COLUMBUS, Ohio — If Ryan Day could have hired just one assistant for Ohio State’s coaching staff in 2019, it would have been Jeff Hafley.
The coordinator on the opposite side of the ball from the head coach’s expertise is the most important hire on any staff. Plus Hafley and Day were friends from coaching together with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL. They had driven to work together; Hafley had watched Day’s son play baseball; they viewed each other as kindred spirits in the coaching profession; and born 23 days apart in 1979, they vowed to work together again after the 49ers’ staff was dismantled after a 2-14 season in 2016.
They did. For a season. Day’s hiring of Hafley as a co-coordinator to reshape the Ohio State defense was so good, it was too good.
Hafley was on the cusp of taking the Boston College head coaching job on Friday night, and Day now has his biggest administrative test as a head coach. Yes, beating Clemson on Dec. 28 is task one, then it would be on to trying to win a national title as a first-year head coach, which would be quite the deal.
But while recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, the coaching staff is the skeleton that keeps the body of the program from losing its shape. When a new coach is hired, he gets his first-round picks. These are the guys he always wanted to work with. When he took over from Urban Meyer, Day kept five OSU assistants and took co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison on a strong recommendation from Meyer. But guys like Hafley, linebackers coach Al Washington and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich — they were Day’s top guys.
At Florida, Meyer’s biggest initial hires were Mattison as the co-defensive coordinator and Dan Mullen as offensive coordinator. Mattison stayed for three years and Mullen for four, and their departures were the first tiny cracks in Meyer’s Florida tenure. Same at Ohio State with offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who lasted three seasons, and defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who arrived in Year 3 and lasted two seasons.
Day got his top guy for just a year.
While Hafley and Mattison shared a title, Hafley was put forward as the voice of a defense that went from 50th in points allowed to second, from 71st in yards allowed to second. Hafley was the defensive version of Day. He wanted to be a head coach someday, and someday came after 11 months in Columbus.
All four of these statements are true in my mind when it comes to head coaches picking a staff, though they may sound contradictory:
1. Behind recruiting players, hiring assistants is the second-most important job for a head coach. It is reasonable to expect any winning head coach to hire great assistants.
2. Assistant coaches, by definition, are replaceable. The head coach and the players are who truly win. Assistants are middle managers.
3. Getting a major assistant hire wrong can knock a team off track. It won’t ruin a strong program, but it can mess up a season or two.
4. No head coach is going to get every hire right.
Hafley brought a varied look to the secondary, which shifted between zone and man coverage with players maintaining an easy understanding of the system. The match between the scheme and the way players learned it under Hafley helped free the playmaking talent of Buckeyes such as corners Jeff Okudah, Shaun Wade and Damon Arnette. Linebackers were no longer out of position, safety Jordan Fuller helped the Buckeyes stop giving up big plays, and what had been a broken defense was fixed.
The next guy has to keep it fixed. Day will have great candidates interested. In 2018, Alex Grinch was supposed to be a great secondary coach hire. He left after a season and Ohio State hired Hafley, an unknown to most fans, and vastly improved.
But when Herman left as offensive coordinator after 2014, Meyer botched the replacements and an offense with Ed Warinner and Tim Beck as co-coordinators was set back for two seasons. So Day will have plenty of chances to get it right, it’s incredibly important that he do so, but there’s no guarantee.
Meanwhile, Hafley is shooting his shot right away. In the middle of the year, when the Rutgers job was floated as a possibility, he indicated he wasn’t going to jump for just an opportunity. I thought he’d wait for something better than Boston College, which is probably a top-60 head coaching job, but not a top-40 one. For instance, sticking and winning at Ohio State, then maybe taking a Big Ten West job (Minnesota when P.J. Fleck leaves?) with a decent path to the Big Ten Championship Game made sense to me.
At Boston College, Hafley will work for Martin Jarmond, a good, young athletic director who was an assistant AD in Columbus. Boston College isn’t in terrible shape, but it hasn’t won more than eight games in a decade; there’s no obvious recruiting ground; and the Eagles are in the same ACC division as national power Clemson and dormant Florida State.
Good luck beating the Tigers. But Hafley is also a Northeast guy who was born in New Jersey; went to Siena College in New York; and coached at Pitt and Rutgers.
Pitt, with Pat Narduzzi, might be locked up for some time. Same for Rutgers with Greg Schiano and maybe Syracuse with Dino Babers. Connecticut is a mess. So if you want to run a Northeast program, Boston College might be your best shot.
Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne took the Old Dominion job this week. Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott took the South Florida job. The BC job is better than ODU and better or equal to USF.
Ash leaving for Rutgers and getting fired after 3.5 seasons with an 8-32 record is a cautionary tale around the OSU offices. But Ash also made something like $16 million, and he’ll probably wind up with a good coordinator job at a major program. So ….
Hafley liked working at Ohio State and liked working for Day. I’m not sure this is an obvious opportunity worth leaving for, but he’ll be a power conference coach at age 40, just like Day. That means Day has to make another great hire to replace him. We should anticipate that the Buckeyes will find a worthy successor to Hafley’s one year of success.
If they don’t, we’ll be able to tell the difference in 2020.
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