Kickoff: Purdue at Cincinnati, noon, Saturday
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WEST LAFAYETTE -- Darrell Hazell doesn't sweat. Well, maybe he does, but it's not like you or me.
Purdue practiced this week in the hottest weather of the year. Temperatures soared above 90 degrees, even higher on the Boilers' artificial turf practice field. Hazell coached in a white, long-sleeved windbreaker tucked into dark long pants. It was the perfect attire for early November chill, not late August furnace.
No matter. Hazell was all about focus, attention to detail and, yes, discipline, heat be darned. He lasered in on what was important, not what wasn't.
Execution matters. Concentration matters. Everybody matters, whether you're starting or buried in scout team duty. Returning the Boilers to the Big Ten mountaintop will not require miracles, but it will demand constant, relentless involvement from all parties concerned.
“The vision is to make sure we keep climbing,” Hazell says. “If we do, we'll like the results.”
For eight months Hazell has coached outside the spotlight, although open practices allowed some insight. Flashes of the team he wants to coach, the program he expects to build, surfaced. There will be a diverse offense and an attacking defense. There will be a commitment to limiting turnovers as well as forcing them.
But before all of that comes an all-things-are-possible mindset.
“The building block is belief,” he says. “That's where it starts. If we can start to believe in each other and trust in each other, then we've got a chance. There's enough talent here for that to happen. Guys are becoming closer. If we'll do that, we'll have a good team when we need to be.”
Hazell is considered an up-and-coming coach. In two years he took a Kent State program that hadn't won in a couple of generations to an 11-victory season, winning Mid-American Conference coach of the year honors. USA Today rates him as one of the nation's five coaches to watch this season (Ball State's Pete Lembo also made the list).
But now it goes fully public. On Saturday in Cincinnati the honeymoon ends and we see whether Hazell can coach to the hype; whether he ends up as the next Joe Tiller or the next Danny Hope.
“Everybody has to be all in,” he says. “You can't have 80 to 90 percent and get things accomplished. Everybody has to believe in what we're doing and what we're attempting to do. When you hit those road bumps, it becomes a little easier if we're all looking in the same direction.”
Playing at Cincinnati, which returns 17 starters from a 10-3 team, is a nasty way to begin a coaching era, although Hazell survived an even more formidable challenge at Kent State, when his first game was at Alabama.
“I feel more relaxed,” he says about this debut. “I feel like we've dotted all of our I's and crossed all of our T's. I know a little bit more of what to expect.
“I'm very relaxed because I think we have a good team. We have a lot of good players, and I think they're looking and seeing things the same way.”
Purdue (6-7 last year) has veteran players in a lot of positions, and in those it doesn't, there is talent. The offensive line features three fifth-year seniors. Running back Akeem Hunt is a potential thousand-yard rusher. Senior Rob Henry is the kind of dual-threat quarterback defenses hate facing. Tight end Gabe Holmes could develop into one of the Big Ten's best. Despite a couple of injuries, there is enough receiver talent.
The defense seems solid on the line and in the secondary. If the linebackers hold up -- getting veteran Joe Gilliam back from a busted finger is huge -- the Boilers could be tough to deal with.
But every team has August potential. Not every team plays up to it.
“Always in the first game, it's who are you going to be,” Hazell says. “Are you going to be the team you think you are, or are you going to have to make tweaks?
“There are a lot of unknowns. You've got to do a good job of adjusting in the first half, and try to win it in the second.”
Cincinnati is coached by Tommy Tuberville, who is in his first year after three seasons at Texas Tech (and before that, Auburn and Mississippi). His offensive and defensive signatures haven't yet been established with the Bearcats, a big reason for the unknowns Hazell expects.
“We don't know what we're going to get offensively and defensively, but in the end, it comes down to execution. Regardless of what we call or what they line up in, it's about what we do execution-wise.
“Football is about probability. You study coverages in fronts and formations, and think they'll be in this a certain amount of time on this down, and then sometimes it all goes out the window. So you get what you get, and then you have to go.”
On Saturday the Boilers will go to a sold-out Nippert Stadium. Hazell calls it a critical game.
“Any time you can validate the things you're doing as a new staff, that's good -- for your program and your players. Validation in this game would be huge.”
It starts by not letting them see you sweat.