FORWARD—it's a simple word written on t-shirts handed out to Purdue football players as they begin workouts leading up to spring practice in 2014. Head coach Darrell Hazell has a message for his players and for the rest of the college football world.
“You notice where the forward is—it’s on the back of the other guy’s shirts, so I want them to look forward, just moving forward with these guys,” Hazell said, via Mike Carmin of the Lafayette Journal and Courier.
Given the way 2013 went, there is nothing more Purdue can do but push forward indeed.
Things couldn't have gotten off to a worse start for Hazell. Not only did his team finish 1-11 in his first year on campus, but his first full recruiting class ranked dead last in the Big Ten according to 247Sports.com
It has some Boilermakers fans ready to jump ship on Hazell and the program, but a closer look at things shows that there is hope in West Lafayette, Ind., after all.
Besides, some of the best coaches in recent Big Ten history started off in nearly the same manner as Hazell did. All Hazell needs to do is look to two West division schools for proof that things can get better.
Barry Alvarez went 1-10 in his first season as head coach at Wisconsin in 1990, while Kirk Ferentz went 1-10 in his first season at Iowa in 1999.
It would take two more losing seasons before Alvarez completely turned around the Badgers. Ferentz also turned the Hawkeyes around eventually as well.
Those lessons aren't lost on Hazell, who realizes exactly what those guys did to be successful in the long run.
"The thing about those (coaches), they had a plan and they stuck to the plan," Hazell said, via Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. "They understood things aren't always exactly the way you want it when you go into a situation."
Yet, judging by reactions of some in the Boilermakers family, Hazell wouldn't survive three losing seasons. Message boards and commentators are already lamenting Hazell and wishing for anyone else as a head coach.
Heck, would Alvarez have survived those three losing seasons in today's world? Such is the mega-million dollar expectation level coaches and administrators live under these days.
Win now, or get off our sidelines—at least that seems to be the message of some message board folks these days.
Speaking of expectations, what 2013 should have told us all is that perhaps Purdue was a lot worse off than its yearly mediocre record under Danny Hope told us.
It also showed how pigeonholed the Boilermakers had become under Hope. By that, I meant Purdue only hit on recruits that fit the system they were running instead of finding the best players and fitting the system around them.
There's nothing wrong with having an identity, which was a very finesse team running a spread offense under Hope. No one would've accused Purdue of being the team that would punch you square in the mouth over the last decade.
But, when that identity gets shifted as dramatically as Purdue's did this past season, it exposes the weaknesses of the previous regime's recruiting.
Hazell had to fit square pegs in to round holes in 2013, trying to make an offensive line that couldn’t. So yes, the Boilermakers hit bottom in 2013.
Yet, that may have been exactly what was needed for the Boilermakers to get the identity and culture Hazell is trying to instill
Compare what happened to Purdue versus the transition that took place at Wisconsin again, this time, at the same time, where the UW defense went from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, yet never missed a beat.
Why did one struggle in transition and the other did not? Purdue chose to go after "system" players on offense rather than going after the best players available and fitting them into a framework of a system.
The Badgers recruited players the other way around on defense, and when UW switched to a 3-4 defense going into 2013, it ended up finding out that it had more athletes than it knew about. Wisconsin finished second in the conference on defense behind Michigan State.
What it also indicates is the drastic gap in overall talent that existed on Purdue's roster.
Hazell's first attempt to get things going in the direction he wants came via the 2014 recruiting class, and finishing last in that category has some worried.
Call it an overreaction of a minority or whatever you want to call it, but taking recruiting rankings as gospel of how good your coach is or where your team is going is a bit much.
It wasn't a pretty class with a lot of players that stand out according to the star rankings, but the reality is Hazell needs to find the players who fit the attitude he is trying to instill before getting around high 4-star players.
That's exactly why seeing four offensive linemen weighing in at 295 pounds or better should be encouraging; so, too, should be seeing more athletic defensive linemen. So, there are some things to possibly get excited about for the future of the program.
Where his critics are right regarding this class is that it will be the class that sets the tone for his tenure at Purdue.
If this class doesn't represent the right attitude and become the catalyst for change into a better football team quickly, Hazell will only have himself to blame.
Purdue and Darrell Hazell clearly want better results than what has happened over the last 12 months, but judging a coach as a success or failure after just one season isn't wise, either.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and Purdue's new identity won't be, either. Patience is a fleeting thing in today's world of instant news and gratification, but it is exactly what Hazell deserves in his attempt to rebuild Purdue.
*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.
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