Darrell Hazell has tangible proof of improved Purdue Boilermakers

The Boilermakers had their first conference win under Darrell Hazell on Saturday. AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles

Thanks to a detour for a sideline interview, the postgame celebration had already started without Darrell Hazell.

What the Purdue coach saw when he finally got to the locker room and looked inside was pure excitement, and that memory was certainly reward enough for him after at last breaking through for a win in the Big Ten.

But the Boilermakers had been waiting for Hazell with something both a little more personal and tangible last weekend at Illinois. After a few words about family, overcoming adversity and sticking together and before busting out the school fight song, senior tight end Justin Sinz handed the game ball over to officially commemorate the end of a 9-game conference losing streak -- and maybe the start of a brighter future.

“I think we just kind of thought giving him a game ball was something cool to do with it being Coach Hazell’s first Big Ten win,” Sinz told ESPN.com. “I think it certainly was going to be special regardless, and then the director of operations came up and gave me a ball. We kind of planned and had thought it would be a good idea to give Coach Hazell one.

“I think, if anything, we really just know how to appreciate everything that we get and we’re certainly not going to move on without celebrating every win that we get.”

A road win over the struggling Illini might not be the Super Bowl. But considering the dark times the Boilermakers have gone through early in Hazell’s tenure with the program, they obviously weren’t going to miss a chance to toast the light.

The next step, though, is to make sure that the chances to cut loose aren’t so few and far between. The program went winless in the league a year ago and finished just 1-11 overall during a season where there weren’t many parties or victorious sideline interviews for Hazell.

A winning streak might still be out of reach for the Boilermakers with No. 8 Michigan State on deck Saturday. The schedule doesn’t get much easier with road trips to Minnesota and Nebraska up after that before returning home to face Wisconsin. And while the Boilermakers are still eyeing bowl eligibility as the primary goal, the main thing at the moment continues to be showing signs of progress.

There’s no better indicator than a win.

“I think you try to do everything you possibly can to make the steps that you need to get better, and that was a validation win,” Hazell said. “Guys understand that we’re getting better, but sometimes you don’t reap the benefits that you’re looking for. And as soon as you do, I think all those things that you work on on a daily basis come to fruition. That’s what made it so special.

“It was just a neat feeling to go into the locker room after the game. It was probably the best feeling I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

The Boilermakers already had a pair of victories to their credit before taking on the Illini, so feeling good after a game wasn’t completely foreign to them. But while beating Western Michigan and Southern Illinois had already doubled their win total from last season, those games obviously didn’t bring nearly as much satisfaction -- or really even provide many hints at the improved execution, effort or preparation that Purdue indicated was happening behind the scenes.

Most of Purdue’s exuberance last weekend was hidden from the public as well, but in both cases, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

“You know, you could see our progress from Year 1 to Year 2 during our first four or five games,” Sinz said. “Maybe it wasn’t there every single game, but you could kind of feel it. To win a conference game, especially on the road? Now you can see it when the win-loss record has changed.

“I think for a lot of people, now they’re at least ready to say there’s improvement. But we’re certainly not satisfied with just winning one Big Ten game.”

The Boilermakers were definitely pleased in the immediate aftermath, though. But now that the first one is out of the way under Hazell, they have to go back to work to make sure it’s not the only thing worth remembering this season.