WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Darrell Hazell’s football office is a treasure trove of his coaching journey.
On one shelf is a folded American flag from Afghanistan, a cherished gift for a man who spent two seasons at West Point. On another shelf is a box with 11 championship rings, some of which represent the seven 10-win seasons he’s been a part of these last eight years.
There’s a special spot for the foam Rose Bowl logo he found after taking the Purdue job in December, a reminder of this school’s ultimate goal, and directly behind Hazell’s desk is one of his most prized possessions — a simple, wooden chess board.
“There is nothing like chess and the way it relates to life and football and so many other things,” Hazell said of the game he’s been playing since he was 5 years old. “Chess, to me, is about being able to see things that haven’t happened yet and you anticipate them happening.”
It’s a philosophy Hazell uses every day.
He deliberates before making his next move. He constantly looks for ways to inspire players and coaches. And Hazell believes the demanding, disciplined style that helped him turn Kent State’s moribund program into a BCS bowl contender last season will put Purdue back on the national college football map sooner than most expect, too.
Hazell has come to West Lafayette to shake up the Cradle of Quarterbacks and lead the program back to success by doing things his way.
“He’s brought a lot of maturity to the team and to myself,” cornerback Ricardo Allen said. “It is something we needed. I know, me personally, I wasn’t very mature till he got here.”
Allen is one example of the changes that have already taken place ahead of Saturday’s season opener at Cincinnati.
Two years after ceding the starting quarterback job because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Rob Henry fended off a challenge from two freshmen and reclaimed his old spot thanks to Hazell keeping an open mind. The often-overlooked Akeem Hunt is now preparing to be the feature back in an offense that has traditionally scored points by the dozens, and the offensive linemen spent eight hours on a warm summer day bonding on a canoe trip.
Stories like this never seem to end with Hazell around town.
He redesigned the team meeting room, approved the new coaching legends display in the coaching office hallway and added a clock that counts down the days, hours and minutes to the season’s biggest game, Thanksgiving weekend against archrival Indiana.
Those who have worked with Hazell are not surprised he’s gone this route.
“He understood how to teach. He was a team guy,” said Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, Army’s former head coach. “When you’re the wide receiver coach in a triple-option offense, we used to call him a ‘wide-blocker coach,’ OK? That’s not the dream of the receiver coach to be that guy, but he did a great job of doing what was best for the team.”
Along the way, though, Hazell developed a more valuable trait, in part, thanks to chess — the patience to learn.
Hazell credits Sutton for teaching him how to see things from different vantage points, former Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo for demonstrating the importance of using tough love to help players, former Western Michigan coach Al Molde with showing compassion and teaching him how to recruit over the phone and former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen for helping him remain calm on the sideline. At Ohio State, where Hazell spent six seasons before taking the Kent State job, he thanks former coach Jim Tressel for helping him understand how to make everybody on the staff feel important.
Today, Hazell has taken a little bit of all those characteristics, and a few lessons he picked up on his own to create an eclectic mix.
“It’s absolutely remarkable what those men and women go through on a daily basis,” Hazell said when asked about the Army cadets. “And when you get them at three in the afternoon, there’s a sense of relief. They’re so elated to be playing a sport that you didn’t have to yell at them at all. They didn’t want to be yelled at.”
So when Purdue needed a change after 16 seasons of Joe Tiller and then Danny Hope, athletic director Morgan Burke took a drastically different turn.
He hired the 49-year-old Hazell as the first black football coach in school history. The mission is to make winning trendy enough at Purdue that attendance increases after several years of steady decline.
The players and assistant coaches are all on board.
“In a team meeting, he gave us a sheet of paper and some envelopes and told us to write a letter to someone we care about and send it to them so they knew what they meant to us. That’s what separates him,” linebacker Sean Robinson said. “Coach Hazell is a different guy, and not in a bad way.”
That much is evident in Hazell’s office, where nary a paper is out of place and he smiles at the simple thought of playing his favorite game when time allows next winter. Until then, Hazell will have to focus on winning those Saturday afternoon chess matches by thinking a couple of moves ahead.
“Football is about probability,” Hazell said of the Saturday afternoon chess matches. “You study coverages in fronts and formations offensively, and then you say, OK, we think that they’re going to be in this a certain amount of time on this down. All of that is out the window, a lot of it for this particular game. So you get what you get, and then you have to go.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.