It had been more than a decade since Jeff Hafley was an assistant coach under Dave Wannstedt at Pittsburgh, mining for diamonds in the rough, and Dion Lewis was a running back out of a small boarding school in Albany, N.Y., willing to hear Hafley’s pitch.
But as Hafley arrived in Boston Sunday night with his wife Gina and their two daughters and started to wrap his head around the leap he was about to make in his coaching career, his phone buzzed.
It was a text message from Lewis:
“You deserve this and I’m so excited for you and Gina.”
The fact that a relationship that started when both of them were just setting out on their football paths stood the test of time from their run together at Pitt through Lewis’s nine years in the NFL and the winding road that took Hafley from the college ranks to the NFL and back is what resonated with Hafley as he was introduced Monday as Boston College’s head coach.
“It’s texts like that that make all of this worth it,” Hafley said. “Because at the end of the day guys — the wins, the losses, I get it, they’re all important and I’m not going to take anything away from that ever — but at the end of the day, it’s those relationships that are more important than anything and I value that.”
As much as BC needed a jolt of energy, as much as the program needed a reboot, as much as they needed a figure in place that saw past self-imposed ceilings, BC needed someone that recognized the value of relationships.
Without question, the reputation Hafley earned his as one of the sharpest young minds in college football, as proven not only by his seven seasons in the NFL but by his work as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State — shooting the Buckeyes’ defense from No. 72 a year ago to No. 1 this season — was deserved. But at the heart was a belief that the success went beyond scheme and depended on the bonds he was able to forge with players.
“I don’t just see myself as a football coach.” Hafley said. “In order to lead, you have to get to know people. You can’t lead people unless you know them. How do you get to know people? It takes time. It takes effort. But that’s life.
“That’s the most important thing to me is the relationships I have with people — with my family, with the people I get to coach. And when you put that time in, it becomes special.”
The hiring of Hafley was both a splash and a statement for a program looking for an injection of energy after growing stagnant over seven seasons under coach Steve Addazio. Rather than seeking the assistance of a search firm, BC athletic director Martin Jarmond handled the hire himself, leaning on senior associate athletics director Jocelyn Fisher Gates, vice president for university mission and ministry Fr. Jack Butler, and former BC quarterback and current ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck for insight along the way.
“I think this was an important hire for our community and I understood the magnitude of this position,” said Jarmond. “The head football coach is a significant position of leadership at Boston College and a lot of places across the country. So I understood the magnitude, I took it very seriously, I prepared a lot. When you have a moment like this you have to take advantage of it and get it right.”
In handling the job himself, Jarmond was able to repurpose the money for other uses within the football program. Hafley was at the top of a list of candidates that reportedly included Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington and Patriots defensive line coach Bret Bielema.
But when Jarmond met with Hafley, their visions for the Eagles program immediately synched.
“It aligned perfectly,” Jarmond said. “You want consistency. At our kind of level, we want consistency. And if you get Top 25, then you can have those special seasons, those special moments and that’s what we want to do. A lot of places don’t go 12-0 every year, that’s not the goal. But the goal is to get better. Get better every day, aspire for more and what do we need to help us get there. So our goals aligned from Day 1 when I first met him two weeks ago.”
Where seven wins became the ceiling for the Eagles under Addazio, Jarmond and Hafley both saw that stability as a starting point. In 2018, the Eagles cracked the Top 25 for the first time in 10 years. Those milestones shouldn’t be so few and far between.
“I want this to be a Top 25 team,” Hafley said. “And if you do that, then I think you can have your moments. If you do that then you have the opportunity to compete for a championship. So for now, those are my thoughts, those are my goals because I want to do this in a structured manner. And I believe those are attainable and that’s what we’re going to work to.”
It was impossible to ignore the impact of Jarmond’s Ohio State ties in the hiring of Hafley. Jarmond served as right-hand man to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith before coming to Boston College in 2017. He had a familiarity with the program and the talent on head coach Ryan Day’s staff.
“When I had to call him to tell him, that one of your guys is on my list, I didn’t know how that was going to be received because I know how valuable he is to what Ryan and Gene at Ohio State are doing,” Jarmond said.
Jarmond said when he made the courtesy call to Smith, Smith’s reaction was simply, “Wow. He’s a good one.”
In the short time Hafley spent as Ohio State co-defensive coordinator under Day, a former BC assistant, he couldn’t help but notice how much Day beamed about Boston College.
The sentiment finally registered when Hafley arrived in Chestnut Hill Monday for his formal introduction as BC’s new head coach.
“I know Ryan loves this place,” Hafley said. “He talks really highly about it and I get it now. I never thought that I would leave Ryan after one season. Quite honestly, that’s not what I planned on doing, but when this one opened, it felt special and it felt right and that’s why I’m here.”
What Hafley’s hiring was able to provide the Eagles instantly was what Jarmond called “juice.”
“Ever since we announced Jeff as our new head coach, we’ve had a couple hundred season tickets sold — new season tickets sold — we’ve had the fastest season-ticket renewal in a two-day period that we’ve ever had. Financially, we’ve had donations, I know it’s six figures,” Jarmond said. “We had one person give a six-figure gift. Some people have talked about how they’re going to come back to games when they haven’t come. So that was all a part of trying to re-energize our fan base and show people we want more. And like Jeff said, ‘Get in.’ We need people to get in and it starts with us and it starts with the students and everybody else. It’s a new day.”
Hafley will have his hands full when he jumps into the job, learning the roster, meeting with players (including quarterback Anthony Brown, who enters the NCAA transfer portal and was on hand at Monday’s press conference), and eventually assembling his own staff. There’s a strong chance interim head coach Rich Gunnell, an Eagles alum who’s well-respected in the locker room, could be a holdover. But Hafley also has commitments to the Buckeyes as they prepare for the College Football Playoff.
“I haven’t really been able to take a deep breath and do much of anything right now,” Hafley said. “But I’m going to get going as soon as I can. I literally am flying back and running on a field and coaching a football practice — I might still be in my suit doing so. But after that, I’m going to take time and I’m going to put a lot of thought into this and I’m going to do it the right way. I just want to make sure that I’m patient and that I go about it how I’ve always done.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.