WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Darrell Hazell and his wife picked out 22 paint colors for their new house near the Purdue campus. But when Hazell walked in it for the first time, he thought it looked too much like a circus tent.
So they eliminated five or six shades from the house. Yet things still weren’t perfect. Hazell noticed that in one room, two different paint colors were touching one another. That simply wouldn’t do, so he called the painters back in to fix the trim.
The first-year Boilermakers coach admits that he’s “probably a little anal” when it comes to small details like that.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he says, somewhat sheepishly, “but if there’s something that’s not in line on my desk, it distracts me. I don’t know if that’s OCD or what. I do like things in order.”
Hazell is all about making sure every little thing is the way he wants it. Which might be what makes him the perfect coach for Purdue right now.
The Boilermakers have been stuck in mediocrity for most of the past decade. Danny Hope led them to two straight bowl games but was fired after compiling a 22-27 record in four seasons. Hope’s tenure was marked by wild fluctuations in performance and teams that often looked either ill-prepared or mentally undisciplined. Hope was also known as a players’ coach who gave his guys a lot of freedom but inconsistent discipline, as when former linebacker Dwayne Beckford stuck around the program after repeated arrests.
“When I had my first [team] meeting, I said, 'Tell me what's going on.'” Hazell said. “And they said, 'There's discipline for some, not for others. There's no standard.’”
Hazell went about changing the culture right away. He recalls that in that first team meeting, several players were slouched in their chairs and wearing hats. He quickly read them the new rules of the program, which include: no hats worn inside buildings, always sit up straight, be early to every meeting.
To their credit, players who were used to a different kind of leadership responded positively to Hazell’s style.
“In the past you could tell this was a middle-of-the-road program, and it was OK,” sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby said. “Then the new coaches came in here, and things changed immediately. Everything we do, it’s all about the details. That’s what they constantly preach, and ultimately, that’s going to add up to wins and add up to championships.”
“Will not wearing hats indoors create championships? Not directly. But it’s the little things. Everything is on point and exact to every second. That’s what we need and what we want out of our head coach and the leader of our program.”
Hazell picked up much of his detail-oriented philosophy from Jim Tressel. He spent seven seasons on Tressel’s staff at Ohio State, eventually becoming assistant head coach. He led Kent State to a school-record 11 wins last season in his second year in charge of the program.
Hazell said he realized early on at Kent State that there was talent in the locker room; he just had to instill a winning attitude in a program that hadn’t won much in a long time. He sees the same thing at Purdue, a team that was good enough last year to take Notre Dame and Ohio State to the wire on the road but bad enough to lose five straight in the middle of the season.
“It’s a belief system, really,” he said. “And then you have to teach them all the things to help them, like situational football, taking care of the little details of a play or why you don’t wear the hat in the house. All those little details, it may not seem like it right now, but they all show up in the end.”
That was evident in a recent practice, as Hazell ran the team through short-yardage and red zone drills in a crisp, 90-minute practice session. The Boilers’ offensive and defensive lines look the part, and he has some intriguing options at quarterback and receiver, plus a solid defensive backfield.
“We’ve always had talent at Purdue,” Appleby said. “Many times last year, we were in position to win, and we beat ourselves with the little things.”
The big thing the Boilermakers have to worry about in 2013 is the schedule, especially early on. The first eight games include tests at Cincinnati, Notre Dame, at Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Nebraska, at Michigan State and Ohio State. While the fan base has embraced Hazell early on, can he keep the excitement level up if his team drops a bunch of games early?
“I think it’s important that we get off to a good start, but I don’t think it’s end-all, be-all,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t flinch if it doesn’t happen.”
Hazell’s even-keeled demeanor -- another departure from his predecessor -- should help him and Purdue weather some potentially rocky times in the beginning. Just as long as you don't mess up his perfectly arranged desk.