Fans wanted this to work. They really did.
When Darrell Hazell was hired, the ticket office sold over 3,300 new season tickets, despite knowing that the upcoming year was likely a rebuilding year for the Boilermakers. Even after a 1-11 record in 2013, most were still on-board with the program, expecting the lingering troubles from the Danny Hope era would take some time before being flushed out.
A 3-9 record the following year and a second-straight loss to Indiana didn’t sit well with many. That’s when the grumbling started, maybe Purdue didn’t have the right guy in on the sidelines to turn the program around.
In 2015 – what most though would be a make-or-break year for Hazell – it became certain that he wasn’t suited for the job. Not only did the Boilermakers finish 2-10 on the year, they were wildly inconsistent and committing the same errors that plagued the program two years earlier. It wasn’t too surprising that nothing changed through six games this season.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the past three seasons has been the inconsistency. It was more evident than ever last season. The Boilermakers were within three points of stunning a Michigan State team that finished the year 13-2 and won a B1G title. A week later, they were beaten on their home field 41-13 by Minnesota, who finished the year 5-7. After a 55-45 win over Nebraska, Purdue again laid an egg the following week, losing 48-14 to a 5-7 Illinois.
It’s already happened twice this season, too. After a win against Nevada, Purdue was demolished by Maryland, 50-7 in the B1G opener. Any momentum earned after a thrilling 34-31 overtime win over Illinois was squandered early against Iowa, trailing 35-7 at halftime on homecoming in West Lafayette.
Nine times the Boilermakers won a football game in 42 attempts. All nine of those victories were followed by a loss, typically in blowout fashion. In games following a win, Purdue’s average deficit margin was 21.3 points per game.
Last year, the Boilermakers were the worst team in the conference at defending the run. In six games this year, they’re still in the same position, allowing 264.3 yards per game on the ground.
Signs of progress were virtually non-existent. And what little improvement the program did show from 2013 to 2014 evaporated in the 2015 season. The fundamental issues that plagued Purdue three years ago – bad penalties, poor tackling, inconsistent effort – is alive and well today.
Mike Bobinski had no alternatives. Hazell had been granted plenty of chances and never cashed-in, even on minimal expectations.
This doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of Hazell. When a program plummets this drastically, there’s plenty of blame to be passed around. Former athletic director Morgan Burke – a guy legendary Purdue coach Joe Tiller once said “isn’t a football guy” – made a pair of bad hires with Hope and Hazell. The money to keep quality assistant coaches on staff was poor. President Mitch Daniels said – in a round-about way – he wasn’t interested in participating athletic “arms race” with the rest of the B1G.
Should we be surprised that Hazell failed? Probably not. Was he provided with the same resources and tools that Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh, or even Kirk Ferentz has? No, absolutely not.
But he was brought to West Lafayette to rescue a program. Instead, he was digging it into a deeper hole.
Change was inevitable.
What now? Where does Purdue go from here? How does it start patching up the holes and begin rebuilding a program that has been shattered into thousands of pieces, like a brick through a glass window?
In Oct. 2015, Purdue made a $60 million commitment to upgrade its out-of-date football facilities, hoping to become more competitive on the recruiting trail with its B1G counterparts. Recently, The Board of Trustees approved a $5.6 million plan that will give Ross-Ade Stadium permanent light fixtures.
Those are pretty good starts.
It’s all for nothing if you don’t bring the right guy in to the program, though. Burke struck out twice with Hope and Hazell. Now that Bobinski gets his turn at the plate, he needs to swing for the fences.
He’s got plenty of options to choose from. Not everyone – or maybe anyone – would be interested in building a program from the ground up. But at this stage, Bobinski has to try. Phone calls and meetings are harmless, regardless of how far-fetched they may be.
Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck is an option. After a 1-11 season in 2013, the 35-year-old head coach has the Broncos at 7-0 and ranked in the AP Top 25, with two wins over B1G opponents.
Former LSU coach Les Miles – who was also fired midseason – has also been another popular name that’s been thrown around. While many may not believe Purdue has a chance at landing the former national championship coach, it may make more sense than most think. He’s 62, with a declining value to several major programs, particularly with so many young head coaches on the rise.
What’s the harm in gauging his interest?
Then there are other interesting candidates. Bo Pelini would bring a unique charisma that’s never been on the sideline in West Lafayette. Washington State’s Mike Leach would make for interesting consideration, especially with his offensive background that might restore that “basketball on grass” style that Tiller brought to Purdue in the 1990s and 2000s.
Or what about Ken Niumatalolo and his triple-option attack at Navy? That’d be an interesting look for the Boilermakers and the B1G.
Who’s best suited to take over the program can be a discussion for another day. The point is, it’s up to Bobinski to exhaust all options and bring a seasoned guy, one with some credentials and not based on potential “upside,” to start picking up the pieces.
Purdue isn’t going to be an easy fix. Drastic improvement over the course of a season probably isn’t a reality, regardless of who takes over the program. The next coach will inherit a mess, that’s just the bottom line.
Unfortunately for Hazell, that’s the legacy he’ll take with him.
He’s not the guy who didn’t get the job done. He’s not the guy who couldn’t quite turn the corner. He’s the guy that set Purdue football back 10 years. Fair or not, he’s going down as one of the worst hires in B1G history, perhaps even all of college football. Hazell will be the guy remembered as the one who turned a once-competitive program into a laughing stock and his 9-33 record (3-24 B1G) reinforces the accusation.
Now it’s time for Purdue to recover…again. The process that everyone expected to occur when Hope was cut loose is back in phase one and the Boilermakers are starting from scratch.
This time, Purdue is approaching with a different mentality. The financial commitment of improving the stadium, upgrading facilities and adding permanent lighting are all signs that the athletic department is serious about the growth of the program.
When he was hired in August, Bobinski understood the struggles on the gridiron and knew it desperately needed fixed.
“It’s imperative that we be good,” he said in his press conference. “We’re in it to be good. I know we’ve struggled in recent years and we have to solve that equation moving forward.”
Bobinski has taken the first step in solving the puzzle. It’s his job now to bring in the right guy to start picking up the pieces.