Calling an Audible: Hafley’s Unpredictable First Year

In his first year as a head coach, Jeff Hafley faced about as many challenges as he could have. Over his first 12 months with Boston College football, Hafley navigated the struggles that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, a delayed eligibility waiver for his quarterback, and a new athletics director. But those landmark events don’t begin to scratch the surface of Hafley’s first year at the helm.

Dec. 14, 2019: First Announcement of Jeff Hafley’s Hiring
After plenty of flight tracking and speculation from the BC community, then-Athletics Director Martin Jarmond and the BC administration landed on the 40-year-old co-defensive coordinator from Ohio State as BC’s next head football coach, and on Dec. 14, Rece Davis made the official announcement on ESPN’s College GameDay. Hafley had previously spent time in both college football and the NFL, but had never before occupied the top job of head coach.

Dec. 16, 2019: Hafley Addresses Media and BC Community in Introductory Press Conference
Just one day after the official announcement, Hafley flew to Boston, and Jarmond greeted the new head coach at the airport, along with his wife and two young daughters. One day later, Hafley addressed the media for the first time since landing the job. The packed Barber Family Auditorium of the Yawkey Athletics Center erupted in applause after Hafley’s heartfelt address, in which he encouraged the BC community to “get in” to a program on the rise.

Dec. 18, 2019: Early Signing Period Draws Nine Recruits 

Hafley inked nine recruits on the early signing day, a relatively low number and a decrease from the Eagles’ haul the previous year, one that was expected as a result of the coaching shift. Only three players decommitted after the coaching change, a promising sign for Hafley’s ability to connect to recruits and provide a vision for the Eagles under his leadership. All in all, BC signed 16 recruits in the 2020 class. While the class was small and ranked 12th in the ACC, the average player rating was higher than all but one of BC’s groups under Steve Addazio. 

The Eagles’ upcoming recruiting classes look even rosier, as the 2021 class is currently ranked 39th in the nation and the 2022 class is all the way up at the sixth spot nationally and features a four-star quarterback.

Jan. 3, 2020: Eagles Compete in Bowl Game Against Cincinnati, Hafley Still With Ohio State 

Although Hafley had officially had the head coaching job with BC for over two weeks when the Eagles took on Cincinnati in the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, he finished out the postseason with Ohio State. After winning the Big Ten title, he and the Buckeyes headed to the Fiesta Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. Though Ohio State fell 23-29 to the Tigers, Hafley’s defense finished the season ranked second in the nation in both points allowed and yards allowed. 

January 2020: Hafley Fills New Coaching Staff
Throughout the month of January, Hafley began to fill the multitude of open positions in his new artillery of coaches. Aazaar Abdul-Rahim would take over the defensive backs, and Rich Gunnell, BC ’10, switched from coaching wide receivers to coaching running backs. Sean Duggan, BC ’15, was next on the hiring list, taking over the linebackers. Duggan was followed by defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti, Jr., offensive line coach Matt Applebaum, and wide receivers coach Joe Dailey. Vince Oghobaase at defensive line coach, Steve Shimko with tight ends, and Matt Thurin with special teams rounded out the group.

Jan. 4, 2020: Kobay White and Anthony Brown (Dec. 9, 2020) Enter Transfer Portal
After star running back AJ Dillon declared for the NFL Draft, the Eagles also seemed poised to lose their top quarterback and top wide receiver as well, as Anthony Brown and Kobay White decided to explore their options in the transfer portal just one month apart. White was in the portal for just 18 days before he decided to return to the Heights, citing Hafley and the other new coaches as a key factor in his choice to stay. Brown, on the other hand, decided to move on to greener pastures, transferring to Oregon just after the start of the new year. Brown ended up losing the battle for the starting job to Tyler Shough and has yet to play for the Ducks this season.

Jan. 7 and Jan. 18, 2020: Hafley Makes Appearances at Basketball and Hockey Games 
From the get-go, Hafley made it clear that he had every intention of being a vocal and engaged member of the larger Eagles community, making an appearance at a men’s basketball game and firing up the crowd before a men’s hockey tilt against Boston University with a rousing speech. Hafley extolled Jerry York’s program and the rivalry between BC and BU, noting that “the ACC is going to start to have a lot more rivalries than they think they do.” He went on to say that “to do all that, I’m going to say the same thing I said in my press conference … I’m going to ask you guys to get in.” His sentiment was met with raucous applause from the student section. Hafley was even seen wearing a BC hockey jersey and handing out pizzas to students in the stands.

Jan. 12, 2020: Phil Jurkovec Announces Transfer 
With Brown off to Oregon and the limitations of Dennis Grosel on display during his seven starts in the 2019 season, BC had a gaping hole at quarterback. Hafley locked down a more than adequate solution for the Eagles under center, securing the transfer of the former Notre Dame signal caller. Jurkovec, one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school, had entered the transfer portal earlier in the week after playing sparingly during his two years in South Bend. As he was and still is an undergraduate, Jurkovec would need a waiver from the NCAA in order to be immediately eligible to play. Jurkovec first addressed the BC media at the end of the month.

Jan. 30, 2020: Players Express Enthusiasm About Hafley in Press Conference 

The Eagles felt Hafley’s positive presence as soon as he took the reins. In a January press conference, players gave their opinions on the new coaching hire. White recounted the phone call he received from Hafley after entering his name in the transfer portal. He cited the head coach’s winning mindset and smart hires in influencing his decision to remain an Eagle. During the press conference, Jurkovec also credited the new BC coaches for motivating his transfer. Hunter Long expressed his impression of Hafley as a “players’ coach,” and Max Richardson echoed Hafley’s message that “all the guys who are getting in will be a part of something great.”

March 11, 2020: COVID-19 Creates Uncertainty in Athletics

Less than three months into Hafley’s head coaching career, all hell broke loose. The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly riddled the world with uncertainty. One day after BC announced that it would move all classes online and require students to leave campus, it seemed as though athletics would continue without spectators. Just hours later, the ACC canceled all activity indefinitely, and by the end of the week, it had announced the suspension of all athletic activities through the end of the school year.  Without spring football to prepare his new team for the upcoming season, Hafley sought out new ways to keep the team in shape and ready to play if and when they had the chance. 

May 16, 2020: Martin Jarmond Hired Away to UCLA

Jarmond accepted an offer to become the athletics director at UCLA in mid-May, suddenly closing out a three-year tenure on the Heights that had left lasting change in BC’s athletic department. Jarmond hired six head coaches during his time at BC, including Hafley and women’s basketball head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, and he organized a $150 million capital campaign, the largest in ACC history. Hiring a football coach is one of the most important jobs—at least, the most visible—of an athletic director, and many athletic directors’ success is judged on the quality of such hire, a basis on which Jarmond could not yet be evaluated on since Hafley had yet to coach a game at the time of Jarmond’s departure.

June 3, 2020: BC Hires Pat Kraft to Replace Jarmond

After Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs JM Caparro had served as the interim athletics director in the month following Jarmond’s departure, the Eagles finally found their full-time replacement for the position with the signing of then-Temple AD Pat Kraft to a five-year contract. Kraft had spent five years as the athletics director for the Owls, making a pair of football head coach hires as well as facilitating head coaching changes in men’s basketball and field hockey. Kraft’s hire put Hafley into the curious position of coaching his first season under an athletics director who did not hire him.

May and June 2020: Strength Coach Phil Matusz Facilitates Creative Summer Workouts

Hafley’s new strength and conditioning coach Phil Matusz faced a unique challenge as the COVID-19 pandemic sent players home for the spring semester and summer. Matusz had worked as an assistant strength coach alongside Hafley at Ohio State, and he spent just a few months with the Eagles before COVID-19’s interference. The new coach found ways to adapt and keep players safe and in shape over the offseason with creative “barn workouts,” giving players the chance to turn anything from milk jugs to weighted backpacks into workout equipment. Matusz said he accomplished his training program through creativity and keeping players on tight schedules with daily virtual meetings.

June 22, 2020: Eagles Arrive Back on Campus for the Summer 

BC football returned to campus for the first time in four months near the end of June. Though the Eagles were undoubtedly excited to be back on campus despite uncertainty surrounding their ability to play in 2020, Hafley said safety was still his top priority. Players underwent a prolonged quarantine before practicing and were separated into groups to ensure that a full team would be able to take the field in case of an outbreak. The team’s first in-person meeting of the season was socially distanced in the Fish Field House, setting the tone for a season full of precautions.

August 4, 2020: After a Long Wait, Jurkovec Gets Immediate Eligibility 

After applying for a waiver to be immediately eligible all the way back in January when he transferred to BC, Jurkovec finally received the green light from the NCAA and became a likely candidate for the starting quarterback gig in early August. The long wait from the NCAA was confusing for many onlookers, as many other waivers had been approved during the same time, including the request by new Eagles wide receiver Jaelen Gill. With Jurkovec finally eligible, he and Grosel officially entered into a battle for the starting job. 

August 6, 2020: BC Football Releases Modified Schedule, Updated Again One Month Later

As conferences across the country adjusted their schedules to best accommodate the limitations of playing a season amid a pandemic, the ACC followed suit in late July, mandating that all programs could play just 11 games, 10 of which would be against conference opponents. The change drastically overhauled the Eagles’ 2020 slate, cutting every non-conference opponent except Ohio. It also reworked the entire conference slate, as the ACC scrapped divisions for the 2020 season. Notable new opponents included Notre Dame, which agreed to join the ACC for the 2020 season, and Virginia, while NC State and Florida State fell off the schedule. The schedule was later changed again as the Mid-American Conference, in which Ohio plays, postponed its 2020 season. Though the decision was later reversed, BC added Texas State to the schedule in the interim as its one non-conference game. 

August 2020: Eagles Participate in Intrasquad Scrimmages

With offseason practice under its belt and the season opener against Duke looming in the near future, BC football participated in a series of intrasquad scrimmages. With these practice games, Hafley was able to see his players perform in game-like scenarios and cement his starting lineup for the season ahead. Grosel and Jurkovec fought for the starting quarterback spot while previewing what would become a passing-heavy offense with plenty of depth. 

August 27, 2020-Present: Football Players Work to Promote Social Justice Movements

As athletes across the country used their platforms to speak out against systemic racial violence, BC football decided to take steps of its own. With Hafley’s support, the Eagles sat out of practice after the fatal shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of Wisconsin police officers. Instead of taking the field, the team met for an emotional discussion on how to come together as a community and force change. In November, days after a devastating loss to then-No. 1 Clemson, Hafley canceled practice again, this time to let his team vote on Election Day. Director of Football Initiatives Josh Beekman led an informal voter education program aimed at encouraging BC football players to exercise their civic duty, resulting in many Eagles voting for the first time in their lives. 

Sept. 19, 2020: Hafley Gets His First Win as a Head Coach 

After being ranked No. 13 in the ACC preseason poll, BC traveled to Durham to face Duke in its first game of the season. The Eagles scored just one touchdown in the first half but came out of the gate hot after halftime. The Blue Devils were favored by six points, but Hafley’s halftime adjustments and utilization of the passing game sealed a 26-6 win for the Eagles. Jurkovec proved his capabilities as a starter, and Zay Flowers and Long established themselves as key pieces of the BC offense. After just one game, Hafley had his first-ever win as a head coach. 

October/November 2020: BC Plays The No. 1 and No. 2 Teams in the Country Down To the Wire

In his introductory press conference in December of last year, Hafley promised that he would bring BC football back to top-25 glory, including competing with perennial powerhouses, namely Clemson. It didn’t take him long to deliver on that promise, as in nearly back-to-back weeks, the Eagles played the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation down to the wire. First, BC had a halftime lead over then-No. 1 Clemson before dropping a heartbreaker in the final minutes of the game. Two weeks later, the Eagles took on then-No. 2  Notre Dame in Hafley’s first Red Bandanna Game and scored their most points against the Irish since the Eagles’ miraculous 31-29 victory in 1999

Nov. 29, 2020: BC Records Most Conference Wins Since 2009

With a victory over Louisville, the Eagles’ fifth conference win this season, BC had tied its most conference wins since 2009. The win also guaranteed the Eagles a winning season, as they had just one more regular season game on the horizon. Though they had the chance to record the most conference wins in over a decade, the Eagles fell to Virginia on the road to close out the season. Even so, a 6-5 overall finish in a year playing almost exclusively ACC—thus high-caliber—teams is an impressive feat for a first-year head coach. 

Perhaps more impressive than the wins, though, is the fact that BC made it from June 22 through the end of the regular season and recorded just two positive COVID-19 tests, one in late June and one after Thanksgiving. In a year riddled with cancellations because of COVID-19 outbreaks within teams, BC played all 11 of its games as scheduled—save for a single-day shift of the Louisville game—and managed to keep the vast majority of its players healthy. 

Dec. 10, 2020: BC Opts Out of a Bowl Game

The Eagles were nearly guaranteed a spot in the postseason given their strong standing in the ACC and were projected to play in either the Gasparilla or Military Bowl but decided as a team not to participate. BC’s nearly unmatched success controlling COVID-19 issues within the program was a product of adopting strict policies such as limiting contact with friends and not seeing family members. Playing in a bowl game meant that the team would have to stay isolated for several more weeks, including over Christmas, and both the players and coaches agreed that this cost was not worth enduring to play one final game. 

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Senior Staff

Other Images Courtesy of AP Photo, ACC Media, and Jess Rivilis