When Scottie Hazelton first got the call, he thought it was a joke.
The former linebackers coach at North Dakota State had seen friends get promoted before. A couple Bison coaches went from the top-ranked FCS program in 2011 to the NFL or to an FBS school, but Hazelton didn't expect he would be the next in line.
"To leave there and take a bigger job was sweet, because you don't really think it's going to happen," he said. "Right away you're like, 'wow, yeah that's a great opportunity for a guy. What a jump.'"
Fans were surprised at the hire, too. But Lane Kiffin wasn't. He didn't care that Hazelton came from Fargo, a town of 100,000 residents, to big city Los Angeles. He just knew the guy could teach football and do it well.
"I was really looking more for really good teachers not necessarily older NFL guys or older coaches in general. We wanted to get some younger guys into our program and get that level of energy up," Kiffin said of Hazelton, Marvin Sanders and Tee Martin, his three new coaching hires this spring.
When Hazelton came to USC for his interview he didn't change into a showman before Kiffin or boast a resume bigger than it was. No, he simply coached the way he knew how and that was enough.
"You're excited about the opportunity but you also got to be yourself. You have to show up and be you because you can't come to a place and be somebody different because that's going to show through at some point and everyone is going to realize it.
"On a stage like this your true colors are going to come out," he said.
Jumping divisions for any coach in any sport is special. But for Hazelton who jumped even higher, to the top-ranked preseason Trojans, the move was surreal. After a month in the system, he noted that the task is the same no matter what city you're in or who you work for.
"When you first take [the job], you might be a little be in aw but now it's one of those things -- you're coaching ball -- so it's a great time."
What's even more fun for Hazelton? The talent he gets to work with every day. It's a group far and above any other he's coached.
"It's like Christmas, there's no doubt."
But the athletes are skilled at most Division-I programs, so Hazelton said the promotion is relative.
"You come in and look at the athletes, but then you look at the athletes you're playing against too and say, 'well everybody is better.'"
Hazelton was gifted with perhaps the deepest position of any on the team. On the outside are Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, who led the team in tackles last season. Backing them up are Tre Madden, who progressed mightily throughout the 2011 season and Anthony Sarao, a redshirt freshman who was named the Defensive Service Team Player of the Year. At middle linebacker is Lamar Dawson, a true freshman co-starter in 2011. Early enrollee Scott Starr will backup Dawson inside.
"You'd like to be able to play six guys in a game to keep guys fresh so when it comes to fourth quarter or overtime, you can say 'go play' and they're not dead," Hazelton said.
On Dawson, Hazelton said the player known for being reserved has opened up in their position meetings.
On Starr, he said he's shown to have good instincts.
"He's a good athlete, he's a little bit slower on reacting to things but he's a freshman. I think he's going to be pretty good.
On Madden, he said the Mission Viejo (Calif.) High product understands his role.
"He's making that sophomore transition, not as fast as the guys who have been here and redshirted and made it through, not the same level…But he's getting a lot better. I'm excited to coach him. He did some amazing things in testing."
On Bailey and Pullard, he said they are self-motivated and driven enough to raise their play in 2012.
"Guys like that have a natural work ethic. It's not just about being the best at the spot on the team. It's really about being the best at the spot in the country."
You can hear Hazelton's last residence when he talks; the "you know" not even slightly concealed. It's a trait he's picked up in the four years he lived in North Dakota, a place he called home. He hopes he'll learn his new city in time and be able to call it the same.
"When you move to a new place you just got to learn the area. People talk about where they're from, I'm like 'oh okay where's that?' It could be right down the street, could be 100 miles away. I don't know the area."
Not yet, anyway. But after a season of winning with the Trojans, adoring fans from across California will see that Hazelton adjusts just fine.