The banquet staff had just arrived, prepping the hotel ballroom for the next event, but Darrell Hazell was not easily distracted. Amid a chorus of clamoring tables and chairs, the new Purdue football coach exchanged glances with no one, his attention as razor sharp as the pressed creases of his gray slacks.
Engaged in a conversation that was pushing the one-hour mark, you still had his full attention.
He had stopped in Indianapolis on his way back to Purdue after visiting family in northeast Ohio, where he spent the past two seasons engineering the remarkable turnaround of Kent State’s once-downtrodden football program.
Success for the 48-year-old New Jersey native was capping an 11-win season and Top 25 national ranking last year by becoming the first coach in 40 years to take the Golden Flashes to a bowl game.
That the experience coincided with Hazell’s first two years as a head coach at any level — except for one forgettable stint in high school when he mentored a girls powder puff football team — instantly made him one of the hottest names on the coaching market.
In a recent wide-ranging interview, Hazell barely shifted in his chair as he discussed some of the most important moments of his coaching life since his hiring at Purdue four months ago.
He began with a smile, mentioning how he turned off his car radio that morning as he approached familiar territory — Columbus, Ohio — where he spent six of seven seasons (2004-10) as the top assistant under former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.
Relishing the quiet, Hazell said he scribbled on a yellow legal pad dozens of thoughts that were dancing in his head like a ball on a roulette wheel: “Resource meeting”... “Car dealer at 9” ... “First three weeks of practice schedules” ...
“Filled the whole thing,” he said with a chuckle. “There’s so much right now in my head about things I have to do, it wakes me up in the middle of the night. Woke me up last night; kept me up about two hours.”
Since arriving on campus, Hazell has introduced himself to hundreds of students, showing up at athletic events and other functions.
On Feb. 28, he appeared on the doorstep of Kappa Sigma fraternity with Morgan Burke, the Purdue athletic director, for a spaghetti dinner.
After their meal, Hazell took questions. Sophomore Ben Klaybor, a management major from Syracuse, Ind., said he left impressed by the coach.
What struck him most?
“He said, ‘Fifteen years from now, when you’re all alumni in other cities wearing Purdue attire,’ he wants us to say, ‘Man, we’re still a powerhouse in football,’ ’’ Klaybor said.
The student smiled.
“I think he’s ready to change the atmosphere around here.”
Positive first impression
Like the rest of the Big Ten, Purdue is in the midst of spring football. Hazell and his coaching staff have been assessing their roster, identifying leaders without the burden of determining starters.
Hazell knows the Boilermakers are collecting impressions of him as well. That was especially true in the early going after he was hired Dec. 5 to replace Danny Hope.
Hope had been fired 11 days earlier — one day after his players hoisted him onto their shoulders when Purdue became bowl-eligible after beating Indiana 56-35 to end the regular season.
Former wide receivers coach Patrick Higgins served as interim coach for Purdue’s 58-14 loss to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The Boilermakers finished 6-7 overall, including 3-5 in the Big Ten Leaders Division.
Hope, who took Purdue to bowl games the past two years, finished 22-27 overall in four seasons (13-19 in the Big Ten). A factor in his dismissal, Burke said, was the coach’s failure to “galvanize” the fan base: Home paid attendance eroded each year during Hope’s tenure, from 43,880 in 2009 to 37,013 last year.
As for Hazell’s impact, Burke must like what he sees so far: Since going on sale in February, 4,600 new season tickets have been purchased as of March 29. The total for new season tickets for 2012 was 1,641.
Many of the players seem to have welcomed the change at the top.
“There’s no gray area with coach Hazell,” said redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, a 6-5 quarterback from North Canton, Ohio. “He is exactly what he appears to be and absolutely what he says he is. Though we went to a bowl game last year, it wasn’t the bowl game we wanted to go to. We felt like we underachieved. It was because of the little things. We were a little undisciplined at times. We were not all accountable at times, and it kind of showed on the field.”
Many of Hazell’s expectations are outlined in a 400-plus page book called “The A Players Manual” — the “A’’ meaning that players must strive for “A’s” in everything. The guidebook — which the team will receive in August — is sourced from his 27 years coaching college football, the first 25 as an assistant at eight schools: Oberlin College, Eastern Illinois, Penn, Western Michigan, Army, West Virginia, Rutgers and Ohio State. Tressel’s influence in the book is immense, Hazell said.
“It outlines where you should be at every single moment,” Hazell said. “It tells you who’s coaching what. It talks about caring and love and how to handle adversity and how to handle success. It gives you a day-to-day structure.”
Expectations off the field include being in class five minutes early, with their hats and ball caps off.
Hazell’s Kent State team last fall had its highest in-season grade-point average ever, with 45 players carrying a grade-point average of 3.0 or better.
“Is that discipline? We call it going to college,” said defensive backs coach Jon Heacock, one of three assistants Hazell brought with him from Kent. “It’s doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.
“That’s who Purdue hired, that guy.”
Appleby, who is poised to battle Rob Henry and Danny Etling for the starting quarterback job, said he’s excited for the season to start.
“It’s not like we don’t have the guys,” he said. “As far as talent goes, we have everybody here in place to win a championship. But now we have the guy who’s going to pull all our pieces together.”
So who is that guy? Who is Darrell Hazell?
Ask his 83-year-old mother, and she’ll excuse herself from the phone — first putting down her bowl of strawberry ice cream — to fetch her Bible.
She wants to start at the beginning.
“Everything about our life is listed right here,” said Bernice Hazell, who still lives in the three-bedroom ranch house that her family built more than 50 years ago in Cinnaminson, N.J., outside Philadelphia.
“He was sick when he was little,” she said of Darrell, her youngest of seven. “I went down to the basement and prayed so hard. I knew nobody heard me but God.”
The children’s father, Daniel Hazell Sr., was in and out of their life until he and Bernice divorced when Darrell was in high school. But she said her husband, who died of cancer in 2003, always did what he could. Both worked multiple jobs; Bernice drove a transportation vehicle for their town’s Head Start program. She also cleaned houses.
Although Darrell described his mother as the rock of the family, he has cherished memories of his father. He laughed as he shared a story of the time his dad brought home a color TV for a weekend; he borrowed it from the store where he worked.
Although Darrell knows of only one time that his father saw him play football when he was growing up — not in high school, but back when he played on the Palmyra Pals of the Police Athletic League — the two became close after Darrell left for Muskingum University in New Bedford, Ohio.
A speedy wide receiver, Darrell was elected team captain his senior year and was an NCAA Division III All-American.
“The way Mom and Dad raised us, we were all in it together,” said Dennis Hazell, 51, who shared a bunk bed with younger brother Darrell when they were kids.
They all drew inspiration from sibling Roxanne, who had Down syndrome. She died unexpectedly at age 26 in 1988.
“There was always positive energy in and around our family,” Dennis Hazell said.
Steve Turner, Darrell’s best friend from childhood, can attest to that.
Starting in middle school, Darrell was chief organizer of the annual Thanksgiving football game at Wood Park in their hometown. After the scrimmage, Turner always had a seat at Bernice Hazell’s table for dinner.
“Darrell was the leader, and I was always his second in command,” said Turner, 49, who is a police officer in Manalapan, N.J. “He had those skills at a young age. Just thinking, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the man curse.”
But that didn’t mean Hazell — nicknamed “Haze” in high school — never got angry.
“His neighborhood was predominately black, and mine was predominately white,” said Turner, who is white; Hazell is black. “And we’d come across ignorance every once in a while.”
Once when they were in middle school, someone riding in a car yelled something derogatory at Turner. Darrell ran over to the individual and “had words” with him, Turner remembered.
More than 35 years later, Hazell’s hiring at Purdue was ground-breaking: He’s the Boilermakers’ first black football head coach. He’s also just the fourth black football coach in the Big Ten, following Dennis Green (Northwestern, 1981-85), Francis Peay (Northwestern, 1986-91) and Bobby Williams (Michigan State, 2000-02).
Funny. Turner and Hazell can’t recall ever discussing race growing up. Probably because they always agreed: “Friendship is friendship, beauty is beauty,” Turner said.
Building on experience
Trace the timeline of Hazell’s football life and you’ll find very little rooted in personal ambition.
It seems others knew Hazell’s calling was coaching long before he did. Two people who understood that best were Jeff Heacock, Hazell’s former coach at Muskingum (and one of Jon Heacock’s older brothers), and Tressel, who returned Ohio State to national prominence before resigning in May 2011 after 11 seasons amid an NCAA investigation stemming from a tattoo-parlor scandal.
It was Jeff Heacock who urged Hazell to consider interviewing for his first assistant coaching job at Oberlin College in 1986 under fellow Muskingum grad Don Hunsinger. With a job offer in the business sector in hand after graduation, Hazell was leery. But Heacock said he could always leave coaching if he didn’t like it.
Almost two decades later, it took Tressel no time to act on the leadership qualities he saw in Hazell after first hiring him in 2004 to coach the Buckeyes’ wide receivers and kick returners. He promoted him to assistant head coach the next season.
As fate would have it, Tressel also served as a sounding board for Burke — a longtime friend — when Purdue’s search committee zeroed in on Hazell late last fall.
Asked why he elevated Hazell so quickly at Ohio State, Tressel — currently vice president of strategic engagement at the University of Akron — said: “He was a wonderful combination of every staff he was ever on. Darrell is very focused on building what he thinks is the best mousetrap, and I knew he’d take bits and pieces from all the valuable experiences he had.”
That seemed true from the start. The summer before Hazell returned to Oberlin in 1989 to be the offensive coordinator after a year at Eastern Illinois, Hazell was moving a grill for his mother when he stepped on a hot coal that had fallen through a shaft. The burns were so severe that Hazell was off his feet for two months.
But he turned the setback into a positive. He put the time to good use: Hazell typed Oberlin’s entire playbook.
“And I can’t type,” he said, laughing. “But it was such a good experience for me to have to do; to really learn football.”
After a few years at Ohio State, Tressel encouraged Hazell to leave for a better opportunity, if he desired. Hazell said he was waiting for the right one.
It came at Kent State.
He was aware of the grim back story — just two winning football seasons at the school in the previous 24. Tressel told him: “Someone’s going to win there. Why not you?”
The first season — 2011 — was rough after the Golden Flashes began 1-6. But they never deviated from Hazell’s plan and improved, rallying to finish 5-7.
Last season? Well, that was the most fun Hazell has ever had in coaching. Leaving for Purdue was difficult, he said, because he loved his players at Kent State.
In a surprising move, Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen allowed Hazell — the 2012 MAC Coach of the Year — to stay on for a month after it was announced he was departing so he could coach the Flashes in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in January. They lost 17-13 to Arkansas State.
“I did it because I felt it was important for him, and them (the players), to finish it out with the guy who started it,” Nielsen said. “Coach Hazell was such a stand-up guy in the two years he was here that it felt like the right thing to do.”
Now Hazell — who’s eager for his family, including 12-year-old son Kyle, to join him in West Lafayette — has arrived at his next right thing to do.
Asked what would define success for his new football coach, Burke said with a smile: “Well, the Rose Bowl would be OK.”
Hazell has already embraced the challenge.
“I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about those things at this level, at places like Purdue and Indiana,” he said. “But if you don’t, well, those other teams are talking about them — goals like winning the Big Ten championship — all the time.”
The Boilermakers last appeared in the Rose Bowl in 2000, when Drew Brees was their quarterback and Joe Tiller was at the helm. They lost 34-24 to Washington.
Now another fresh start is dawning again in West Lafayette. And to be clear, Hazell wants you to know one thing:
Why not Purdue?