KSU players understand Hazell's decision to leave Kent State for Purdue, but ...

By ALLEN MOFF | staff writer Published:

Roosevelt Nix perfectly summarized the feelings of the entire Kent State football program about head coach Darrell Hazell's exodus to Purdue in the same smooth, yet crippling manner he uses to shed blockers and crush ballcarriers.

"You've gotta do what you've gotta do sometimes," said the Golden Flashes' star junior defensive tackle. "It's a great opportunity for coach Hazell, and I believe everybody on the team understands that. There's no hard feelings. It just sucks, you know."

That it does.

A program that's been awaiting its savior since Glen Mason left for Kansas in 1987 finally found him in Darrell Hazell. The former Ohio State assistant completely changed the mentality of a long beaten-down program in two short seasons, leading the Flashes to the Mid-American Conference East Division title and to their first bowl bid since 1972. He instilled a team-first attitude and an inner confidence that led to 10 consecutive victories, several of the comeback variety, and a will to win that was unbreakable -- even when Northern Illinois was effectively steamrolling them during the third quarter of the MAC Championship Game.

Now, he's gone.

Hazell accepted an offer to become the head coach at Purdue late Tuesday night, leaving the Flashes leaderless after the best season in school history.

"A lot of people are down, but everyone understands what's happening," said All-MAC senior left tackle Brian Winters.

"We all knew from the get-go that if we had a good season stuff like this does happen. It's happening all over the place.

"We're going to really miss coach Hazell. He's been a great coach, and we all know that. But we can't dwell on it."

While Hazell was preparing for his introductory press conference at Purdue, the Flashes attempted to move on while practicing for an hour inside the Field House Wednesday afternoon. But thoughts of what had happened over the past 24 hours, especially an emotional five-minute team meeting early Wednesday morning, were still fresh in everyone's mind.

"He was emotional," said All-MAC senior linebacker Luke Batton. "He kind of choked up a little bit, which kind of chokes up everyone really because we're all so close. You see that on the field, we're all pretty close as a team. Everyone's a little touched by it.

"It makes sense why it (the meeting) was so short, cause what do you say? There's very little you can say. He's choked up to begin with. It's understanding why he took the job. There's really not much you can say about the whole situation. I completely understand. Anybody in the room would have taken the same opportunity."

Hazell reportedly received a $1.7-million dollar bump in salary, from $300,000 to $2 million annually. But despite that lofty raise, the decision to leave still seemed difficult for Hazell.

"I got a lot of texts from the guys (after the team meeting) thanking me, but I need to thank them for all they've done for me," said Hazell. "I think for the most part they are happy for me. But it's a hard time. Whenever you put yourself in a relationship where there's love being exchanged, it's hard."

The only player to publicly announce his displeasure with Hazell's move was sophomore tailback Trayion Durham, who tweeted a few messages indicating that he may leave the program Tuesday night.

"He really looked up to coach hazell," said Winters, who said he had a conversation with Durham. "But just because the coach is gone doesn't mean he can't be a successful player. I've been trying to tell him that. I don't think he's too worried about it now that he's calmed down."

The players were grateful that Hazell decided to stick around to coach them in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 6, unlike just about every other coach that has changed programs during this time of the year both now and in the recent past.

"You see some coaches just up and leave and their players never hear from them again," said Nix. "Everybody believes in coach Hazell and is happy for him."

Batton will forever remember the valuable lessons that Hazell and the members of his staff have taught the Flashes over the past two years.

"He taught us to pay more attention to little things -- class, individual work, things like that -- because those will take you further, not only in your game but in your life," said Batton. "He and the other coaches brought that whole culture to our team. I couldn't be more appreciative of what he and the other coaches brought."

Flashes fans certainly appreciate how much better the program that Hazell leaves is than the one he inherited.

"I think the foundation is set," said Hazell. "I think one of the things one (player) said is you taught us how to win. I think there's a lot to be said about that. It's in them now. They have to find it within themselves to bring that out again, and I'm sure that whoever they bring in here as a coach will help them facilitate that. This could be an excellent football team next year."

While Batton won't be around then, he did have advice for those underclassmen who will return to Kent State next year under a new head coach.

"Keep grinding," he said. "Don't give up. There's nothing you can do about it, so you can't sit around and pout. You've just gotta keep grinding."

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