Hazell working to add long-lost shine to the Golden Flashes
By Bill Lubinger, Plain Dealer
KENT, Ohio -- Aside from a go-cart he patched together as a kid, Darrell Hazell hadn't built anything in his life.
But the summer before last, his son wanted a tree house, so Hazell dug in and got to work. There were no directions. All he had was a hammer and nails, a hand saw, an old circular saw and the self-induced pressure of not wanting the project to linger all summer.
He talked a forklift operator into loading the frame into his tree, then he and a neighbor finished the shingles in a thunderstorm.
The tree house was done in 16 days.
Now he's faced with another construction project -- again with no owner's manual, no lessons learned from having done it. In December, Hazell, 47, became head football coach at Kent State after nine stops as an assistant, most recently molding Ohio State's top pass-catchers into NFL wide receivers.
He left a program where four-loss seasons are volcanic to coach a program that hasn't won a conference title or played a bowl game in almost 40 years. There's much work to be done.
Like the tree house, he couldn't wait to get started.
In January, Ohio State returned to Columbus from its hair-thin Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas at 5 a.m. After an hour-and-a-half catnap at home in Westerville, Hazell cleaned up, packed, told his family that he was leaving and hit the road for Kent, arriving shortly after noon for a staff meeting on his first day on the job.
Hazell is meticulous, almost militarily precise, whether in his vest and sweatshirt -- always tucked into long sweatpants -- or the pinstriped suit and tie, white shirt and cuff links he wears to the office. In late March, he was so keyed up for his first practice as a head coach he awoke way ahead of his usual 5:30 a.m. alarm. He told the media it was 4:09. Not 4 or 4:15, but 4:09.
His smile is effervescent -- and ever-present. Those who know him best describe a quiet confidence, a quality from being ultra-prepared.
Kent signed Hazell to a five-year deal for $300,000 per year, plus bonuses for reaching specific recruiting, attendance and other performance goals. If his team wins at least eight games in any of his last three seasons, for instance, his contract is extended two years.
Hazell has been granted sufficient time to rebuild the program, not that you could tell at a recent spring practice.
"Let's go, let's go, lets go! Hurry, hurry, hurry!" he shouted above the mock crowd noise blaring throughout Kent's Field House.
About 100 high school coaches watched, some taking notes, pictures and video of the drills. Coaches from Grove City, Boardman and Ravenna, from Crestwood, Lake Catholic and Cleveland Heights, from Madison, Canfield and Hoban. They were invited for practice and a "Chalk Talk," where Kent's assistants drew up plays and formations on grease boards and answered questions in the football classrooms beneath the home stands of Dix Stadium.
When Hazell and Ohio State coach Jim Tressel had discussed Kent State's interest in him, Tressel urged him to recruit talent-rich Ohio. There's also an incentive for Hazell to do so. Each year in which at least 60 percent of his football scholarships go to players from Ohio is worth $5,000.
In the first five weeks, Hazell and his staff crammed in recruiting visits to coaches at 30 out-of-state schools and 177 high schools in Ohio, many of whom told them Kent State hadn't paid them a visit in years.
One was Orange football coach Adam Bechlem, who said hadn't heard from KSU while there, or at Garfield Heights, where he previously coached. "Within two weeks of taking over, coach Hazell was in [our] school," he said. "I thought they should be more visible. This was their back yard."
During halftime of the cold and wet spring football game at Dix Stadium, Hazell and his assistants schmoozed high school recruits on the sidelines. Some, like senior tailback Terrell Bates of state champion St. Edward and 6-4, 245-pound defensive end Nate Terhune of Orange, had already committed to Kent State. Others were high school juniors on their radar for next year. Many wore their school colors -- Cardinal Mooney, Campbell Memorial, Alliance.
"Hey," said offensive coordinator Brian Rock, striking up a conversation, "my wife was born in Alliance."
Hazell and his crew were setting a foundation.
Hazell replaced Doug Martin, who was 29-53 in seven years and announced late in the Golden Flashes' 5-7 season he wouldn't be back for another.
If not for the team pictures and their season records hung year by year on the walls of the MAC Center, Kent State's legacy of losing football would be almost unthinkable.
Since its lone bowl appearance, the losing has continued on and off through 11 coaching changes. It's continued despite a consistent run of NFL-caliber players, as a huge mural in the MAC Center lobby advertises to visitors: "Congrats to KSU 2008 NFL Pro Bowlers James Harrison, Josh Cribbs and Antonio Gates."
Hazell's name was among six to 10 that first-year athletic director Joel Nielsen kept on a ready list of head coaching candidates. Hazell's winning legacy, polished at Army, Rutgers, West Virginia and Ohio State, put him on Kent's radar. His OSU resume, where he coached future NFL receivers Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez, Brian Hartline and the Browns' Brian Robiskie, spoke for itself. Tressel promoted him to assistant head coach within a year.
"People say, 'Well, he had all these [NFL] first-rounders,'" Gonzalez, a former St. Ignatius standout, said. "First of all, none of us were first-rounders when we got there. We were just kids."
Nielsen also heard how the OSU players felt about Hazell. Many still call Hazell's 10-year-old son, Kyle, on his birthday. In emotional good-byes after the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey was bawling.
"He was my father for three years," said Ginn, the former Glenville speedster who still talks to Hazell a few times a month. "He was on top of me in class, he was on top of me off the field."
"We had just as many conversations about how I was doing as we did about football," said Robiskie, the former Chagrin Falls standout. "And it was like that with all the guys."
During Kent's spring practices, Hazell left most of the yelling to his hand-picked assistants, one of whom is former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman. The huge stack of resumes Hazell sifted through included coaching candidates he knew well and even learned from but didn't hire, because he thought they were too disrespectful to the players. He said that style of teaching turns his stomach.
Not that he's soft. When a KSU player continued to ignore warnings about blowing off required team study sessions, Hazell had his locker cleaned out. The player apologized and asked for another chance.
Coaches refer to such moments as "learning opportunities." This one was about commitment.
While Kent State's athletic administrators had a good idea about the commitment they would get from Hazell, he needed to find out kind of commitment he would get from Kent State -- namely, whether they were committed to winning.
Nielsen opened the books, revealing the financial realities of a Division I program that competes in the Mid-American Conference, not the wealthy Big Ten.
When Nielsen and associate AD Tom Kleinlein led Hazell on a tour of the football offices at the MAC Center, he was shocked. There were holes in the walls, discolored and missing ceiling tiles, '70s-style furniture and no place to watch game video.
Hazell thought to himself, "There's no way in the world I can bring recruits through here." He didn't have to say a thing.
"They said, 'I know, I know,'" he recalled.
Nielsen assured Hazell he would get whatever he needed to succeed. Hazell promised he wouldn't ask for anything that wasn't necessary.
On Hazell's second day on the job, a painter, carpet installer, electrician and architect were waiting outside his office. Three weeks later, the work was done.
For Hazell, the reconstruction was just beginning.
First, there must be pride
A sign on the front door where athletes train reads, "Attention: Staff and student-athletes. Please wear only Kent State apparel while in the weight room."
The reminder shouldn't be necessary, but the lack of pride -- shame even -- in a program accustomed to losing had permeated the football players themselves.
Around campus, the players rarely wore the dark blue and gold of Kent State, avoided eye contact in conversations with athletic staff and rarely hung around the football offices. Sophomore linebacker C.J. Steward said the team could feel the tension last season from coaches who were certain they were out if they didn't win.
When Hazell interviewed coaches from Martin's staff -- none of whom he retained -- he found so much separation between the offense and defense that the concept of "team" was almost nonexistent.
"And I'm not sure how long that went on," he said.
The question recruits want to know, Kleinlein said, is, "When's it going to change?"
Some players say the attitude already has, although that's typical after a coaching shuffle. Junior quarterback Spencer Keith said it feels like a fresh start. "There's a lot more sense of urgency," he said after a recent practice.
There'd better be. Hazell couldn't be walking into a more difficult debut, except for maybe facing his previous team at Ohio Stadium. (That comes in 2014, by the way.) When Alabama's opponent to open the 2011 season bailed, Nielsen jumped at the $1.2 million payday, even if KSU had to pay a $425,000 penalty to break a commitment to Purdue for the same date.
When Kent State takes the field in Tuscaloosa, the coach across the way might trigger a flashback for the program's loyal older fans. Alabama coach Nick Saban was a defensive back on the 1972 Kent State team that won the only Mid-American Conference championship in school history, earning a trip to the Tangerine Bowl.
As challenging as Alabama -- and a visit to Kansas State in week three -- will be, Hazell has a bigger concern: the team's traditional late-season collapse.
When researching the program before accepting the job, Hazell found that Kent State was 7-17 in November over the last seven years, and that the team had a bad habit of losing when games were on the line.
"You can't win championships and go to bowl games if you can't win in November," Hazell said.
When he brought up the November record at the first team meeting, the players had no idea. He also showed them a Kent State helmet that was shiny yellow instead of the traditional navy blue. He found it behind a bunch of boxes while rummaging through the equipment room the day after arriving at Kent. The dusty yellow helmet was a painting experiment from the past, but never used.
It now sits on the top shelf of a lighted curio cabinet Hazell picked out at Ikea in suburban Pittsburgh late one Friday night to have displayed in time for a weekend of on-campus recruiting visits.
The shelf below it has a ceramic Kent State football his son Kyle made for him; and nine rings, representing conference championships or bowl appearances Hazell earned at Ohio State and West Virginia. The helmet was purposely placed so recruits can see it as they approach his remodeled office from down the hall.
"That's our bowl helmet this year," Hazell said. "The equipment guy told me he can get them painted in four days."
Four days. One-fourth the time it takes to build a tree house.