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No big name, but big expectations

– So here’s your man, Purdue, and, no, he’s not the Name Guy. He’s the guy from a program whose tradition you could fit in a shot glass. He’s the guy who’s paid his coaching dues and the surcharge, too, knocking around some places you’ve never heard of and some you have in the pursuit of the opportunity that’s before him now.

Welcome to 1996, ladies and gentlemen. And say hello to Joe Tiller.

In a little while we’ll make the jump to 2012 and you’ll get to meet Darrell Hazell, but for now, let’s walk it back a bit. Let’s remember what it was like when Purdue brought in another coach from a program people associated with football the way they associate armadillos with oregano.

Tiller was 55 when he came to West Lafayette from Wyoming of all places, where he was 39-30-1 in five seasons. He wasn’t a Name Guy, like Fred Akers had been. And he seemed like the last person on earth destined to get the fan base revved up.

Of course, that was before he turned a defensive back (Billy Dicken) into a quarterback and went 9-3 his first year. Then, three years later, got Purdue to its first Rose Bowl in 34 years.

By that time, people in jacked-up Ross-Ade Stadium were waving “Joe for President” signs and chanting his name.

So what’s that got to do with Darrell Hazell?

Well, he’s being asked again to re-energize a fan base that has left Ross-Ade a house of echoes, and he’s not a Name Guy, either, at least for football non-junkies. In 26 years, he’s coached at places like Army and Oberlin and Ohio State, where he was Jim Tressel’s right-hand man for seven years. Then he got the call from Kent State, a chronic loser that had put up exactly one winning season since 1987.

“People looked at me like I was crazy,” Hazell remembered Wednesday, as they introduced him as Purdue’s 35th football coach. “I bit my lip and went to work.”

He went 5-7 in his first season, but Kent won four of its last five games. Then, this fall, the Golden Flashes finished 11-2 and landed in a bowl game for the first time in 40 years.

And now here Hazell was Wednesday evening, telling everyone that Purdue is going to win and it’s going to win a hurry.

“We’re going to go after people,” he said.

And: “We’re going to do it the right way.”

And: “There’s a lot of things this program is going to do in the future. It’s going to be really special. Very special.”

A lot of guys say that on Day 1 of the job, but somehow when Hazell says it you believe it. There’s an air about him – maybe it’s the way he molds the brim of his cap into a perfect curl, a virtually lost art these days – that fairly exudes competence. Everyone who’s ever met him senses it.

“There’s a calmness about him. You can feel the intensity, but there’s a calmness in his eyes. If you’re late in the game and the kids look over at the sideline, that’s probably the face you want to see,” Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said Wednesday.

“(Hazell) truly gets it,” acting President Tim Sands said.

And if he wins, Purdue’s fan base will get him. It says here it will regardless – just listen to the guy for two minutes and you’ll be convinced – but it really is that simple. Was with Tiller, will be with Hazell.

“There’s a certain level of expectation that everybody in the organization must meet,” he said Wednesday. “No one in the organization underachieves. If you can do that, you can be pretty successful.”

And make a Name for yourself.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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