The ties that bind Gary Andersen and Darrell Hazell are subtle, provocative and numerous.
The 49-year-olds have the same occupation: Andersen is the football coach at the University of Wisconsin and Hazell is in the same role at Purdue.
Both were hired away from mid-major programs last December after transforming them from scrap to 11-win teams.
Both became guardians of proud Big Ten Conference teams even though their predecessors got those teams to bowl games last season.
Both worked their way up the coaching ladder, starting out at small schools before they hooked up with a national championship-winning mentor who helped open the right doors.
So when Andersen and Hazell found themselves sitting next to one another at the Big Ten preseason media days in Chicago in July, they hit it off.
“I think there’s a real bond when you walk into the coaches’ meeting for the first time and everybody is asking everybody else about their kids and how you doing and how was this and that, and we’re kind of sitting in the corner saying, ‘What’s up, man?’ ” Andersen recounted with a laugh during his weekly news conference Monday.
A connection was made, one that’s likely to be enhanced Saturday when 24th-ranked UW hosts the Boilermakers in the Big Ten opener at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It’s one of those things like you’ve known the guy forever,” Hazell said of that initial encounter with Andersen. “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.”
We’ve seen this before. In 2006, Bret Bielema took over at UW and Pat Fitzgerald took the reins at Northwestern. Their outgoing personalities, defensive pedigrees, Big Ten backgrounds and youth — at the time they were the youngest head coaches at the Football Bowl Subdivision level — helped them become fast friends.
A major difference with Andersen and Hazell is that their paths to the present were more hard-scrabble. While Bielema and Fitzgerald got their first head coaching jobs in big-time leagues, Andersen spent four years getting Utah State turned around in the Western Athletic Conference and Hazell retooled Kent State over the course of two Mid-American Conference seasons.
Andersen guided the Aggies from 4-8 to 11-2, while Hazell took the Golden Flashes from 5-7 to 11-3. Andersen ultimately replaced Bielema, who left for Arkansas after leading the Badgers to a third straight Big Ten title. Hazell took over for Danny Hope, who was fired despite leading Purdue to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“There’s a common theme that we both came from, changing programs around and having a little bit of success,” Hazell said Tuesday on the weekly Big Ten teleconference.
“We did know that each of our situations were tough ones to overcome and we were very fortunate to have good people around us to help us get through those situations.”
Prior to those gigs, Andersen worked at seven schools — including junior college and high school — while Hazell had a nine-stop tour that began at NCAA Division III Oberlin College.
Along the way Andersen was hired at Utah by Urban Meyer, who would win BCS titles at Florida in 2006 and ’08, and Hazell got a job at Ohio State working for Jim Tressel, who led the Buckeyes to a BCS championship in 2002.
Hazell, whose background is geared toward offense, is trying to fortify a Purdue team that’s had one winning season since 2007.
The Boilermakers are 1-2 this season but gave No. 21 Notre Dame all it could handle Saturday night before bowing 31-24.
“I think we’ve made strides,” he said, “but let’s not mistake that we’re in this business to try to win football games and we won’t be satisfied until we get there.”
Hazell has seen Camp Randall at its most rabid — as an Ohio State assistant from 2004 to ’10 he was 1-1 — so he doesn’t think making his Big Ten debut as a coach there will be a big deal.
“I don’t think it’s going to be any different,” he said. “You prepare the same way for whoever you’re playing.”
But there may come a time when a matchup between Andersen and Hazell will be awash in friendship.
“He’s a good guy,” Andersen said. “Seems to be very family oriented and I respect what he did where he was before he came (to Purdue).”
In short, “My kind of guy,” Andersen said.