WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue’s Darrell Hazell doesn’t look or sound like a man on the hot seat.
Walk into his office and you’re greeted by a 52-year-old coach eager for a fresh start Saturday against Eastern Kentucky. His desk is tidy and behind it, on a shelf, is an Indiana license plate with a succinct message for anyone who stops by: “Beat IU.”
The truth is, the Boilermakers haven’t beaten many teams over the past three seasons — including the Hoosiers — and Hazell thinks things are about to change.
“It’s not even close,” Hazell told The Associated Press when asked if this was the best team he’s had at Purdue. “The best in a lot of different ways, too, not only talent but how they approach the game and they’re so serious about being good. Because they’re serious about it, they do the extra things that you want them to do. They study more film, they ask more questions. They coach each other.”
Hazell believes the new culture will lead to more wins. But around campus and around town, others are clamoring for a change.
Since taking the job after the 2012 season, Hazell has gone 6-30 and has the worst winning percentage (.167) of any Purdue football coach who lasted more than one season. Half of his wins came against Championship Subdivision schools — twice over Indiana State and once over Southern Illinois. Hazell is 0-3 against the Hoosiers and on the verge of matching the school’s longest losing skid in the series.
Purdue’s attendance numbers have tumbled. Among Big Ten schools, only Northwestern averaged smaller home crowds than the 37,508 who showed up on average at Ross-Ade Stadium last season. The Boilermakers filled a league-low 65.5 percent of stadium capacity in 2015.
Take those numbers and add a new athletic director to the mix, and it’s easy to see why Hazell will be in trouble if he can’t turn things around.
While Purdue’s players take Hazell’s side, they also understand what rumors and speculation can do to a locker room.
“A lot of times it can tear a team apart or bring it together,” former Purdue receiver Danny Anthrop said Monday, before he was cut the Indianapolis Colts. “It’s a tough situation when you haven’t had the type of success you wanted to have.”
Hazell insists nobody inside the program is paying attention to the chit-chat outside because they’re too busy searching for solutions.
During the offseason, Hazell changed both coordinators, simplified the playbook for the offense and defense and revamped his staff.
He’s already announced David Blough will remain the starting quarterback. If Blough becomes the first opening-day starter of Hazell’s tenure to keep his job for the entire season, the Boilermakers may finally have some stability at the most important position.
What would really change attitudes in West Lafayette, though, are some early wins. After Saturday’s home game, the Boilermakers host Cincinnati and Nevada before opening conference play at Maryland on Oct. 1.
Hazell knows a fast start could lead to even bigger things down the road, and players have embraced the challenge.
“We’re starving, starving for some wins,” defensive tackle Jake Replogle said. “We’re ready to go.”
So is Hazell. He has a veteran quarterback, more options on offense, a defense playing fast and more depth than he’s had in those first three seasons at Purdue.
It’s enough to make the usually low-key Hazell exude confidence.
“I like our chances,” he said. “People will read that and say ‘This guy must be crazy, this guy’s a nut’ based on what has happened over the last three years. But here’s what people don’t understand is in sports no two years are the same.”
If Hazell is right, the doubters will quickly vanish.
If not, it could be another turbulent offseason in West Lafayette, even if Hazell isn’t willing to acknowledge that.
“My focus is solely on getting our program better to win,” Hazell said. “That’s all I can think about, so all the naysayers, whatever they are out there, the talkers, the talking heads that are making these conversations, one, I don’t hear it most of the time. But if I do hear it, I don’t pay any attention to it. There’s nothing arrogant about that, it’s just that I don’t have time to focus on those things.”