Darrell Hazell’s 11-month recruiting journey ends with class of 25
By Stephanie Storm, Akron Beacon Journal
KENT: It was still dark when coach Darrell Hazell and his staff began arriving at the Kent State football office at 5:50 a.m. Wednesday on national signing day.
Nearly a year and more hours than anyone cares to count have gone into this day, the culmination of which will be become Kent State’s 25-man 2012 recruiting class.
“We’ve watched hundreds of kids, hundreds of them,” Hazell says. “To get to a class of 25, a lot of work had to be done by a lot of people.”
Before the official letters of intent begin arriving, the staff has a quick meeting at 6:15 a.m. Sitting at the head of the table, Hazell has a bottle of Aquafina water, an unopened vanilla Activia yogurt and a short agenda in front of him that’s titled “The Day”.
Before official business gets under way, he flips over the piece of paper with the agenda written on it and tells his staff they’re going to have a little contest first.
“You have five minutes to decide who you think will be the first and last commit today,” Hazell says, writing down each coach’s name and their corresponding selections.
After a few minutes of levity, Hazell discusses details of the afternoon’s scheduled news conference all the way down to where the podium will be placed. He then reminds everyone about the evening’s signing day party scheduled for 5-7 p.m.
Hazell wraps up the meeting by congratulating his staff.
“You did an excellent job evaluating these guys and cultivating relationships with them. It’s been great teamwork,” he said.
On the clock
“The first one’s in,” Hazell yells from the hallway where the fax machine sits. It’s 7:01 a.m. Five assistant coaches rush out of their nearby offices to join Hazell, all gathering around the purring fax machine, anticipating the first name.
The choice of assistant coaches Chris Bache, Marcus Freeman and Dave McMichael to be the first member of the class is in — Pennsylvania offensive lineman Jake Witucki. In reality, Witucki is actually the second member of the class, counting early commit and junior college quarterback David Fisher, who signed in December.
Not long after each letter of intent is faxed to the school, the players call the KSU assistant who recruited them and then are passed on to Hazell for quick congratulations.
“Welcome to the family,” assistant coach Jafar Williams says to another offensive lineman, Tad France, by cell phone at 7:25 a.m. Williams hands his phone to Hazell, who’s finally eating his yogurt — albeit without a spoon.
Nine minutes later, Hazell is on another coach’s cell phone with the third player of the morning to commit, quarterback Colin Reardon from Poland Seminary High School. Reardon made an early oral commit to Miami, another Mid-American Conference school, before he got to know KSU offensive coordinator Brian Rock and changed his mind.
“Get the ball in the end zone, man,” Hazell says to Reardon. “That’s your job.”
To the fourth commit of the morning, Minerva tight end Kyle Crum, Hazell says, “I watched your film again yesterday, man you’re going to be a phenomenal player for us.”
By 7:45 a.m., several assistant coaches are on their cell phones in their offices chatting with players before they parade down to Hazell’s office at the end of the hallway.
“Matt, you just made us a whole lot better,” Hazell tells Michigan linebacker Matt Dellinger. “You come in with the mindset that you’re a starter and compete your butt off. You hear me?”
Building a program
In the middle of all the faxes and phone calls, a university electrician sticks his head into Hazell’s office and discusses Hazell’s plan to display a “Beat Akron” wall just outside his office.
Despite everything going on already, the electrician gets the OK to begin the wiring for an electric clock that will count down the days, hours and minutes to the next game against the rival Zips.
As work begins on the other side of the wall, Hazell is on the phone welcoming the 12th member of the class — Michigan tailback C.J. Brathwaite. Hazell never explains what all the pounding and sawing noise in the background is all about.
In the midst of all the commotion, Deputy Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein joins the group.
“It’s looks like a bunch of proud papas walking around here, like everyone in the delivery room as all our new kids come in,” Kleinlein says.
By 10 a.m., 23 of the day’s 24 commits are officially in, but there’s still one holdout. It could be that the player is wrapped up with a signing day program at his high school. Or it could mean another college has gotten to him. Hazell’s convinced it’s the former.
The waiting game
While Hazell waits for the last commit, he learns via Twitter that the first season-ticket package for the upcoming season was just sold to a man in Atlanta.
“That’s huge!” says Hazell as he gets up from his desk and heads to the nearby ticket office to find out the man’s name and number.
A few minutes later, Hazell calls the man and offers his sincere thanks. At first, the man doesn’t believe it’s really Hazell. What head coach calls to thank ticket holders on national signing day?
“He says he used to be a manager of the football team here back in the 1980s,” Hazell says of his new friend.
With the fax machine still quiet, assistant coach Dave McMichael reminisces about how signing day used to go three decades ago.
“In the 1980s, when I was at West Virginia, you used to have to go to a kid’s house or school to have him sign in person,” McMichael says. “I remember one time I was so worried about losing a highly-sought-after recruit, I slept out in my car in front of the kid’s house to make sure no one else got to him.”
Finally, at 12:50 p.m. — just an hour and 10 minutes before the news conference scheduled to announce the class — the paperwork for the final commit comes in for Glenville High School linebacker Denzell Burton.
“Denzell, you scared me, I thought I was going to have to go to the press conference without you on the roster,” Hazell jokes.
Without any last-minute surprises and all 25 players officially in the fold, Hazell and staff head upstairs to the third-floor loge of the M.A.C. Center for a news conference.
For nearly an hour, Hazell and each position coach present the newcomers on paper to the local media, while showing high school clips of each of player. The day has gone smoothly, but Hazell is asked if there were any moments of uncertainty.
“We had five or six guys last week that were contacted by other schools,” Hazell admits “This recruiting game is crazy. Until you have them here and officially have the letters on campus, you’re concerned because they are good players and they are good people.
“Other schools know that and they try to get in because they may lose a guy or they get on a guy late. Sometimes, other [coaches] get hired late. So you’re fighting competition off constantly. But our guys did a great job of making sure we stayed in contact with our players and making sure they were taken care of.”
The 11-month process has been a very rewarding one and the total opposite of last year’s scenario. After being hired in mid-December, Hazell scrambled to put together a staff, then had just three weeks to prepare for his first recruiting class.
“Last year was stressful,” Hazell admits. “With just three weeks to recruit, you really can’t begin to get to know a guy as well as you like — the family, what kind of food they like, the name of the family dog — things they go home to every day. Those are things you need to know, the things that help you turn what begins as hundreds of kids into a successful 25-man recruiting class.”