Following the leader

Darrell Hazell spent more than two decades preparing for his chance to be a Big Ten head football coach. Along the way, he built great friendships and formed firm trusts, all while working incredibly hard. When Purdue's new coach says he's going to win, there's reason to believe.

Standing before more than a hundred men, the new leader made his first impression.

A deafening silence filled the room as Darrell Hazell prepared to address his team. He was dressed to the nines as always, though this time wearing black and gold.

All eyes were on Purdue's new football coach, but his were lowered toward the ground. There was great anticipation as Hazell gathered his thoughts. Then, he looked up toward the room and glanced at each of his players and coaches, connecting eyes with each and every player.

"It was a good way of using silence to send a message," said Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, the man who made the difficult decision to fire Danny Hope and entrust his football program to Hazell.

That gripping eye contact which Hazell gave his team in that first meeting was what caught Burke's attention the first time he interviewed for the job. Hazell's penetrating stare exudes confidence, and his smile offers comfort.

Hazell's success speaks for itself. He helped Ohio State to six consecutive Big Ten championships before leading a once-dormant Kent State program to 11 wins and a bowl game in just his second year on the job. Now, he faces the challenge of bringing Purdue to the top.

The first words Hazell spoke to his Boilermakers during that first team meeting inspired trust in the new coach.

"We will win with the people in this room right now," Hazell said to his players and assistants before another long pause, which allowed the message to sink in.

This wasn't a rah-rah coach speech. Hazell's words are honest and sincere. He never shies away from speaking of his lofty goals.

"We've talked openly about the Rose Bowl," Burke said. "Why not? Why should he be afraid to say that's our aspiration?"

Hazell has been there before and is striving to do it again, this time at Purdue. Those around him trust it will happen, too. His eyes are on the prize.

The start of success

On day one on the job at Ohio State, Darrell Hazell was greeted by a heavy binder filled with several hundred pages. This is the ‘A-Players Manuel' book, containing more than 20 chapters on building character in the game of football. It's a ritual which Jim Tressel started while serving as head coach at Youngstown State.

This five-pound binder helped Hazell form the foundation for his coaching career. It provides lessons on every aspect of life, from being a good husband to playing the game of football with integrity. This manual was given to each Ohio State player and coach as a guide to what the program should represent.

It's something Hazell brought to Kent State and now Purdue. Each of his assistants must follow and spread what the manual teaches.

"Every section in here gives you something special, that's the thing about it," said Marcus Freeman, a former linebacker at Ohio State who has served on Hazell's staff at Kent State and now Purdue. "There are so many different sections in this book that can help you in life."

After graduating from Muskingum University, Hazell went right into coaching. He started at Oberlin College in 1986 and worked his way into larger roles before landing at Ohio State in 2004.

Hazell served as the Buckeyes' receivers coach and was named assistant head coach in just his second season. His six seasons at Ohio State mark his longest tenure at any stop. He served as a right-hand man for Jim Tressel during a great run of success.

Tressel became a mentor for Hazell, showing him how to lead and be successful.

"He's got so many great leadership qualities," Hazell said of Tressel. "I think the biggest thing is his ability to connect with people, but to also see things from different vantage points where you may not see it that way. He's very humble and shares his opinion with you. He's such an unselfish guy, and he helped so many in so many ways."

Hazell tried to follow Tressel's moves, serving as an extension of the head coach. He took interest in his players' lives and showed he cared.

At Ohio State, Darrell Hazell became a mentor for many of the players.

"It was obvious that he had that ability and desire to communicate," Tressel said of Hazell. "The more he got to know our student-athletes, the more of an impact he had on them."

Former Buckeye star Brian Robiskie still remembers the first time he met Hazell. The receiver struggled to figure him out.

"He was a guy that gives off this military vibes—very straight-laced guy, matter of fact, and he always had everything tucked in," said Robiskie, now a receiver with the Detroit Lions.

In time, Hazell and Robiskie built a strong relationship—just as the coach did with many of his players. The conversations Hazell had with his players were beyond football. He would speak of the importance of family and friendships.

"He always took an interest in what you were doing off the field, what you were doing in the classroom, in how you were carrying yourself," said Robiskie. "He took on that father role because it's a lot more than football. I know that it's easy to get caught up in the performing and easy to get caught up—in the Big Ten—with just winning and focusing on getting your athletes better, but he's got a much bigger picture than that."

Hazell took his tag of assistant head coach off the field, too. He was involved with the other players' lives; not just his receivers. He became a companion to many on the Ohio State team.

Marcus Freeman entered Ohio State in January of 2004, the same time Hazell joined the staff. He immediately noticed how Hazell was the only coach to don a full suit in the office each day—different from the usual casual attire a coach wears away from the field.

Freeman was part of Hazell's special teams unit as a true freshman. Over time, a close friendship was formed.

"The more you get to know Coach Hazell, the more you understand how he easy he is to talk to," said Freeman. "Coach Hazell is a guy who you never feel intimidated by to talk to. And he'll listen. A lot of people look at you but don't listen. He'll listen to what you have to say. He's just an awesome guy who cares about each individual."

Hazell made the most of his opportunity at Ohio State. He logged long hours in the office and on the recruiting trails. After working his way to a prestigious job, he wasn't going to let up. Tressel took notice.

"He's got a good handle on what it takes, and he's tireless," Tressel said. "He's a tireless worker."

As Jim Tressel's trusted friend and assistant, Hazell grew as a coach. There were six years, six Big Ten titles and an incredible experience.

"There's so much that I learned from being at Ohio State," said Hazell. "I was around some great football coaches and football minds, but the other part of it were the off-the-field things that I learned about how to run a program."

A perfect marriage

For Darrell Hazell, it was finally time. He served 26 years as an assistant before finally earned a chance as a head coach. In year two at Kent State, Hazell brought a middling Mid-American Conference program to success it has never attained.

It was the Wednesday of MAC Championship week, just two days before the most important game Hazell had ever coached. Two years of building Kent State led to this game. His phone began to ring.

Hazell had become a commodity for coaching searches. That interest turned to action as schools began inquiring about his services. He was trying to focus on the game, and just that.

"It was a 48-hour crazy period," said Hazell. "It really was nuts. My head was swimming, I wasn't sleeping. There was so much going on in my mind."

That night, Hazell received a phone call he couldn't ignore. It was Purdue's Morgan Burke, and the chance to become a head coach in the Big Ten. This was an opportunity Hazell had been working for. He spoke for an hour with Burke and agreed to meet after the game on Friday.

Darrell Hazell brought Kent State to its greatest season in program history.

"It was hard for him," Burke said. "These guys all know that when your time comes, you've got to take advantage of it. You don't get many head-coaching jobs in a major conference at a major institution. You've got to look carefully."

Purdue's coaching board included names like Mark Mangino and Butch Jones. However, Hazell was the guy they wanted.

Days after the Golden Flashes fell shy of the MAC championship, Hazell met with Purdue. Burke flew in to Akron with a team of advisors that included Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith and former Colts president Bill Polian.

Meeting at the Akron Airport, the Purdue party worked to decide if Hazell was the man to lead the program. They discussed in-game strategies and off-field philosophies. It was a productive discussion which made Hazell the clear-cut favorite for the job.

"This interview was an hour and a half about what we can do to make Purdue a better football program," said Hazell.

Hazell blew them away. He was sharp and organized with each answer. A conversation between two parties felt one-sided.

"He has an amazing presence, an ability to put his eyes on you and you felt like you were the only one in the room," Burke said. "Even if you were in a very crowded room, you would've felt that way."

When the meeting was over, the Purdue group gathered on the plane and prepared for their return flight to Lafayette. When Burke sat down, he was greeted by intent stares from the rest of the party.

The coaching search was over. It was Darrell Hazell's job.

"It was a no-brainer," said Burke.

When the job offer became official, Hazell was sold. It was the big break he had been waiting for—the chance to become a Big Ten head coach. But there was one thing holding him back.

Hazell called the man who once put trust in him, Jim Tressel, and asked for advice on leaving behind the Kent State program he built and those bonds he had formed. It wasn't easy to do.

"The thing that weighed on him was that he had asked those kids at Kent to believe in him and trust him," Tressel said. "Things worked out, then he was gone in two years. That weighed on his heart. We talked a little about that, but there was never a question that he knew this was a spectacular opportunity."

There was no way Hazell was passing on Purdue. He accepted the job days later and became the Boilermakers' new leader. First, he had to inform his Kent State players and coaches. It was an emotional process for the man who won his team over in such a short time.

"I know he took it very hard, because we were truly a family over there," said Marcus Freeman, then the linebackers coach at Kent State. "Where we came from in two years to where we finished, it was a huge accomplishment that took a lot of work and gut and grit. When you work hard for something, it makes you closer as a family."

The transition was held off for a month. Hazell accepted the Purdue job during a recruiting dead period and would be unable to coach the Boilermakers in their bowl game. As a result, Burke allowed Hazell one more game with the Golden Flashes, their first bowl appearance in 40 years. It marked the end of a short, triumphant time at Kent State.

"Here's a program that was really struggling—hurting for decades," said Hazell. "We got close fast. We started having some success, and we got close really fast. That's the hard part, the bonds and relationships that are hard to leave."

Years of hard work paid off, and Hazell got his chance.

Working toward a winner

Darrell Hazell's honeymoon at Purdue was anything but easy. Upon arriving in West Lafayette, the new head coach faced several challenges.

Hazell had to earn the respect of his players, build a coaching staff, hold together and finish the recruiting class Danny Hope had started, and win over a frustrated fan base. It was time to get to work.

"It's just a matter of putting in the time and effort to progressing," said Jim Tressel, who continues to serve as a mentor for Hazell. "You must be realistic about what you're asking of your people and how well you're doing it. He'll need to be very candid. He knows how well things have to be done; he's been at every level."

In beginning to build a coaching staff, Hazell listed nine names for nine positions—his top choices. Each one said yes to the offer.

The backgrounds on Hazell's staff are diverse. There's Jon Heacock, who coached nine years at Youngstown State after Tressel departed; John Shoop, the 43-year-old quarterback guru who will be calling plays on offense; Marcus Freeman, once a freshman on Hazell's kickoff return unit and now the youngest coach in the Big Ten.

Hazell surrounded himself with people that he trusts, and those who feel he'll succeed at Purdue.

Darrell Hazell inherits a Purdue team which won six games last season.

"The first thing I did was try to find guys that are great people, great teachers, humble, no egos in the room, and smart guys," said Hazell.

It's not a simple task to lure in assistants. A new coaching job must offer stability and adequate stature to advance in the industry. Those key factors stem from the head coach. Hazell made his staff feel at home at Purdue.

Each of the nine new hires believes in Hazell's plan. In the case of Freeman, he has seen it executed at multiple schools. Hazell's staff believes in him.

"He will be successful at whatever he does; it's not just being a football coach," Freeman said. "He has those traits to make people successful. It's not just being a successful football coach. When you're honest, when you're a listener, when you're an in-depth thinker, when you're creative and a hard worker, those are all elements that produce successful people, no matter what profession you're in."

With a staff in place, Hazell went to work. Purdue's recruiting class was ready to crumble after the coaching change. He was able to keep it in place. The most important victory for Hazell was keeping star quarterback prospect Danny Etling solid with Purdue. Now, as a true freshman, he's in line to start for the Hazell's debut.

Hazell went on to add 13 verbal commitments before National Signing Day, bringing in a group that fits his mold of speed and discipline. He built relationships with some recruits he was meeting for the first time. Four-star running back Dalyn Dawkins hadn't even considered Purdue before Hazell began recruiting him in late January, just weeks before Signing Day. He committed after an on-campus tour and just two visits with Hazell.

"That doesn't happen a lot," said Dawkins. "What he saw in me, I appreciated him. He was coming after me and giving me an opportunity. One thing I did notice when he was with Kent State, he took that job at Purdue, but he was one of the only coaches to be with his [previous] team in the bowl game. That says a lot about his character."

One of the toughest sells Hazell had to make was for three-star running back prospect Keyante Green, a Danny Hope commit that was ready to jump ship. He had offers from Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State, South Carolina, Tennessee, UCLA, Virginia Tech and several others still on the table.

Hazell traveled to McDonough, Georgia and met with Green's family. The instant connection kept Green committed to be a Boilermaker.

"He came down, met with my family, and we built up a good relationship with each other," said Green. "He told me what was going on. He's more of a relationship person than a getting-you-better-at-football person. It's a relationship thing for me."

Communication is key in recruiting. Hazell is able to sell the promise of his program in a careful, honest tone. There's no dramatization to sell what Purdue offers; he keeps it simple.

"It's a matter of me going to work and showing them the detailed steps that it does take to win," Hazell said.

The only victories that matter in football are the ones on the field, but Hazell has done his part off the field this offseason. His goal is to build unity around the Purdue program, something which hasn't existed since Drew Brees led the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl.

Hazell has gone out of his way to draw support. He has visited with fraternities, invited students to practice, and even followed through on a personal offer to visit a local elementary school. His hope is that a sold-out Ross-Ade Stadium holds a home-field advantage each Saturday. Winning only expedites the process.

A detailed plan is in place and Hazell is committed to making it a success.

"He's a little bit like that Purdue Pete statue on the hill," said Morgan Burke. "He's going to be prepared, he's going to be disciplined. That's what he does. He's a tireless worker."

With each handshake, smile and that piercing eye contact, Hazell has inspired confidence. He's working to follow through and make Purdue a winner.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, and currently covers the Purdue Boilermakers. A Chicago native, he resides in West Lafayette.
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