Purdue's patience: Outgoing Athletic Director Morgan Burke bucks an unfortunate trend in college athletics, showing faith in head football coach Darrell Hazell
When Purdue University parted ways with head football coach Danny Hope in 2012, athletic director Morgan Burke understood the program had a long way to go before reaching the level of competitiveness of some of its peers in the Big Ten Conference. Upon talking to candidates for the opening, Burke candidly acknowledged the process Purdue was prepared to undertake in order to get back to its gridiron heyday.
"We were 6-6 three years in a row, getting into the lower-level bowl games, but there was clearly a widening gap between our talent level and the talent level in the Big Ten," Burke recounted. "So, [the candidates] all knew this wasn't going to be a one year and turn the corner kind of thing."
Along with a group of consultants that included Hall of Fame NFL executive Bill Polian and two former Purdue football players, Indianapolis Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson and Houston Texans General Manager Rick Smith, Burke began to narrow down an initial list of 25-30 candidates. Through the connections of Polian, Grigson and Smith, Burke was privy to detailed background information about the candidates for the position and one name stood out above the rest: Darrell Hazell.
Hazell, then coming off his second season as a college football head coach at Kent State University in Ohio (in which he led the MAC school to its first bowl game in years), made his name at Purdue's conference rival Ohio State, serving as assistant head coach under Jim Tressel and earning a reputation as an up-and-coming name in the industry. Despite his relative inexperience as a head coach, when interviewing Hazell, Burke and a team of Purdue athletics representatives?Nancy Cross, the athletic department's senior women's administrator, the late Tom Reiter, a long-time assistant under famed men's basketball coach Gene Keady, and former Purdue and NFL player Calvin Williams?came away impressed with the young coach.
"I thought Darrell was the most complete, most genuine and eager to take the spot. I remember asking Jim Tressel, the day after we had talked with Darrell. I said, 'Why hasn't he gotten a head job before? He was extremely articulate and polite.' [Tressel] said, 'Morgan, I was able to pay my assistants really well and during the five- or six-year run when he was there, nobody wanted to leave. We were in the national championship, Big Ten champs, in the running every year. He could have gone, but I think [the Ohio State assistant coaches] were all focused on trying to make sure they got the right head-coaching job,'" Burke said. "Probably the biggest concern I had early on was whether two years as the head coach at Kent State was sufficient, but in talking to Jim Tressel, I think I got some assurances that while he was assistant head coach under Jim's leadership, he had performed a number of things that he would have to do as the head guy, and that was important to me.
"When we were trying to come to terms, he made it very clear that if accepting the job was going to mean he could not coach Kent State in the bowl game, he couldn't come," Burke continued. "That was impressive because a lot of guys would say, 'I've got to move, they want me to move, I've got to get started in recruiting,' and to me, it was a sign of a person's character. Kent State hadn't been in a bowl game for years and Darrell was willing to give up this opportunity to make sure the kids had that experience. A lot of coaches wouldn't do that, and to me, that was a really pertinent piece of information."
As admirable as Hazell's loyalty to the Kent State program was, it arguably put Purdue in the position of playing catch-up in recruiting heading into his first year at Purdue. The program has continued to struggle to reach its lofty goals, but that was expected to a degree, as reflected in the six-year contract Hazell signed when accepting the job.
"Well, the nice thing about it is the initial contract they gave me because they did see that it does take time to turn around a program that's been struggling for some years," Hazell explained. "And he's [Burke] been there every week. We meet once a week and we talk about the issues and some of the things we need to fix to get this thing righted, so he's been very supportive there."
Still, other athletic directors could have been less patient in the same situation, especially with an ethnic minority coach at the helm. According to Tyrone Lockhart
, Advocates for Athletic Equity (AAE) CEO, research indicates that coaches of color are less likely than their counterparts to retain their jobs in three to four years for a variety of reasons.
"Historically, when we have been given an opportunity to become a head coach, it is usually a rebuilding project that generally will take time to get the program headed in the right direction. Thus, athletic administrators must be patient and allow the coach the time to build his or her program and more importantly, invest in the process with that coach and show support for their plan to develop a winning culture," Lockhart explained.
But rather than jump the gun, Burke expressed his support for Hazell at a press conference following the 2015 season. Months later, while Burke is blunt about the need for success at Purdue, he also shared that Hazell is going about things the right way behind the scenes, which plays a part in his confidence in the coach.
"We know the heat's on. Darrell knows that. He's been around long enough. If you don't start to be able to translate the statements you make publicly to performance on the field, eventually it'll cause you to find yourself being removed. He knows that. But we don't have a quick trigger. We never have at Purdue. I think the key for us is we can see the things that he's doing internally," Burke said. "I think what we were asking Darrell to do was to come in with a fresh start and ensure that the things that we value, which are integrity, work ethic?and work ethic means not just on the football field, but going to class, being respectful and being a good community citizen, not overstepping your bounds when you're out publicly and kind of wearing that football mantra on your face, if you will. Team ethic, we're not the football department; we're part of a broader mission for Purdue University and athletics.
"And finally, life curve. Life curve to me means that every kid coming into your domain needs to leave in a better position to be successful in life. The NFL stands for 'not for long.' You're not going to be in there forever. I've seen way too many examples of kids who play one, two, three years, they're 25 and they haven't gotten their degree," he continued. "They're out of whack with their class, if you will, that's finished their degree and is starting to get into their professional life. And a lot of these guys, their ego's attached to football and then they get out, and no wonder they struggle and find themselves sometimes in harm's way. I told Darrell, 'I want the whole package.' I want them to go to school. I want an example of what a football program at the collegiate level can be.
Asked about Burke's statement to the media, Hazell said, "That was huge. He showed loyalty to the decision he made two and a half, three years ago, to be able to come out publicly and make that supportive statement. It did a lot for our program, it did a lot for our coaches, it did a lot for our players at a time when the guy who needed to be in my corner was in my corner publicly.
"It's funny because they [athletic directors] are blamed a lot of times for the lack of success for the athletic programs, which most of the time is not their fault. So that's a tough position to be in. But to know that you have a guy in your corner that's going to support you as you go through the transition always feels good as the guy in the corner office."
Lockhart added: "It's refreshing to see Morgan Burke support his investment in Coach Hazell and assist him with the resources and support to be successful at Purdue when others may believe a change is necessary. Morgan understands the competitive landscape of college athletics and knows that you need time to turn around a program and it's a process that leads to competitive excellence."
A man Hazell will be facing off for the first time next season, new University of Illinois head football coach Lovie Smith, can relate to the situation at Purdue, albeit from a less positive angle. Smith, a respected long-time NFL head coach, was fired by the Chicago Bears (a team he previously led to the Super Bowl) after a 10-win campaign, then was let go by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after last season even though, by all accounts, the team was trending in the right direction. Smith, the first African-American head football coach at Illinois (the university also recently hired its first African-American chancellor, Dr. Robert Jones), clearly understands that unfortunately, there's often a different set of expectations for ethnic minority head coaches, even when they're leading a turnaround effort.
"I've been an African-American male for 58 years, so I know what the landscape used to be and I think when you're changing a culture, you have to realize that going in. I have always thought that people in certain jobs, when you're breaking barriers, have to show success early because I think people are kind of waiting on you to fail and say, 'See? Hey, we have to move on.' But I knew the landscape going in early on [in Tampa Bay], and to search someone's heart on why they do something, that's hard to say and I've just never been a part of being the victim. I refuse to be the victim of anything," Smith explained. "So, if I've been mistreated wrongly by someone with a motive like that, I'm not even going to acknowledge it. For me, every time I've faced setbacks, I've looked for the next opportunity to make a difference. I'm not going to quit because I or somebody thought that I was mistreated. But as an NFL head coach and you lead your team to 10 wins [in Chicago], most people don't get fired when they have 10 wins. Simple as that. And two years isn't long enough to turn around a program, I don't think.
"But again, personally for me, I just saw that as their loss and when a door closes, there's another great opportunity. So that's how I've looked at it. Whether that's happened or not, I don't know. We all can do the research," he went on to say. "But I still think it has to go down to the core of what the decision-makers are really thinking. As much as anything, it's about awareness of the problem. Whether it's the Rooney Rule or it's people writing about the things that you don't think are right, I think it's all the same. Nowadays, everything is an open book as I see it, with the internet and people having a voice that can reach a lot of different people. And it's just like any other injustice or anything you think is wrong: You have to get dialogue out there about it, whether it's the Rooney Rule or just in general. In college football, we have educators and it's about one of the basic things about discrimination and just fair equality, and all that. You would think people in the educational field would not just pay lip service to that, and that's what I think is happening now.
"Time heals and does quite a bit, and hopefully that's the case with our athletics. Now saying that, you have to then go to the numbers. Because to me, it's one thing to just give lip service to that, and if you talk to anyone, they're going to say, 'Yes, it's about equality and we want diversity everywhere.' But then you have to look at the numbers. You have to see who a university has hired. I talked about our chancellor, our head coach?look at other administrative positions in the athletic department, too, to see how much diversity there really is. And if there isn't diversity, I think you haven't looked hard enough. If you look hard enough, you can find someone of color. It can't just happen by chance."
Burke, who is retiring after more than 20 years as athletic director?it was recently announced that he will be replaced by Mike Bobinski, previously of Georgia Tech, on September 1?is also of the belief that more people of color should be given a chance to be in positions of prominence in college athletics, especially given the roster makeup of various teams, and has demonstrated that view by hiring the likes of former women's basketball head coach Carolyn Peck and current head track and field head coach Lonnie Green, both African-Americans.
"I don't know what goes on in other people's heads?I'm not going to say those hires [Peck and Green] were made because of their race. They were good people. They earned every opportunity in every space they got. Everybody's probably going to have to make that decision, but statistically, it doesn't make a lot of sense. When you see rosters that are 40 or 50 percent, or more in many cases, that are African-American and you don't start to see a little more balance in the coaching staffs at the head level. I think it's happening at the assistant level," Burke said. "I've always been a subscriber of if you look at your programs and you look at your ethnic composition of your teams, it would be good for the coaching staffs in those sports to be representative so when a kid looks up, he sees somebody who's the same color. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Does it mean you have to go out and hire all black or all white coaches? You hire the best people, but make sure your pool's deep enough that you get a good mix and then the overarching goal of trying to say look, the rosters that you have in these sports that have a certain composition, try to make sure those coaching staffs have comparable looks."
Lockhart, in his role with AAE, is hopeful that other athletic directors will adopt a similar line of thinking.
"As more and more colleges continue to increase their enrollment with ethnic students and ethnic student-athletes it's important to have campus leadership and coaches that are reflective of the environment and can provide role models for ethnic minority students and student-athletes to emulate and aspire to pursue careers in coaching or athletic administration," he said. "In talking with collegiate athletic administrators, there is a lack of awareness of qualified ethnic minority coaches. A common theme is that, 'We don't know where to find these individuals or they are not interested in coming to coach at our university.' Additionally, with the new wave of athletic directors being hired at colleges and universities there is a strong reliance on search firms to vet candidates for their openings which effectively excludes many qualified ethnic minority coaches who may be a good fit for that university. In an effort to eliminate some of these concerns, AAE is working with collegiate decision makers and people of influence to host networking events where athletic directors and athletic administrators have the opportunity to meet and interact with qualified ethnic minority candidates and develop meaningful relationships for possible future coaching opportunities."
For the time being, as much as Hazell understands the need for better results on the field, he's appreciative of his boss comprehending the challenge of improving the program.
"You want to have the time and in the microwave world we live in today, a lot of people want instant gratification, instant change in the first two years. Well, that's not realistic when you're taking over a football program, when you're trying to change culture with a lot of guys, 105-plus guys. So it takes a little bit longer," he said. "I think it needs to be that commitment, that strong commitment by whoever's making the hires that, 'You know what, we're going to go through some hard times. But we're going to reap the benefits if you stick with the process.' Otherwise, you're going to restart the whole process again after two or three years, whatever it might take to make that change."
As for Burke, he's optimistic that heading into his fourth season and after young players like linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley and defensive lineman Jake Replogle gained valuable experience after getting thrown into the fire early in their careers, Hazell can turn the corner.
"We're ready for this year. He's got a much more developed roster and made some changes at the coaching level. We tried to help him a little bit there with the resources and we're kind of excited to get started."