KENT: Former football coach Darrell Hazell began officially saying goodbye to Kent State beginning early Wednesday morning before the sun was up after accepting a new job at Purdue University.
Word leaked out late Tuesday night that Hazell, 48, had accepted the Boilermakers job despite a day of back-and-forth communication to the contrary, but Hazell still felt the need to personally tell everyone at Kent State and thank them.
After a meeting with his coaching staff at 6:15 a.m. to inform them of his impending departure, Hazell met briefly with his team at 6:30 a.m.
“Literally, I was in the room for five minutes,” he said. “I made a statement, I asked if they had any questions and there were no questions. I told them I loved them and I walked out.”
Although saddened, the players responded with a loud round of applause.
“That was by far the coolest exit I have ever seen,” junior defensive lineman Richard Gray tweeted afterwards.
A few hours later, Hazell walked into a third-floor loge that overlooks the basketball court, wading through a packed crowd of media, athletic department workers and other university employees on his way to the table at which he’d spent many Monday mornings doing his weekly news conference.
During an emotional 16-minute news conference, Hazell expressed his gratitude to Kent State for giving him his first head-coaching job.
“There’s obviously a lot of mixed emotions when something like this happens,” Hazell said. “I got the offer yesterday at about 4:30 and accepted the job last night about 9 o’clock to go be the head coach of Purdue University.
“I’m excited about that new chapter in my life, but obviously it’s always hard to leave people that you love. I made some tremendous relationships here in the last two years. There’s a lot of great people in this Kent State community and people that I’ll never forget, people who helped me develop as a head coach and I’m surely going to miss a lot of these people around here.
“I think we did something special around here because of a lot of people. It wasn’t just me; there were a lot of people who had their hand in the success that we’ve had at Kent State.”
The debate over whether Purdue, a perennial also-ran in the Big Ten, is a good fit for Hazell came to an abrupt end a few hours later Wednesday afternoon when ESPN reported that he’s set to make $2 million per year ($12 million over a six-year contract) with the Boilermakers.
Hazell made a $300,000 annual base salary in his two years at Kent State. Purdue will also pick up a $900,000 tab for the remaining three years on Hazell’s KSU contract.
“I completely understand [him leaving],” senior linebacker Luke Batton said. “Anyone in the room would have taken the same opportunity he had for his career and his family. So it wasn’t a surprise and we all knew it was coming.”
Hazell, who guided KSU to a 16-9 record in his two seasons, led the Flashes to a program-record 11 wins, a final No. 25 national ranking in the BCS poll and the team’s first bowl berth in 40 years this season.
After some deliberation, first with Hazell, and then with the team’s tri-captains (seniors Brian Winters and Batton and junior Roosevelt Nix), it was agreed upon that Hazell would stay on to coach the Flashes in the GoDaddy.com Bowl against Arkansas State in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 6.
“We still have a month left with [Hazell] and our other coaches, so we’re going to try not to think about the negatives and just build more good times, more memories,” said Nix, a defensive lineman.
The players spent their first bowl practice without Hazell, who was preparing to leave Kent at 4 p.m. on Purdue’s private jet for his introductory news conference at 7 p.m.
“It was weird [practicing without Hazell],” said Winters, the Flashes’ pro prospect at left tackle. “It was a short, crisp practice but it was different. It didn’t really feel the same.”
The mood was still somber after practice, but it seemed as if the high emotions of the previous day had been replaced with quiet resignation. Winters said he talked to sophomore running back Trayion Durham, who took to Twitter on Tuesday night voicing his anger by suggesting he might as well pack his bags and leave, too.
“He really looked up to coach Hazell, but just because the coach is gone, it doesn’t mean he can’t be a successful player,” Winters said. He said he spoke to Durham and sensed that Durham was beginning to back away from Tuesday’s comments.
Earlier in the morning, Hazell said there’s no reason for the players to overreact to his leaving.
“Kent State is a great place,” he said. “Everything they need is right here, educationally, socially, on the football field … You select a university because of the university, not because of the football coach.”
Some of his players were already beginning to realize as much. At about 5:30 p.m., freshman kicker April Goss tweeted: “Best of luck to Coach Hazell, he will be missed dearly. Great coach & great man. He gave this team what it needed most, a vision of success.”
Now, Hazell has taken that formula to Indiana.
“When I took the Kent State job, people thought I was crazy,” Hazell said in his introductory news conference at Purdue, aired live on the Big Ten Network. “But I bit my lip and went to work. That’s what we’re going to do here. We’re going to win championships here.”
He said that when he arrived in Kent nearly two years ago to the day. Against all odds, Hazell nearly accomplished it, falling just short in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game in a double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.