Outworking the competition is a bedrock tenet of coaching, and nowhere has that tired refrain manifested itself more than in the college football ranks. Nights slept on the couch are counted like merit badges, twisted evidence of enviable dedication to the job.
Jeff Hafley was one of those guys, a young coach building an impressive resume with hard work and countless hours, successfully mirroring what he’d seen across the profession he loves.
And then came the pandemic.
When Hafley became Boston College’s head coach in December, then-AD Martin Jarmond hiring Ohio State’s defensive coordinator fresh off the Buckeyes’ appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, all signs pointed toward more of the same for the rising star. At just 41, with his first head coaching job, Hafley was all but ready to move into his new office and put down roots.
His wife, Gina, and their two young daughters arrived from Columbus soon after, settling into their new Boston home before the one in Ohio was even sold. But only days after, the world changed.
The tendrils of the COVID-19 pandemic were snaking through Massachusetts, closing campuses and shuttering businesses, turning homes into reconfigured hubs of school, work, and play. Nobody had a playbook for this; everyone scrambled to adjust to a new normal. For Hafley, however, there hadn’t even been time to establish a baseline of what normal meant. So there he sat, in his home office, doing his best to connect with a roster of young players now in his charge, hurtling toward a season of unknowns.
He Zoomed with new players. He talked with school officials. He followed protocols and kept every line of communication open. He held full team meetings, but he also broke the team into position groups. There, he’d pop in occasionally, maybe telling some jokes, perhaps showing an inspirational video.
In other words, he worked as hard as he ever had. But he did it at home. And what he learned in the process has changed him forever.
“It showed me we can get so much work done,” he said. “For any coach to say now he’s sleeping at the office, and I was one of those guys, it doesn’t make sense to me anymore. We can do so much at home. We can work efficiently at home, we learned that. Now, when I get tired at work, I can go outside with the kids, jump in the bounce house. My 1-year-old, she was born when I was with the 49ers and we moved to Columbus. She was calling me ‘Mom’ during the season last year. Now I know she knows who I am. It’s been huge for me and our family.”
Hafley is in the office more now, rising early enough that he’s not always available to take 1-year-old Leah downstairs before the rest of the household is up. As protocols have begun to allow for on-campus work, with football players taking slow, careful steps from their campus lodgings into safely distanced workouts and some walkthrough activities, Hafley is on site more. But now, not only is he home for dinner or to help 5-year-old Hope read books before bedtime, he’s making sure others in the program are doing it, too.
For all the things this pandemic has stolen, it has given lessons in perspective, too. Nobody would choose this particular teaching method, but as Hafley watches his players, knowing they’ve had their lives upended in such drastic and difficult ways, he feels for them, too.
“It’s hard, it’s really hard,” he said. “We keep talking to them, showing them what could happen, what could be taken away. They’re still college kids. They didn’t ask for this, they didn’t sign up for this, and I respect that. That’s why I’m so appreciative of the guys being good at doing the right things.
“There’s going to be things that happen, that will be true on every college campus, but I give these kids a lot of credit. I want to show them how much we appreciate them. Just an example, on Saturdays, when we could have them in, maybe not doing so much football stuff, but getting them into the pool or something.”
Or maybe he’ll replace that 7 a.m. Sunday team meeting the day after a game with a Zoom call at the same time.
“Lessons. There’s definitely lessons,” he said. “They can have breakfast with family, go to church, and we’ll see them in the office at noon. I know we can accomplish that now. Instead of me sitting in the office alone watching film from 7-11 and going home and slipping into bed, I’m going home for dinner. I totally believe that — and this is coming from a guy who at one point slept in his office — I saw what can be done.”
For now, the ACC believes the college football season can be done, if unconventionally, announcing plans this past week for an 11-game season with 10 conference games, limiting travel for each member school.
The sports scheduling landscape is a pretty dizzying place to be these days, stories of success and moments of concern competing daily for control of the narrative. While the NBA seems to be moving forward safely inside a bubble, baseball has been canceling games due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The fate of football looms for the fall, with both the NFL and colleges grappling with how best to operate within the parameters of a pandemic. It hasn’t made for an easy debut for this first-time coach, whose baptism by fire includes the departure of Jarmond for UCLA and the hiring of Patrick Kraft in June.
“You talk to your friends in this business — and I had some deep conversations with close friends and that’s kind of what they were saying — it’s your first job, during a pandemic, and a new AD,” Hafley said. “Early on, things were affecting me, but then I just got to the point where I realized, to me, all I know as a head coach is this.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the face so many times, and now I say, ‘Just keep hitting.’ You realize what not to get worked up about, what is worth it. When you first get there, it’s like, ‘Oh no, it’s the end . . .’ Then you stop and say, ‘No, it’s not the end of the world.’ ”
No. But it is the end of a work day. And that’s a good thing.