Buckeyes To Face Familiar Faces At Purdue

The Ohio State of Jim Tressel's days is gone, but there's one program about four hours northwest of Columbus that in some ways is trying to recapture some of that magic. Longtime Tressel assistant Darrell Hazell and former OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman are on staff and trying to use what they learned at Ohio State to turn the Boilers program around.

Marcus Freeman doesn't hide from it – like most former Ohio State football players, he bleeds scarlet and gray.

"I'm a fan of Ohio State when I'm not playing them," Freeman said Tuesday. "I'm the biggest fan there is."

The problem for the former Buckeye linebacker, then, is he is playing his alma mater this week in his capacity as the linebackers coach at Purdue under former Ohio State assistant Darrell Hazell.

The two have Buckeye bona fides that stretch back to 2004, the first year Hazell was on staff and the season that Freeman joined the OSU program as a four-star, heavily hyped linebacker coming out of Huber Heights Wayne High School near Dayton.

And both are still in touch with plenty of the Buckeyes they became so close with at OSU. Hazell told reporters yesterday that he still talks to players like Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Santonio Holmes, some of the NFL-bound charges that the former Ohio State wideouts coach tutored in his seven years in Columbus.

Freeman, meanwhile, was visited by James Laurinaitis – his linebacking partner for three seasons from 2006-08, three years that included a pair of national title game appearances and a trio of BCS bowls – in West Lafayette this summer as the St. Louis Rams star drove from his college town to his professional home.

"We had just finished a wall in our house that you're able to write on with chalk," Freeman said. "Anybody that comes to visit our house, you have to sign the wall, and he put, ‘James Laurinaitis, Go Bucks.'

"So I wasn't able to convert him to be a Boiler guy, but he's still a fan of Coach Hazell and ourselves and of mine and Ohio State, obviously."

Of course, the Ohio State program that Hazell and Freeman knew is quite different these days. Jim Tressel is no longer with the school, having been let go in the wake of a massive NCAA scandal in 2011 after Hazell left to take over the program at Kent State, and the new regime of head coach Urban Meyer has installed a new attacking mentality and has a 20-0 record.

That's likely just one reason why Hazell wouldn't indulge in reporters' curiosity about what the upcoming game meant to him, but it will still be an interesting day for the Buckeyes-turned-Boilermakers when the ball is put in the air Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette.

"This is Purdue vs. Ohio State," Hazell said. "It's going to be a fun game on Saturday afternoon."

Another Tressel? One of the most well-known – and perhaps overblown – quotes of the Tressel era was about the former coach's belief about importance of the punt in the game of football.

Tressel's view of the kicking game was one of his defining characteristics to many, who pointed to that as one of the mantras of the fundamentally sound, less-than-exciting version of Tresselball that won games but didn't necessarily turn heads.

This year, Purdue is second in the nation in net punting average, and that's no accident, Hazell said.

"We emphasize that," Hazell said. "That's one of the things that we continually talk about to our football team is flipping the field, pinning them deep and making them go the distance. Our guys get it.

"They understand the importance of that play."

That last sentence might sound like it came out of Tresselball 101, and it's not the only similarity it seems between Hazell and Tressel. A year ago, Hazell's Kent State team was among the best in the nation in turnover margin on the way to a MAC title game appearance and bowl game, but most importantly, the two have similar mind-sets in the eyes of Freeman.

"I think there's some similarities and there's differences between the two," Freeman said. "I think the biggest similarity is that they're both never too high or never too low. They just stay even keel. Nothing ever gets them down or nothing ever gets them overly excited.

"That's the one thing you see about successful CEOs or leaders, they're able to work when things are going good and they're able to work when things are going bad. They're able to keep people together no matter what is happening."

That's an important skill for Hazell right now, as his Purdue team has gotten off to a 1-6 start in which the team's performance has been nothing short of woeful. Purdue is being outscored by an average of more than 20 points per game and is among the worst five teams in the country in points scored and yardage gained.

The good news for Hazell is he's used to this kind of scenario. After taking over a Kent State team that hadn't been to a bowl game since 1972, Hazell watched the Golden Flashes get off to a 1-6 start before the team won four of its final five games in his first season of 2011.

Then, last year, magic happened. The Flashes started hot and stayed that way, finishing the season with an 11-1 record and earning notice as a team that could become the first BCS buster from the MAC. Instead, Northern Illinois won a wild game against the Flashes in the conference title game and ended up in the Orange Bowl, and Hazell took the Purdue job before coaching the Flashes in the bowl game.

How did he turn around a Kent State team that had previous posted just two winning seasons since 1980? The same method he plans to use at Purdue.

"I think the big thing is to stay the course and know that there's a plan," Hazell said. "You have to work the plan day in and day out and don't get frustrated when things don't go exactly as you planned. You can't deviate from the plan, and I think that's the most important thing, that there's the stability as you're working the plan. You can't be turbulent, and you have to have your eye on what's going to happen when we get this thing flipped."

And one thing that has caught Hazell's eye about the Boilermakers is how the team has not packed it in and given up, something that gives him faith about the future of the program.

For example, when senior starting quarterback Rob Henry was removed in favor of freshman Danny Etling, Henry volunteered to move to safety to help the team.

"I'm very pleased with our football team's work and preparation," Hazell said. "Obviously we're not where we want to be in the win-loss column, but I'm not disgruntled with our football team on how they have prepared and stayed together through hard times. There's a lot of teams that will go in different directions at this point in time and that has not happened.

"It's been a tough stretch for our guys, but I'm proud of our guys, how they come to work. It's going to take off at some point in time. There will be that breakthrough moment, but their attention to detail in our meetings and our practices has not fallen whatsoever and I'm proud of our guys for that."

In It For The Long Haul Freeman, meanwhile, began to turn his attention to the coaching ranks when his short NFL career – stints with Chicago, Buffalo and Houston within the span of the 2009 season – came to a close.

A three-year starter at OSU who made 264 tackles and six sacks, Freeman could tell as he sat in meetings at the pro level that he wanted to stay in the game. So he met with coaches Luke Fickell and Jim Heacock at Ohio State, picking the two assistants' brains about whether he should get into the coaching field.

"I tried to talk him out of it," Fickell said, drawing some laughter at OSU's Monday press conference. "The reason I tried to talk him out of it is if you can't talk them out of it, then you know they're fit for the coaching profession. As much as I tried I couldn't do it. You see why."

Freeman remembered the story to exact same way, but he's glad that he made the plunge. He's learned to not mind the long hours, first as a defensive graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2010 before becoming Hazell's full-time linebackers coach at Kent State in 2011.

"I guess I'm stuck in it now," he said with a chuckle Tuesday. "As soon as I started on it, I knew this is what I love to do. I just don't know what else I'm going to do. I'm not smart enough to do other things than coach ball. This is what I love to do and it's my passion, and I can see myself doing it for a long time."

He stood out enough with Hazell at Kent State to accompany him to West Lafayette, the one person with Ohio State ties to make the staff at Purdue.

Just a few years out of his time at OSU, Freeman has plenty of memories about his Buckeye days, as he was part of some of the best squads in school history and a near-unprecedented round of success.

"You played in a lot of big games, you played in the 1 vs. 2 Ohio State-Michigan game, you played in two national championship games, you played in the Fiesta Bowl our senior year," Freeman said. "But I think the thing you remember about Ohio State is the process and the friendships and the time you spend with those guys in your locker room. That's what, to me, you remember most about that place."

Buckeye Sports Top Stories