From the time Jeff Hafley was a graduate assistant football coach at Albany and Ryan Day was in the same role at Boston College back in 2003, their paths seemed to parallel each other.
Day’s roommate at the time was a friend of Hafley’s, and on weekends, Hafley would drive to Chestnut Hill to hang out. When Hafley became defensive backs coach at Pitt, Day rose to receivers coach at Temple and then BC.
Not long after Hafley made the jump to the NFL as defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then the Cleveland Browns, Day followed as quarterbacks coach under Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles. When Kelly moved on to the San Francisco 49ers, he took Day with him and reached out to Hafley.
“It was almost like our paths were steadily rising together,” said Hafley, who was announced as BC’s new head coach in mid December.
No matter where their stops took them, inevitably they would end up talking about the road ahead of them. There was the time in Atlanta in 2016, when Hafley remembered being out at dinner with Day the night before a game and having a heart-to-heart at the end of a trying season.
“He told me, ‘I always thought you’d be an unbelievable college head coach,’ ” Hafley said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I always thought the same thing about you.’ ”
The 49ers were painfully playing out the string on a 2-14 season, Kelly’s firing was just a matter of time, and two weeks later, Hafley and Day found themselves driving to work for the last game of the season against the Seattle Seahawks, laughing at the idea that they were about to coach their final game.
“I was like, ‘Man, can you believe we’re going to coach a game where we know we’re getting fired?’ ” Hafley recalled saying.
Day decided to break some news to him, saying, “Yeah, I’m going to Ohio State to be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.”
Hafley looked at him stunned, and said, “Come on.”
Day nodded his head, “Yeah. I’m going.”
Hafley asked, “When?”
Day told him, “After the game.”
All Hafley could muster was, “Are you kidding me?”
Day left for Columbus, and within a year he was elevated to acting head coach after Urban Meyer was placed on administrative leave. Hafley stayed in San Francisco, his star continuing to rise. An offer to become an NFL coordinator was on the table, he said.
“I had worked seven hard years to get to that point,” Hafley said. “I felt confident, I felt ready, I was excited.”
But when Day began laying the groundwork for his new role, he called Hafley. Day asked the question that made Hafley reevaluate the trajectory he had envisioned for himself.
“What do you want to do?” Day asked. “What’s your end goal?”
Day had a job for Hafley at Ohio State if he wanted it. It wasn’t something Hafley could answer right away. He and Day talked for nearly three weeks.
“He kept telling me, this whole decision is based on what you want to be,” Hafley said. “If you want to be an NFL coordinator and an NFL head coach, don’t come. But if you want to be a college head coach, this is what you should do. So that’s all I kept thinking about.”
Making his choice
In a span of 12 months, Hafley went from the 49ers to being in the trenches with an Ohio State team positioning for a national championship to taking the reins at BC.
The series of events moved so swiftly that it’s still hard for Hafley to process as he settles into his new office at the Yawkey Sports Training Facility.
“It’s crazy,” Hafley said. “It doesn’t even make sense.”
Before any of this was set in motion, Hafley believed firmly that he was destined to be a head coach in the NFL. He was built for it. He devoured film. He clocked the long hours. He waited eagerly for texts from players with questions about how they could get better and stayed up late searching for the answers. He earned respect in the locker room and with the staff for the way he absorbed information and the way he connected with people.
But what drew him into coaching to begin with had been the college game. Hafley knew it. Day knew it.
Day saw Hafley as more than just a coaching friend who could add value to Ohio State’s program, but as someone with the rare combination of football acumen and passion for people that could take him as far as he wanted — once he decided which direction he wanted to go.
“I think any coach, anybody in their career, they get to the point where they have to figure out, OK, well, what do I really want here?” Day said. “I love my profession, I love what I do, but what do I want?
“We had a lot of discussion when we were with the 49ers — NFL/college, head coach/coordinator. You have these conversations. I saw some things in Jeff that — I don’t know if he’d say it or not — but maybe at the time he didn’t see it in himself.”
The question was heady, and as he ran it through his mind, Hafley drifted away from the idea of the NFL and started thinking about what got him into coaching.
“I want that relationship that doesn’t go away,” Hafley said. “Sometimes you get caught up in moments. I was in the NFL and I loved it. I loved the players and the game. I loved the challenge. Game day, there was nothing better. I loved just being able to watch film all day long, because that’s all I did, and talk football.
“It made me start to think. I got into this whole thing because of young people and helping people, because of changing people’s lives. I always dreamed about being a college head coach. Not until getting caught up in the moment and thinking through the NFL did I ever dream of being an NFL head coach. Once I answered that question, I knew I had to go back.”
He trusted Day and returned to the college game at Ohio State with the hope that an opportunity would eventually arise to become a head coach. He didn’t expect the timeline to accelerate so quickly. He thought it might take two years, maybe three. The Buckeyes would win games, play strong defense, and maybe his name would start to bubble up.
“To me, the right job opened,” Hafley said. “And I’m blessed to be here now.”
Persistence at Pitt
From the time Dave Wannstedt first met Hafley, he knew where Hafley ultimately would end up. Wannstedt had made the move from the NFL to college himself, leaving the Miami Dolphins in 2005 to coach at his alma mater, Pitt. Wannstedt always had an open-door policy for visiting coaches to come to his spring practices and training camps to observe and learn.
That spring, he’d see a young Hafley. Then he’d see him again. And again. Hafley would make the trip down so often that Wannstedt had to check to make sure he wasn’t on Pitt’s payroll.
“It seemed like every spring at training camp, I was bumping into him at the coffee machine,” Wannstedt said. “I actually made a comment jokingly to our defensive coordinator at the time, Paul Rhoads, I said, ‘Did somebody around here offer Hafley a job and I didn’t know about it?’ ”
What Wannstedt saw was a coach that was hungry.
“I always believed this,” Wannstedt said. “If the guy’s coming to your camp and he really doesn’t have any interest in what we’re doing — which a lot of them didn’t, they were just there to shake hands and be around — it didn’t make any difference what they saw or heard, they weren’t going to use it anyway.
“Then there were the other guys that would come around and they wanted to learn. I always said, ‘You know what? If Jeff Hafley doesn’t learn what he’s trying to learn with us, he’s going to go to another school.’ Guys like that are going to find out.”
Pittsburgh was fertile ground for Albany recruiting, which meant Hafley was around that much more. Whenever Hafley got the slightest window on a recruiting trip, he would stop by a Pitt practice.
A year later, Hafley was at Pitt as a defensive assistant. They were together for five years, and two things stood out to Wannstedt.
First, Hafley would go to whatever lengths necessary to meet the needs of his players. Second, Hafley left no stone unturned in recruiting top talent.
“You know if a coach has been doing his homework and you know if a coach is covering all his bases,” Wannstedt said. “You walk into a school and if the assistant coach you’re with is starting to ask, ‘How do you get to the coach’s office? How do you get to the gym?’ I had guys like that — not for very long, I promise you that.
“But when you walk into the school and the security guy says, ‘Hey, Coach Hafley, how you doing?’ Or he says, ‘Hey, let’s go by and see the principal’ and the principal says, ‘Coach Hafley, how you doing?’ and we go to the coach’s office and he does the same thing, that tells me that this guy has done his homework and he’s covering his bases recruiting.
“That’s what kind of opened my eyes is everywhere we went everybody knew Jeff.”
Years down the road, Hafley and Wannstedt found themselves on the same staff again in Tampa Bay under Greg Schiano. Hafley was the defensive backs coach. Wannstedt coached special teams. Even then, Wannstedt had a hunch.
“I always thought that Jeff would be a better college coach for one reason,” Wannstedt said. “Recruiting.”
Day always spoke longingly of BC whenever the school came up in conversations with Hafley. Day is a New Hampshire native who played quarterback at UNH and claimed Boston as his big-city hometown. He spent a total of nine years at BC, climbing from graduate assistant to receivers coach to offensive coordinator. He had a strong relationship with former head coach Steve Addazio and, even from afar, he wanted to see the program succeed.
“He told me it’s a place, if it opened, I had to look at it,” Hafley said. “Which is admirable for him to say because he didn’t want to lose me, but he knows what this place is all about. He was here for nine years; he loved it here.”
Day also understood the skills that Hafley acquired from coaching at the NFL level and the opportunities that unlocked.
“I learned a lot about what it means to be a pro and handling professional athletes, and I know Jeff did the same thing,” said Day. “When you’re in that league, you have to really do a great job of showing up every day.
“You’re coaching the best, so you can’t just show up without a plan. You have to be prepared, you have to be professional, and those guys have to believe that you can help them. I know Jeff is one of the best teachers in America and in our experiences there, we really learned a lot about what it means to become great teachers.”
That ability is what made a lasting impression on 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who praised Hafley upon his hiring at BC. It’s what stuck with former Patriot and New York Jet Darrelle Revis, more than a decade removed from his days as Hafley’s pupil at Pitt, when he heard the news. Hafley built bonds that made them better.
“He has that expertise, and guys understand that when he says something, it’s well thought out, it’s very calculated, and he knows what he’s talking about,” Day said. “So the connection and the competency is going to be strong with Jeff as a head coach.”
Losing Hafley was difficult, but it was something Day saw coming from the time they first met.
“I told him that I thought he was an excellent recruiter, he related well to people, very intelligent, great understanding of football,” Day said.
“When you look at college coaches, a lot of them do a great job recruiting, a lot of them know football, but I think what separates some great coaches is their ability to do both, and I thought Jeff had both of those skills, and his ability to relate to people and his intelligence made him a candidate to be a great head coach. I think that’s what he’s going to be.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.