Conference opener brings matchup of Big Ten's newest coaches
MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen walked into his first Big Ten coaches meeting this offseason an outsider, new to the world of leading a big-time football program. And, for the most part, new to the relationships that would be formed among colleagues.
So while some coaches who have been at their respective universities for years reminisced with others and inquired about their kids, Andersen sidled up to the only other new football coach in the conference this season -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell.
"We're sitting there in the corner saying, 'What's up man?'" said Andersen, Wisconsin's first-year coach. "I think you naturally have that bond. It's a good thing. He's a good guy. Seems to be very family oriented, and I respect what he did where he was before he came."
Andersen and Hazell, both 49 and born two months apart, will square off Saturday in the first of what each hopes will be many opportunities as Big Ten competitors. No. 24 Wisconsin (2-1) plays host to Purdue (1-2) at 2:30 p.m. CT at Camp Randall Stadium in the teams' conference openers. The two men have shared a similarly lengthy road to college coaching stardom, which has made it perhaps easier to relate.
"There's a common theme that we both came from, changing programs around and having a little bit of success," Hazell said. "It might have been that common thread."
Between the two, they spent 46 years waiting for an opportunity to take over college football programs at this level. Hazell worked 25 years as an assistant coach -- at Division III Oberlin College in Ohio, Eastern Illinois, Pennsylvania, Western Michigan, Army, West Virginia, Rutgers and Ohio State -- before taking over as head coach at Kent State in 2011.
By his second season, Kent State had won a school-record 11 games and reached its first bowl game since the 1972 Tangerine Bowl.
Andersen, meanwhile, worked 21 years at various stops -- at places like Southeastern Louisiana, Ricks College, Idaho State, Northern Arizona and Utah. He spent one season coaching high school football in Park City, Utah, and another as a coach at FCS school Southern Utah.
When he took over as head coach at Utah State in 2009, the Aggies hadn't produced a winning season since 1997, when it last reached a bowl game. In Year 3 under Andersen, Utah State returned to a bowl game. And in Year 4, Utah State won a school-record 11 games and finished ranked in the final top 25 poll for the first time since 1961.
Given their success in turning around two moribund programs, it was only natural both men were pursued by bigger schools. And their friendship formed soon after.
"We had an opportunity to sit next to each other at the Big Ten media day," Hazell said. "And it's one of those things like you've known the guy forever. That's the first time I met him. Really enjoyed sitting with him and talking to him and getting to know him a lot better."
Hazell said he and Andersen didn't spend time discussing their coaching path and the importance of paying their dues.
"But we did know that each of our situations were tough ones to overcome," he added. "We were very fortunate to have good people around us to help us get through those situations."
Hazell clearly has the much more difficult task taking over a Purdue program that has produced just one winning season in the past five years. The Boilermakers barely defeated FCS school Indiana State, 20-14, for their only victory this season, though they did show moxie in a 31-24 loss on Saturday against No. 21 Notre Dame.
Purdue faces a brutal next five games, with contests against Wisconsin, Northern Illinois (which has already beaten Iowa this season), Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
"I think they've got to understand we're going to face adversity throughout the course of the game," Hazell said. "And it's how you handle that situation that determines how you come out of it. We'll talk about that. That's one of the big things going up to Wisconsin this week. That's a great place to play. It's a great crowd. The environment is outstanding, and it's not in your favor, so we're going to have to overcome some things."
Hazell has been to Camp Randall Stadium twice as an assistant at Ohio State, so he understands what Purdue will be up against on Saturday. In 2008, No. 14 Ohio State defeated No. 18 Wisconsin 20-17 at Camp Randall. And in 2010, Hazell's last season at Ohio State, No. 18 Wisconsin upended the top-ranked Buckeyes 31-18 -- a game in which Badgers fans stormed the field.
"That's a hard place to play, always was when I was in Columbus," Hazell said. "That's a difficult place. But I don't think it's going to be any different. You prepare the same way for whoever -- you're playing as hard as you possibly can to give yourself a chance to be successful."
While Hazell tries to build his program, Andersen inherits a team that has won three straight Big Ten titles and appeared in three consecutive Rose Bowls. His Badgers are also 24-point favorites on Saturday and are once again in the running for a Big Ten championship.
Regardless of the outcome, the two men will be linked together for as long as they remain in the Big Ten.
"We've had a little bit of a relationship and talk as we've gone through it," Andersen said. "Seems like a quality person, down to earth. My kind of guy."
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