'I owe it to Ohio State' — For Jeff Hafley, both a new job and Clemson await

Jeff Hafley speaks at a news conference where he was introduced as the new NCAA college football head coach at Boston College, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – New head coach Jeff Hafley’s opening news conference at Boston College came to a crescendo on Monday morning when he mentioned his family’s role in his climb through coaching.

He’d just referenced his modest stature, limited athletic ability and the need to “kick down doors” to elevate through the profession. “I have a list in my wallet,” Hafley said, “of all the things that doubters have said to me, my whole life.”

He got choked up a bit after that line, and the audience gave him a round of applause to allow him to catch his breath. The emotion began to ratchet up when he thanked his mother, brother and sister “for your support, your love and never doubting me.” He began choking up more as he looked toward his wife, Gina, and two daughters, Hope and Leah, in the front row. 

That’s when a familiar robotic voice cut him off. “Sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” chimed in Siri, the familiar virtual assistant for Apple products.

The audience cracked up. Hafley thanked the technologically challenged phone owner for a reprieve from the emotion and fired back at Siri: “You’re not going to get that again. That’s a moment right there.”

Hafley’s introductory news conference doubled as a visceral outpouring – laughter and tears, authenticity and emotion, energy and connection. Hafley didn’t read from any notes, instead delivering the perfectly spontaneous speech to kick off the marriage of two overlooked underdogs.

There’s Hafley, the grinder coach who started his career at Worcester (Massachusetts) Polytechnic Institute and moved up to become a graduate assistant at University of Albany by hand-writing notes to the entire staff. He’s now on a different side of the I-90 football food chain, running a proud Boston College program that hasn’t had a winning record in ACC play since 2009.

Monday marked the linking of a program ready for a jolt out of the doldrums of apathy and a coach seemingly perfectly suited to deliver it. “The energy at Boston College just went up by one-thousand percent,” Ohio State deputy athletic director Diana Sabau told Yahoo Sports by phone. “Impossible is nothing for Jeff.”

To those who know Hafley best, they say he’s perfectly suited for the task of building Boston College back to an ACC contender. What appealed to Boston College athletic director Martin Jarmond was a candidate who wouldn’t dwell on the school’s limitations, but rather accentuate the academic standards and Northeast location as positives. “That’s going to be a nice pair,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith of Hafley and his old protégé, Jarmond. “Those two are going to click.”

At Ohio State, where Hafley spent the past year, he served as a searing jolt of dynamism everywhere from the staff room to the locker room to the recruiting trail. The Buckeyes’ defense improved to No. 2 nationally from No. 72 the year before. But Hafley’s biggest impressions came with how he handled people. “Every day is positive, every day,” Sabau said. “Football is going to be really fun at BC.”

Jeff Hafley (L) and BC athletic director Martin Jarmond smile during a news conference where Hafley was introduced on Monday. (AP)

Veteran Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti told Yahoo Sports that both of Ohio State’s starting cornerbacks, Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette, told him that Hafley changed their lives. Okudah even took his game ball after the Nebraska game and dedicated it to Hafley in front of the entire team, thanking him for the role he played in making him a better player and person. Okudah fulfilled his potential as a top-10 pick, Arnette changed his mercurial career narrative and the vibe permeated throughout one of the country’s most distinct turnarounds. 

“He can connect with everyone,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who Hafley worked under in San Francisco. “Everywhere he’s been, players have loved him and had a great respect for him. There’s not a fake bone in Haf’s body.”

The Ohio State corners nicknamed Hafley “The Wiz,” for his wizard-like knowledge of both the intricacies of defensive back play and the tendencies of offenses. What separates Hafley from a majority of college head coaches is extensive NFL experience. Hafley coached Darrelle Revis in college at Pitt and worked with Richard Sherman, Joe Haden and Donte Whitner during his seven years with three NFL franchises. He captured Okudah, Arnette and the defensive backs with a simple pitch: “Wait until I show you what I can do for you.”  

That time in the NFL, according to Ohio State quality control coach Drew Christ, essentially served as Hafley “getting his doctorate” in football. That included learning the Cover 3 schemes from the branches of the Seattle Seahawks coaching tree that helped Ohio State overhaul its defense this year.

What captivated this group of Ohio State defenders was Hafley’s uncanny ability to predict offensive play calls. He’d note a particular look, and predict that after running a curl route out of that look, for example, the next time the offense would run a wheel. “He’s legendary with the kids,” Christ said. “He’ll call down on the headphones and say the next time they show this, this is what they’re going to do.”

In the Ohio State defensive back room, Hafley often watches film by the light of a pine-scented candle. True to his New Jersey roots, he’ll call up a Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi mix on YouTube. When he and Christ watch two-minute film on Thursdays, they ritually play the Dave Matthews version of “Long Black Veil.” He created a vibe where the players wanted to hang out there on their own time, and his early idea at BC is to create a similar space. “I want to make sure that it doesn’t feel like the principal’s office,” he said Monday.

Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley talks with San Francisco 49ers DBs on the sideline during a game against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 16, 2018. (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

Along with establishing a reputation as a people person, Hafley flashed an intense side that belies his engaging personality. Christ said Hafley gets so locked in during the season that he’s lost seven pounds, and recruiting intern Jason Kwon has to remind him to eat when he’s out on the road recruiting. “I can’t even fit in my game pants anymore and he’s sizing down,” Christ said.

Monday morning marked the compelling dueling culminations of Hafley’s professional career. He’s remaining in his role as the co-defensive coordinator at No. 2 Ohio State, which plays No. 3 Clemson in the College Football Playoff on Dec. 28. He flew private back to Columbus for afternoon practice Monday and joked about showing up wearing his suit from the press conference. “I have to go win a national championship,” he said. “I owe it to Ohio State.”

He’ll coach at least one more game for the Buckeyes before settling in on the gilded end of the I-90 football realm where he began his career. The undersized kid who played at Siena, coached at WPI and Albany and has ping-ponged through the coaching world has ended up back where he started – he coached his first college game for WPI at nearby MIT.

For years, Hafley worked the Boston College football camps. He’d size himself up with small-college coaches like Chip Kelly at UNH, Ryan Day as a GA at BC and Ricky Rahne during his Holy Cross and Cornell years.

Instead of working both sessions and living in Edmonds Hall, he walked into his head coaching office for the first time on Monday.

“It felt special,” Hafley said. “It felt right.” 

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