Published August 28, 2013
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Darrell Hazell is all about formality.
Purdue's new coach expects his players to be sharp, follow the rules and dress appropriately for their role as campus leaders. He won't accept excuses, and he refuses to change the standards for anyone.
On Tuesday, he found another succinct way to deliver his message when he showed up for this season's first weekly news conference. Hazell, cornerback Ricardo Allen and right guard Trevor Foy traded the gold and black golf shirts that had become customary attire over the last decade for suits and ties — a clear signal that it's time to get back to business at the Cradle of Quarterbacks.
"I feel pretty good right now, but it's only Tuesday," the new Purdue coach said five days before the season opener at Cincinnati. "But I'm very relaxed because I think we have a good football team. I think we have a lot of good football players in our locker room, I think they're looking and seeing things the same way."
Hazell has spent the last eight months putting his mark on Purdue's proud program.
Since taking the job in December, the former Kent State coach brought in a new staff, installed a new playbook and chose an old voice, Rob Henry, to call out plays in the Boilermakers' huddle. He's renovated the team meeting room, raised the expectation level and helped create a close-knit camaraderie among players that was missing previously. Players say the combination has them better prepared to start this season than any in the recent past.
And despite the dapper looks Tuesday, the players insist they're rested, relaxed and ready to get started.
What's unclear is how long it will take for Hazell will get the desired results.
Following a 6-7 season in which the Boilermakers graduated their top two quarterbacks, Purdue has been picked to finish near the bottom of the Leaders Division. Inside the excitable, energetic locker room, they're not buying it.
"We're excited to show what we can really do," Allen said, dressed in a light gold suit and checkered black bowtie. "Last year, was not the year we wanted, so we're excited to show what we can really do."
There are questions, of course, starting with Henry who started seven games as a sophomore and became the first quarterback in school history to lead the Boilermakers in rushing and passing in the same season.
In 2011, he went into preseason camp as the incumbent, was elected a captain and then tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee one week before the season opener. Last year, he returned to the field but couldn't reclaim his starting job and wound up playing in a variety of spots. But with virtually no experience behind him, Hazell named Henry the winner of the quarterback derby.
Teammates believe, with Henry playing and leading better than he ever has.
"I think it goes back to how you develop as a senior," said Foy, like Henry a fifth-year senior. "Rob has always been a confident leader and a great guy, and I think we've seen even more of that this year."
The other big concern is the supporting cast around Henry.
While the offense is almost certain to feature running back Akeem Hunt, only three of last season's top eight receivers are back — Gary Bush (41 receptions), Gabe Holmes (25) and Hunt (13). The defense, meanwhile, ranked in the bottom third of the Big Ten in almost every significant category last season.
Now they'll open against a Cincinnati squad led by Tommy Tuberville, who hasn't yet announced his starting quarterback.
To get ready, the Boilermakers have been scouring game tape of three different schools — hoping to figure out what the Bearcats will do.
But Allen is convinced they will get it right.
"It's really going to show what our team is about, what our players are about and what our coaches are about, too," Allen said. "We've really got to adjust on the run and we've just got to play our fundamentals."
For some coaches, the questions surrounding the season opener would be enough to make them nervous.
Not Hazell, who made his head coaching debut against Alabama.
Nope, the man who seemingly did the impossible by rebuilding Kent State's program in two seasons is ready to get back into his regular Saturday blue-collar work clothes.
"I feel like we've pretty much dotted all of our I's and crossed all of our T's and by the end of the week, we will have," Hazell said. "So I know a little bit more of what to expect now."