,” he says about the site of the Rose Bowl.
Hazell is an offensive guy, a longtime receivers coach who once drove the conservative Tressel crazy begging for more pass plays. He gets the whole Purdue “Cradle of quarterbacks” thing.
But that Ohio State connection (six straight Big Ten titles) showed him the importance of defense. He hasn't forgotten. So as he assembles his staff -- he says he will interview Purdue and Kent State assistant coaches as well as conduct a national search -- he understands the most important hire he makes will be his defensive coordinator.
“You win championships with defense, there's no doubt about it,” he says. “Defense can keep you in the game at all times. We've got to get the guy who makes sure our players are lined up, playing hard and getting stops. We'll do a good job of finding that guy.”
As for how long that will take, Hazell says only that, “The most important thing is I get it right, so however long it takes.”
Burke has no problem with that.
“We have to make sure, up and down that (assistant coaches list), that we have all-stars,” Burke says.
Hazell is not a coaching dictator. His door is always open. He will demand, but he will also bond. This enables him to still keep in touch with many of his former players.New York Jets receiver Santonio Holmes, who played for Hazell at Ohio State, called his former receivers coach Wednesday afternoon while Hazell waited on a plane at the Akron airport to come to West Lafayette.
“We talked for about 15 minutes,” Hazell says. “You can have such a strong bond with former players. It's neat.”
Here's how neat:
“A lot of them have bared their souls to me,” he says. “We pulled the door shut. There's a two-way trust involved. They know I won't judge them for their issues.”
Hazell isn't at Purdue to judge, but to mold, to teach, to help and, bottom line, to win.
“I have three primary goals that I'm going to start prioritizing pretty quickly. First, I've got to get to know our personnel. That's support staff, players, anybody who touches our kids throughout the school year.
"Second, I need to hire the best possible staff that can mentor, teach, be father figures, be great coaches, be respectful to our kids and help us win championships.
"Third, I need to get on the road and make sure those 13 (recruiting) commits are solid. I need to do that pretty quickly.”
He'll do that while juggling preparing Kent State for the Jan. 6 GoDaddy.com Bowl, a final way of closure before beginning a new challenge.
And hovering over that is one huge need that can't be overlooked -- the drop in attendance and overall excitement for the program. Burke makes turning that around very clear.
“He's got to lick the wick,” he says. “It was the same thing with Tiller and (former Purdue All-America quarterback) Drew Brees. Lick the wick and get people excited. Then you get the energy in the program and get people to contribute.”
Hazell embraces that. Licking the wick is what he does.
“No one in the organization underachieves,” he says. “If you can do that, you're going to be pretty successful.”