Trust me on this one… this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Make no mistake about it, Hazell has pulled the rip cord and we have officially entered full-on tank mode. Our quarterback is switching sides of the ball, there are reports of 6-7 true freshmen seeing action on Saturday against a top 25 team, and the offensive scheme is getting scrapped in favor of a playbook better suited to our true freshman who is taking over the reins. Only thing is… it’s the right move.
Last year’s basketball team taught me a lot about the average Purdue fan. There was a huge sentiment of “damn, we fucking suck this year. But there are pieces in place for the future, so I’ll bite my tongue and wait to see the long-term results.” Everyone praised Painter for benching key players for long stretches of games when their effort waned, as they knew it was important to teach the young players that. Not all fan bases can handle an unexpected losing season from a steady, reliably good program. All in all, and with fucking retarded “maybe AJ Hammons will go pro” speculation aside, we handled it well. Attendance stayed steady, interest never wavered, and only the idiots called for Painter’s head. Folks, it’s time to test that again. Only difference is, instead of “perennial B1G contender drops to sub-.500” like our basketball team just went through, this football team very well could go from “perennial barely-bowl-eligible team to 2-win team”. But believe me, it’s a means to a MUCH better end.
Hazell is facing a much more daunting task than people realize. He inherited a team that was middling for a few years, to put it nicely. Danny Hope left him with the most hopeless (sorry, had to) scenario imaginable. The 2009, 2010, and 2011 recruiting classes comprise the 5th year seniors, seniors, and juniors of this squad, or what should be the bulk of their starters. Those recruiting classes, per Rivals, ranked last, 8th, and last in the B1G, respectively. He not only acquired nothing but the scrapheap of the conference, but it was guys who had never had a winning season in their college tenure. That 2nd point was not intended to double down on the “these guys are terrible” sentiment, but more point to a culture that very well could have permeated the locker room. No one on this team really knows what it’s like to have a winning college football team. They don’t know because they haven’t seen it.
Returning players aside, when he took the job, Purdue didn’t have a lot in terms of top-tier talent set to come in as freshmen either. Etling was the face of the class, but he had some pretty limited company. Since Hazell took over, he not only secured the Etling commitment and kept the bulk of the class intact, but also added a few more 3-star players that could become quality role players in a few years. He didn’t add a blue-chipper, but how in the hell could he? Middling facilities, a team coming off the worst bowl showing of the postseason, a conference on the sharp decline, a lukewarm fanbase, unexciting location, and a new coaching staff that don’t really have any publicly-known names. Until Purdue starts winning games, and I mean a LOT of them, then we’re stuck with the middle of the pack-type recruits. He did the best with what he had, no doubt about it.
Fast forward to this year. As my previous articles stated, I truly believe that Hazell went all-in on the ND game. He booted the UC game from a strategic standpoint for the sole purpose of putting all his chips in the middle for the night game in West Lafayette against the Cop-Fighting Irish. We carried a lead into the 4th quarter, as nearly all of our recruiting targets watched from the sidelines, by the way, before ultimately falling short in front of a national audience in a very respectable showing. He assumed, correctly so, that this would be the most national exposure this mediocre-at-best Purdue team would get this year, and he played it perfectly. Despite the loss, not a single person watched that game and thought “man, Purdue sucks”. If Purdue was able to hang on and win, their season suddenly has a drastically different outlook. If we could ride that momentum into Madison and upset Bucky, suddenly we’re a 3-1 team entering homecoming and then conference play with a couple of top-25 victories under our belt. We’re not OSU, but damnit we’re not half bad. That was his optimal scenario after 3 weeks. But, alas, it fell short, so it’s on to the contingency plan, which I like to think was his plan all along.
More often than not, players and coaches are uber-competitive. Their confidence in themselves and immense pride is how they become good enough in their field to make a career out of it. Sometimes, the hardest thing to convince these guys to do is to chalk it up as a loss and throw in the towel. Folks, that’s what we’re doing here. The losses to ND and NIU all but seal Purdue’s fate as a bowl ineligible team, barring a miraculous upset. And at a middling program like Purdue, a promise of no postseason leaves the new regime only one option: plan for the future. He gave his team a conference game at Wisconsin, which failed miserably, and then 1 more shot for this miraculous upset, playing normally in the first half vs NIU on homecoming that led to an ass-kicking, and then pulled the plug. This early move has a couple of effects. First and foremost, it gives the new guys ample time to prepare for the Oaken Bucket. Let’s be honest, if we’re 1-7 after 8 weeks (which is almost a certainty at this point), the only thing that matters is beating IU. The earlier you make the switch to the young guns, the more time you give them to prepare for the only meaningful game left.
Secondly, he is pretty firmly planting his recruiting flag. He has done an absolutely remarkable job of getting these 2014 recruits to buy into his message. If you don’t believe me, check their Twitters. He wants to rebuild the entire program from the ground up, and build it one brick higher. He doesn’t just want to reach the Papa John’s Bowl game and keep his job, he wants to be better than the Breesus teams. He’s selling these young guys that THEY are the future of the program, starting now, and he’s backing it up. Take 3-star recruit Tim Cason for example. You’re not just selling this kid on being a part of a quality program, you’re telling the Michigan native that he’ll have an opening on the depth chart for him from the moment he steps foot on campus and he can be in on the ground floor of the program that beats both UM and MSU in a few years, both of which ignored him. Hey Tim, you want some assurances that you’ll get quality balls thrown your way? Etling will be our starter for your first 3 years on campus. Gelen Robinson, you want people to stop comparing you to your dad? How about 4 years as a starter with the best D-Line program in the country and a legitimate chance to break some career sack records? Boys, we are gonna build this thing from the ground up, damnit, and you’re gonna be the ones to do it.
Look at Hazell’s message in the locker room after the Wisconsin game: “don’t get used to this feeling”. He came into West Lafayette and recognized that Hope seemed to have left a sense of complacency with mediocrity. He is starting with the young guys, and the high school guys for that matter, and telling them “damnit, we’re done with this shit.” Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is how you build a program from the ground up, and build it one brick higher. I, for one, believe in the Darrell Hazell era. We’re going to be atrocious this year and probably not going to be much better next year either. But the future (finally) looks bright. Let’s hope the rest of the Boilermaker faithful are as patient as I am.