CHICAGO — Joe Tiller once had Purdue consistently ranked among the Big Ten’s upper-middle programs.
From 1997 through 2007, the Boilermakers played in 10 bowls, including three on New Year’s Day. In 2000, quarterback Drew Brees paced Purdue to the Big Ten title and the school’s second trip the Rose Bowl.
But Tiller’s tenure ended in 2008, and Purdue since has floundered in the conference’s lower-middle class. Only twice in the last five years did Purdue earn a bowl bid. Both times it was after 6-6 campaigns.
The Danny Hope era ended before a 58-14 massacre in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1. Three consecutive wins brought the Boilermakers to 6-6 but Hope was out within days of the season finale. But those wins were against the only three Big Ten teams to not reach bowl eligibility. Purdue needed a change, and the man the school brought in — Darrell Hazell — recognized the school needs a lift mentally off the field as much as it needs confidence on it.
“One of the first things that I said to our team, very first team meeting on that Sunday night, was Purdue was always a team that’s perceived in the middle of the Big Ten,” Hazell said. “Never up here, never down here.
“And I told them it’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re going to climb ourselves out of the middle and we’re going to put this program on national prominence for a long point in time.”
Hazell coached Ohio State’s wide receivers for seven years, and the last six the Buckeyes claimed at least a share of the Big Ten title. He took over at Kent State as head coach in 2011 and last year he guided the Golden Flashes to their first bowl game in 40 years.
Hazell elevated the players’ confidence and coached them in the right direction. That was part of his blueprint at Kent State and it certainly is at Purdue.
“The mentality he’s given us, the belief system that he’s given us, we truthfully believe in Coach Hazell’s system,” Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston said. “We buy into it.
“For a team to truthfully buy into the system, it has to be real. Or it wouldn’t happen.”
But Hazell doesn’t just pat his new players on the back and make them feel good about themselves. At times he keeps them on edge. Keeps them guessing. It’s one way he stays ahead of them. They know he supports them, but they’re slightly insecure about where they stand.
“With Coach Hazell, he’ll definitely keep you wondering,” Gaston said.
With nearly every starter returning last year, Purdue was considered the team most able to knock out Wisconsin and win the Leaders Division crown (at least while Ohio State was ineligible). The Boilermakers won three of its first four and its only loss was a last-second defeat at national runner-up Notre Dame.
Then Purdue lost five straight to open the Big Ten season, effectively ending Hope’s coaching tenure. Michigan (44-13) and Wisconsin (38-14) pounded the Boilermakers for a combined 771 rushing yards at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Boilermakers then gave away an eight-point lead to Ohio State, which drove 61 yards in the final 47 seconds with a back-up QB to tie the game and eventually win in overtime.
“We started a fight, we went into a fight and we didn’t finish,” Gaston said. “That’s something that’s going to be unacceptable this year. We’re going in with the mentality that we’ve got to finish our fights this year that we start.
“You can’t let the fight get out of control or you get knocked out. That’s pretty much what happened (against Wisconsin).”
Purdue has a difficult slate entering the Hazell era. The team’s top two quarterbacks and receivers move on, along with its leading rusher. The defense is more stable with nine returning starters, but it lost second-round NFL draft pick Kawann Short. Its three FBS non-conference opponents (Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois) were a combined 34-6 last year. Purdue’s non-divisional slate includes Nebraska and Michigan State.
But Hazell is no stranger to rebuilding quickly. Before his 11-win campaign last year, Glen Mason was the last Kent State coach to claim at least seven wins, and that was back in 1987. Hazell was 5-7 his first year, then 11-3 his second.
Will that happen at Purdue? It’s hard to tell. But Hazell wants his players visualizing the turnaround. Because in his eyes, what you see is what you get.
“I think it all starts with your self-image,” Hazell said. “How we see ourselves. And that’s where it all starts, because if you don’t see yourselves as a champion, no one else is going to see yourselves as a champion.
“And then you have to put the work in. Obviously we want to change our image. We want to be a tougher football team. We want to be a smarter football team and play with greater discipline.”
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