When all the text messages came pouring in, congratulating Boston College first-year head coach Jeff Hafley on his first game as the leader of his own program, Hafley appreciated them all, but he also put them in two categories.
There were the people who sent kind words after the Eagles beat Duke in their season opener. Then there were the people who sent him encouragement before the game, and also followed up after the job was done. Those were the ones Hafley responded to first.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was one of those.
Even though Hafley’s time as an assistant at Pitt from 2006–2010 predates Narduzzi’s run since 2015 as the Panthers head coach, they’ve known each other for years, and have built a respect and a rapport. Over the offseason, when the Atlantic Coast Conference coaches would meet on Zoom, Hafley made a point to be seen and not heard as the youngest of the group. But even though they’re competitors in the ACC, Narduzzi had no problems offering to help Hafley in any way he could.
“I have a ton of respect for him. He’s been really good to me,” Hafley said. “He’s actually a guy that early on, in the Zoom calls, called me after and said, ‘Hey, if you ever need anything, give me a call.’ So I really appreciate him for that.”
This might not be one of the weeks Hafley reaches out. The Eagles (2-1, 1-1 ACC) are coming off a hard-fought loss to North Carolina, and Pitt (3-1, 2-1) is still stinging from a 30-29 loss to N.C. State.
The Eagles have ties to Pitt. Hafley met his wife, Gina, there. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti served in the same role at Pitt in 2009-10 under Dave Wannstedt. If anything, Narduzzi said those connections will add an extra layer when the teams meet Saturday at Alumni Stadium.
“It’ll be personal to them,” Narduzzi said. “It’ll be personal for us.”
Their teams also have similar identities, which can be traced to the head coaches.
Hafley said of Narduzzi, “He’s a defensive guy. You can see the way his team plays. He keeps them together, they play very hard, they’re very disciplined, they’re very tough, very physical, and that’s a credit to him.”
And in turn, Narduzzi said, "Jeff has got that team really on all three phases playing tough. Those defensive guys stick together, but it’s a tough, physical, well-coached football team on both sides and on special teams. That’s what you see out of them.
“They’re a good football team. They took North Carolina to the end. They fight back and beat a Texas State football team and really, that’s the last two weeks, but a really good football team.”
But Narduzzi also noticed a striking difference in the Eagles offense with Hafley and Cignetti at the helm. The Eagles are fourth in the ACC in passing offense (274.3 yards per game) and fifth in pass attempts (117).
“It appears that they just kind of run the ball just to say they ran it, but they really want to throw the football,” Narduzzi said. “They are a lot more pass-oriented. They really want to throw the ball. It seems like with [quarterback] Phil [Jurkovec] and his arm, he’s got a lot of confidence in his arm. They’re heavier pass, so we’ll have to tighten up our coverage a lot more from what it looked like last week.”
Pitt has a tie back to New England as well. After spending a year away from football, former UMass coach Mark Whipple took the job as Panthers' offensive coordinator following a five-year second run with the Minutemen. In two years, Whipple has transformed an offense that was next-to-last in the ACC in passing yards in 2018 (141.8 yards per game) to the sixth-most potent pass attack in 2019. This year, they’re second.
Hafley’s familiarity with Whipple comes more from Whipple’s time in the NFL, and he said that experience shows in Pitt’s offense.
‘"Jeff has got that team really on all three phases playing tough. Those defensive guys stick together, but it’s a tough, physical, well-coached football team on both sides and on special teams. That’s what you see out of them. ... They’re a good football team. They took North Carolina to the end. They fight back and beat a Texas State football team and really, that’s the last two weeks, but a really good football team.”’
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi on Jeff Hafley and BC
“Obviously, you see a lot of pro elements in some of the stuff that he’s done,” Hafley said. "It jumps off the tape, some of the concepts, some of the run game. I smile and say, ‘I haven’t seen that in a while.’ I think he’s got a really good scheme, he’s got great experience.
“You’ll see him line up in lots of personnel groups. He might get really big people with multiple tight ends, or get in 10 personnel and do some unbalanced formations.”
When the Eagles went on the road and beat Pitt last year to become bowl eligible, there was some sense of nostalgia for the revival of a rivalry that traces back to 1970, when the teams were eastern independents. But the throughlines in Saturday’s game go beyond a bowl game.
There’s a healthy competitive respect.
“Truthfully, I think he has them, as a team playing together, probably better than anybody we’ve played so far this year,” Hafley said of Narduzzi. “So I have a lot of respect for him.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.