WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.: Double doors of frosted glass etched with the Boilermakers’ train logo mark the entrance to Purdue University’s football office, giving no hint of the surprise for visitors who cross the threshold.
Inside, the hallway is covered with murals of a game-day crowd, part of the visual feast coach Darrell Hazell created after he arrived from Kent State in January. But if the right switch is turned on, it’s the audio that captivates.
Tripped by a motion detector in the ceiling, ABC/ESPN announcer Brett Musburger says, “You are looking live at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind.” Then fans roar.
Hazell has a ways to go to return respectability to the Purdue football program, which has had just one winning season since 2007. The Boilermakers take a 1-6 record (0-3 in the Big Ten) into the noon game today against No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0). But the 14,000 square feet Hazell occupies on the third floor of the Mollenkopf Athletic Center can compete with anything in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, we went from a 1 to a 12,” football secretary Foxy LaFon said Friday. Hazell is the third coach LaFon has worked for in 10 years. “When I was showing visitors around shortly after it was done, I said, ‘Welcome to the Big Ten.’ Coach Hazell’s vision is remarkable, along with some ideas from other staff members and the design team as well. There’s a touch of class everywhere. He’s the real deal.”
The newly decorated team meeting room surpasses that of Ohio State, where Hazell worked seven years as an assistant before heading KSU for two seasons. Plush black chairs are arranged in tiered rows. The back wall is covered with two murals. The lighting is warm and inviting, at least when the room is not in use. The stamp of Hazell perfectionism is unmistakable.
Outside the coaches’ offices are signs for each position bearing the names of past Boilermaker honorees. Another huge sign lists those who have played in the NFL. Above the windows in Hazell’s office is a mural of the entrance to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., where Purdue made two of its 17 bowl appearances.
Hazell, 49, is not only trying to foster a football family like his former OSU boss Jim Tressel, he’s trying to launch some of the same traditions.
In the hallway outside his office is a countdown clock to the rival game against Indiana University, like Ohio State’s for Michigan. Hazell has started a pep rally in Mackey Arena on Saturday copied from OSU’s Skull Session. Called the “211 Session,” its name refers to one degree below water’s boiling point. He nicknamed Ross-Ade Stadium “The Furnace,” an idea born during a breakfast meeting with an alum in Naples, Fla.
“I said, ‘We need stadium identification,’ ” Hazell said, likely thinking of Ohio Stadium being known as the Horseshoe. “He said, ‘How about the Boiler Furnace?’ ”
For the “Boiler Black Out Game” against Ohio State he’s making a uniform adjustment, with Purdue wearing black helmets instead of its usual gold.
Finding right players, staff
Asked about the formula he brought from Ohio State during his weekly radio show Thursday at Buffalo Wild Wings in West Lafayette, Hazell said, “You have to prepare for the game the right way and get the right people in the right places, whether it’s administration or training staff. All the people in the right place make a huge difference.”
On his staff, he brought linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and senior athletic director for sports performance Doug Davis from Kent State and graduate assistant John Nussman from Ohio State. On the field, getting the right people in the right places is a work in progress.
Hazell has played nine freshmen this season, including quarterback Danny Etling, a four-star recruit from Terre Haute, Ind., who has started the past two games. At Michigan State on Oct. 19, he had six freshmen or redshirt freshmen on offense on the same play. When he elected to go with Etling, Hazell also switched the Boilermakers’ defensive line from a four-man to a three-man front so he could get bigger linebackers on the field. After consecutive 30-point losses to Wisconsin, Northern Illinois and Nebraska, Purdue fell 14-0 to now-No. 24 MSU before a bye week. Purdue’s losses, all to teams ranked or receiving votes, have come against opponents with a combined 37-9 record.
This marked the time during Hazell’s first season at Kent State that things started to turn around. After a 9-3 loss to Miami in 2011, the Golden Flashes won four of their last five to finish 5-7 (4-4 in the Mid-American Conference). In 2012, KSU went 11-3 and played in its first bowl in 40 years.
“It’s almost like deja vu from two years ago, working out all the little kinks out you need to work out,” Hazell said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “But we’re making strides.”
Hazell won’t say if he’s worried it could take longer in the Big Ten to accomplish what he did at Kent State. He acknowledged that it is tough on son Kyle.
“Any time his dad’s team is struggling you catch a little grief,” Hazell said. “He’s doing OK.”
Winning over the fan base might take longer than winning over his players, whom he said readily accepted rules for team meetings like sitting up straight, wearing no hats and early arrival.
Season-ticket sales were up 10 percent this season and attendance is up 30 percent, the second-highest increase in the nation, according to the sports information department. But Adele Flowers, whose late husband, Bernie, played end for Purdue from 1950-52, said those seats are not filled for the entire game.
“[Fans are] very hateful. They leave in the middle of the second quarter and don’t come back,” Flowers, 78, a Lafayette resident, said at Buffalo Wild Wings. “I pay $85 a ticket; I’m staying.”
Attending the coach’s weekly show for years, Flowers loves Hazell.
“He’s so personable, he acknowledges everyone in the community, he welcomes all of us,” she said. “Look what he did at Kent State. I think he’s got 12 helmets in his house.” (She was right, counting one from Hazell’s playing days at Muskingum.)
Purdue play-by-play announcer Tim Newton, in his fourth season in that role and 19th in the radio booth, believes fans understand the situation Hazell inherited.
“I think he won people over in his first press conference,” said Newton, who moderated Hazell’s show. “He won me over the first time I met him because he’s somebody who looks you straight in the eye and gives you a straight answer. He doesn’t give you a long answer very often, but that’s OK.”
On Thursday, the best nugget Newton pried out of Hazell was his favorite Halloween costume. Hazell said when he was 9 or 10 he put on a powdered wig and dressed up as an old lady.
“That’s in the memory bank now,” Newton joked.
On Friday as he gave a brief tour of the football office, Hazell seemed happy with the resources he has been given. He showed off the third floor, now an attractive place that can lure recruits.
He said the inspiration for the entrance came from Atlanta Falcons headquarters, which he visited as an Ohio State assistant. But he knows such trappings won’t help if he doesn’t make the Boilermakers successful again.
“People around here want to win and you feel that,” he said. “You want to win for them.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.