WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Welcome to a football coaching honeymoon.
For now, Purdue's Darrell Hazell can do nothing wrong. Well, he could, but he hasn't. He seems too smart for that. He hasn't lost a game. He hasn't botched a two-minute situation or wasted a timeout. He hasn't said something to infuriate the Gold and Black faithful.
In truth, Hazell doesn't say a lot. He borrows a page from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address brevity example. Make your point and get the heck out.
Hazell answers questions as if each word costs him $100. That doesn't mean he doesn't provide insight. It does mean, why use five sentences when one will work. Why overwhelm with words when conciseness delivers greater impact.
So Hazell impacts with measured words and a direct stare. He coaches on the move because there is much to teach, execution to improve and a tradition to restore.
“I see a lot of things that we have to do fundamentally a little better, scheme wise a little better,” he says. “But they're trying extremely hard and that's a good start.”
Spring practice has started -- Tuesday was the first of 15 practices -- and at Purdue, as at every school in America, optimism is everywhere. Yes, there's a quarterback situation to make clear, and that will come in time.
For now, there is a new offense and defense to install, players to evaluate, a new attitude to instill. Priority No. 1 -- go fast all the time. That message was delivered by word and action by his constant-motion staff.
“They're doing a great job,” Hazell says. “The players will adjust to them more and more. They'll understand the pace you have to play at to win games. They'll adjust quickly.”
In other words, he who hesitates is out of here.
“We've got to go faster, much faster, in getting in and out of the huddle, coming off the sidelines,” Hazell says. “That's something we have to work on as a staff.”
Huge banners hang from the Mollenkopf Athletic Facility rafters commemorating the great players and great teams that make up the Boilers' rich football heritage. Hazell was hired to add to that after former coach Danny Hope couldn't. Athletic director Morgan Burke has made his Rose Bowl goal clear, and if the pressure has already started, well, that comes with the job.
Hazell embraces this. Otherwise, he would have stayed at Kent State, where he had a good situation that included a Mid-American Conference division title and a bowl berth.
Instead, he joined the Boilers for a lot more money (around six times more than he made at Kent State), better resources and facilities, and, of course, a ton more pressure. Purdue has had losing records in four of the last five seasons, a trend that can't end soon enough.
Hazell redid the winter conditioning program, making it harder and more in tune with his full-throttle style.
“The first two days were an eye opener for them,” he says. “After that, they started to settle in and understand what we demand out of them.”
Demands include better conditioning and fewer turnover. Monday's practiced featured dropped snaps and fumbles that have to be cleaned up.
“We installed a lot on both sides of the ball,” Hazell says. “These first six practices will be a little sluggish until we get everything in. Then we'll start to review.”
As for those fumbles.
“You never want to put the ball on the ground,” Hazell says. “That was one of our four goals this spring -- take care of the ball.”
Hazell breaks with the usual coaching paranoia. In this closed-practice era, when every workout is treated as if national security is a stake and anyone who dares tweet anything is subject to, if not eternal damnation, then permanent banishment from future practices, this is a breath of fresh air.
Open practices -- the first at Purdue since 2005 -- are one of the ways Hazell hopes to build fan support, crucial given Purdue's attendance plunged into the mid 30,000 range last year. That was a disaster in a stadium that seats nearly twice that number and a huge blow to an athletic department budget that needs all the revenue it can get even with the Big Ten Network's multi-million-dollar boost.
So media is here, fans are here, recruits are here.
“It's always great to have the fans here,” Hazell says. “It's going to take all of us. That means the whole community, the Purdue community, to get this thing rolling the way we want it to roll. That's going to be critical.”
Veteran cornerback Ricardo Allen agrees.
“Fan support is a great thing. It brings you composure, confidence, everything. It brings a better feel.
“I feel Coach Hazell is going out of his way to bring in the fans. Nobody has been here to see us practice before. Fans are a big part of our program. We really need them.”
Hazell has made his case to Boiler students, visiting all sorts of organizations. He talks, jokes and even puts his competitive nature on the line.
“He played ping pong with some of my friends,” Allen says.
Was Hazell any good?
One of my friends told he he was good,” Allen says. “(Hazell) ended up losing, but still, he gave a fight.”
Hazell wants a team of fighters. He wants guys playing to their potential, and then just a shade more. Honeymoons don't last, but excellence can if the right guy is running the show.
For now, Hazell seems that kind of guy. We'll let you know more after that first loss.