Stephanie Storm

KENT: During Kent State’s final regular season game last week, a large white sign with navy blue lettering that hung in the North end zone at Dix Stadium proclaimed: “The House that Hazell Built.”

During a 28-6 victory over Ohio, the ESPNU television commentators marveled at the job second-year KSU coach Darrell Hazell has done in turning the Golden Flashes into Mid-American Conference East Division champions.

They even suggested the university market Hazell’s trademark square-billed cap as a slam-dunk way to capitalize on his rapidly growing popularity.

After the game, popular ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit tweeted: “I see Kent is at it again!! Darrell Hazell is a stud! His name should start popping up for some these big time jobs that are out there!”

At Kent State, it’s not the players, but the Golden Flashes’ charismatic leader — the MAC’s 2012 Coach of the Year — who has become the face of the program that’s just one of five FBS teams to have won 15 of its past 17 games.

Now, just two years after leaving Ohio State after seven years as an assistant coach under Jim Tressel, Hazell has transformed the dregs of the MAC into Cinderella.

The ball starts at 7 tonight when No. 17 Kent State (11-1, 8-0 MAC) faces defending champion and No. 19 Northern Illinois (11-1, 8-0) in the MAC Championship Game at Detroit’s Ford Field.

There are many factors that allow Hazell to stand out among his peers.

“Coach Hazell is smart,” said Flashes junior kick returner/running back/receiver Dri Archer. “He’s really football smart, knows the ins and outs of everything after being around so many different programs coaching for so long.”

Along with being a student of the X’s and O’s of the game, Hazell, 48, also possesses a dynamic personality. He relates well with people from all walks of life and is as grounded as they come. He has a sunny disposition and a glass-half-full outlook that make him a natural leader.

One popular “Hazellism” is two simple words that are loaded with meaning. No matter where his players are, on the field or in the classroom, he encourages them to “be great.”

“Tip of the hat to Coach Hazell for continuing to grind on us and keeping after us to be great,” linebacker Luke Batton said. “That’s why we’ve had such a quick turnaround: We have a lot of determined players and he’s pushed us to be great.”

Hazell’s sentiment doesn’t just refer to those in and around the team. Friends and family are often greeted by a text message from him beginning with his usual salutation: “Hope you’re great!”

Another characteristic Hazell has fostered in the KSU football program is for everyone, from players to coaches, trainers and equipment managers, to be treated with the same friendliness and respect afforded a family member.

“I feel like the team is a lot tighter,” said offensive lineman Pat McShane, when asked to compare his experiences at KSU and Indiana, from where he transferred. “There’s a great relationship within the coaches and the players. Everyone’s having a lot of fun and the work ethic is awesome.”

If there’s one thing Hazell learned well over 24 years as an assistant coach at programs like Ohio State, West Virginia, Rutgers and Army, it is that team chemistry cannot be overrated.

“The unity of our team is noticeable,” McShane said. “When I first got here, everyone was so welcoming and treated me like a family member. How can you not want to play with and for people like that?”

Fans and acquaintances alike have enjoyed the success Hazell has brought to Kent State, but with the Flashes playing for a MAC title and in an upcoming bowl game, they’re already openly dreading the inevitable courtship of Hazell by big-time programs.

Hazell, who signed a three-year contract before the 2011 season, is likely to move on to bigger and better coaching jobs whether it be after this season or next. Yet, even Hazell seemed conflicted by the matter heading into the championship game.

During an interview on Fox Sports Daybreak on Tuesday, he was asked where he’s going to be next year. Hazell’s response seemed to come from his heart initially, then from his mind.

“I’m going to be here at Kent,” he said. “It’s been a great situation here and they’ve taken care of me, so I’ll take it day by day.”

Stephanie Storm can be reached at sstorm@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Kent State blog at https://ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ.