Akron Beacon Journal- Opportunity Has Arrived
Stephanie Storm, Akron Beacon Journal
KENT: Kent State coach Darrell Hazell had no interest in becoming a football coach as he prepared to graduate from Muskingum College in the late 1980s after a decorated career as a receiver.
''I never wanted to coach after coaching a powder-puff game in high school,'' Hazell said. ''Powder-puff football is when the guys dress up like cheerleaders and the girls play the game. Well, I coached the girls, and after that, I said, 'I'll never coach a day in my life.' ''
That all changed during the spring of his senior season at Muskingum.
Hazell was taken aside by coach Jeff Heacock and asked what he wanted to do with his life. Heacock went on to tell Hazell about an opening for a running backs coach at Oberlin.
Hazell, a team captain and an All-America player, told his coach that he had a couple of job offers in the business world in which he would better use his degree in communications and business.
''So I told him, 'No thanks, I'm not interested.' ''
Heacock wasn't going to give up on Hazell that easy.
''We had a two-hour lunch, and [Heacock] talked me into it,'' Hazell said. ''I figured it was something I could try.''
His coaching career began in the fall at Oberlin, where Hazell quickly understood he was on the right career path.
''I realized I could have an impact on young people,'' he said. ''I really enjoyed doing it. [Heacock] doesn't know this, but he was the one person who had the biggest impact in my life outside of my mother.''
After two seasons at Oberlin, Hazell, a native
of Cinnaminson, N.J., moved on to Eastern Illinois for a year to
running backs and receivers. In 1989, he returned to Oberlin for three years as the offensive coordinator. Then came jobs at the University of Pennsylvania, Western Michigan, the U.S. Military Academy, West Virginia, Rutgers and Ohio State.
In his 25th year of coaching now, Hazell, 46, and Heacock still keep in regular contact.
''Darrell was a great athlete but an even better person,'' Heacock said. ''I knew he'd be a good coach because he was driven, he paid a tremendous amount of attention to detail, he had great communications skills and he had such an enthusiastic and charismatic personality. But as good of an athlete as he was, he had a tremendous work ethic.''
Hazell's ties with the Heacock family don't end there.
He played at Muskingum with Jon Heacock, who later succeeded Ohio State coach Jim Tressel as coach of Youngstown State. Hazell also coached alongside Jim Heacock at Ohio State. In fact, as Hazell assembled his staff at Kent State, he convinced Jim Heacock to come along as the Golden Flashes' defensive coordinator.
Family on board
Hazell and his family — Annemarie and son Kyle — recognized right away what a good opportunity coming to Kent State was, although there was some reluctance to leave Ohio State.
''The first 48 hours was such a roller coaster for Kyle,'' Annemarie said of the couple's 9-year-old son. ''He's not used to change and didn't want to move. Although he was happy for his dad, he didn't want to leave Ohio State. But we soon found out how much he really loves his dad.
''Kyle adores the Buckeyes and always wears all his red and [gray] gear. But a day after the Sugar Bowl, Kyle went to school sporting all the blue and gold KSU stuff he's gotten so far. When I asked about it, he said, 'Mom, I'm cool with wearing this now.' ''
What a relief, considering Kyle's father had already immersed himself in the middle of Kent State's rivalry with the University of Akron.
When Hazell was introduced to fans at halftime of a Flashes basketball game in December, he punctuated his brief speech by removing his dark suit coat and yellow tie and unbuttoning his white dress shirt to reveal a white T-shirt that read ''Beat Akron.''
''I didn't know he was going to do that, and I couldn't believe it when he did,'' Annemarie said. ''That's so not Darrell. But the best thing is I got it on video.''
Annemarie said she felt right away that the KSU job was perfect for Darrell.
''When Darrell and I met with [KSU director of athletics] Joel [Nielsen], T.K. [executive associate athletic director Tom Kleinlein], and [KSU president] Dr. [Lester] Lefton after the announcement and they're all sitting around talking, joking and laughing, I remember thinking, 'These guys are going to be a good team. I think these guys can make this thing fly.' ''
Hazell saw many positives at Kent State, which hasn't won the Mid-American Conference since 1972.
''The thing I found throughout the interview process is that the people were outstanding and they were very supportive,'' he said. ''They want it. They want it to happen there. And I could feel that. If they didn't, I wouldn't have come after the job.''
In his seven seasons at Ohio State, beginning in 2004, Hazell's impact on the Buckeyes' program was evident with seven of his receivers playing in NFL, including first-round picks Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez.
Not only was Hazell respected as the players' coach, but he also treated them like family, often inviting the players over to his house for dinner.
''I really can't put my finger on it, but Darrell's players all love him and want to please him,'' Annemarie said. ''Darrell is such a loving and strong person; the players are just drawn to him. They can all pal around with him, but when it comes to football, they know he's the coach; it's really amazing.''
Those kind of traits had several teams inquiring about interviewing Hazell for jobs, including NFL teams. But none proved to be the right fit until Nielsen and Kleinlein, who knew Hazell from their days together at Rutgers, called Ohio State asking permission to interview Hazell.
''I told Darrell, 'You can't put a value on the opportunity to be in charge,' '' Tressel said. ''It's so rewarding, it's so challenging, it's so exciting. I really believe Kent State can and should be successful.
''If he could get the opportunity to do that, he had to go after it. You hate to lose someone on your staff, but in my opinion he couldn't pass up this great opportunity.''
In addition to Hazell's personal qualities, he was appealing to KSU because of his track record as a gifted recruiter.
''One of the things you have to be able to do to recruit and coach is to be able to develop relationships,'' Tressel said. ''He genuinely cares for people. The kids know it, the parents know it and the other coaches know it. That's a great way to start to build a program.''
When speaking in support of Hazell going to Kent State, Ginn Jr. told the Beacon Journal that Hazell should succeed Tressel at Ohio State.
When told those comments, Tressel joked, ''Tell him not so soon, I hope.''
Yet, there's no doubting Hazell's Tressel-like qualities.
''I met him years and years ago when he was an assistant at Oberlin and he was recruiting at Youngstown East and Youngstown Rayen,'' Tressel said. ''I was really impressed with him. But I had limited interaction with him as he climbed his ladder.
''When we had an opportunity to hire him, I talked for a long time with Don Nehlen, who he coached for at West Virginia. I remembered how impressed I was with him. I called some of his other references and brought him in. It seemed like a great fit. It worked out and had a happy ending.''