Sports, Football, Fall

Bergamini: Examining the Complicated Legacy of Jeff Hafley

Think back to just over five weeks ago when Jeff Hafley, against all odds, rallied Boston College football past No. 17 SMU in Fenway Park to earn the Eagles their first bowl victory since 2016. 

Thomas Castellanos was named the Fenway Bowl offensive MVP, solidifying himself as the Eagles’ quarterback of the future. BC’s defense locked down the Mustangs’ offense, allowing the Eagles to finally notch their first full above .500 season under Hafley. And despite an initially worrisome 2024 recruiting class, Hafley finally committed to the transfer portal, garnering the No. 44 transfer rank.

For the first time in a long time in Chestnut Hill, things appeared to be trending upward for BC.

The key word there? Appeared.

As we all know, Hafley shockingly bolted from the Heights to take over as the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator on Wednesday, leaving the Eagles without a face of the program with a little over a month until spring ball starts. 

“How could Hafley do this?” “He left BC with no time to find a replacement!” “It’s totally unfair!”

Let’s circle back to that word appeared. Because how catastrophic, if at all, is Hafley’s departure?

Sure, the Eagles had momentum heading into 2024 after their bowl win. But we can’t forget that 2023 was nothing short of a rocky season that featured a home-opening loss to Northern Illinois, a win that felt like a loss against Holy Cross, a 56–28 blowout at the hands of Louisville, and three straight sleepwalking losses to close out the season.

Yes, there were highs, such as the Eagles’ five game win streak that forged “The Path,” and Castellanos declaring “Boston College football is back.” There was real excitement about football on campus—the most since the Eagles’ overtime win against Missouri in 2021.

But excitement doesn’t equal reality, even after a feel-good bowl win like the one the Eagles earned to close out 2023. 

The Eagles gave up 1,536 total yards in the final three games of the regular season, with Hafley, coming from a defensive background, showing no real defensive adjustments. He also butted heads with his critics at times this past year, delivering subtle shots after things finally turned in his favor.

“We were 1–3, and people wanted to say everything that they could,” Hafley said after BC’s fifth straight win this past season. “Everything.”

Hafley finished his four-year tenure with a 22–26 record, delivering three solid seasons and one disaster of a year in 2022 in which the Eagles finished 3–9. 2023 was a solid rebound, but what’s to say the program wouldn’t implode once again in 2024? I’m not necessarily confident it wouldn’t have, especially after all the expectations going into 2022 were quickly proven wrong. 

And since the Eagles could only manage a 7–6 record while playing with the easiest Power 5 schedule in 2023, there’s no telling what would have happened in 2024.     

Hafley’s first two years were anchored by Phil Jurkovec, Zay Flowers, and an elite offensive line consisting of Zion Johnson, Alec Lindstrom, Ben Petrula, Christian Mahogany, and Tyler Vrabel. But after two solid years of finishing 6–5 and 6–6, any momentum was shattered after Jurkovec’s abilities fell off a cliff in 2022, limiting BC to just three wins and wasting Flowers’ final collegiate season. Hafley always pointed to 2022 as a year of injuries—which is true—but there’s no denying that nine losses was an utter embarrassment to everyone involved, regardless of who was on the field.

The biggest question, however, is whether the program is in a better spot now because of Hafley, or worse.

In a world where Hafley is still the Eagles’ head coach, one could make the argument that he has slightly improved the program, despite all the falters. I wouldn’t. BC’s expectations shouldn’t be mediocrity. And that’s been exactly the theme of Hafley’s tenure despite having countless opportunities to succeed and having heavy NFL talent. The program’s first-ever losses to a MAC team in Northern Illinois, along with its first ever loss to UConn in 2022, certainly don’t help his case. But then there’s wins such as BC’s upset over No. 21 NC State

Highs and lows equal mediocrity.

In the words of his now in-division rival Dan Campbell, the Eagles were never going to kick anyone in the teeth or bite any kneecaps off under Hafley.

If anything, fans shouldn’t be upset that Hafley is gone. Him leaving on his own saves the program money and allows Athletics Director Blake James to handpick his own head coach. Unless things drastically turned around in 2024, there’s a good chance James would have moved on from Hafley anyway, costing BC millions of dollars in buyout money.

Hafley leaving now just speeds up the inevitable reset. BC was never going to be a powerhouse under Hafley, let alone a top ACC team. His tenure had simply run its course and it’s okay to admit it was mostly a disappointing failure with some bright spots sprinkled in here and there.

Yes, players may transfer because of the coaching change. But that’s just the nature of college football today in combination with NIL and the transfer portal. That’s reportedly the main reason Hafley left the Heights.

“He wants to go coach football again in a league that is all about football,” a source told ESPN’s Pete Thamel. “College coaching has become fundraising, NIL and recruiting your own team and transfers. There’s no time to coach football anymore.”

Personally, I’m not too shocked about the move when I think back on it. Hafley hinted at his frustrations about the college football landscape during a media interview while he was on the road recruiting in Texas in early December.

“Your guys’ head would explode from what I’m hearing and seeing out here,” Hafley said to reporters. “It’s complete insanity.”

Castellanos, however, appears to have already committed to staying with BC via his Instagram story, which is a best-case scenario considering Hafley’s departure, minimizing most—if any—damage that had been done. And who’s to say other important players won’t follow Castellanos and also stay? 

The one thing fans can complain about is the manner in which Hafley left. I’ve had multiple sources tell me his departure completely blindsided the players—as seen on social media—and even parts of BC’s coaching staff. Hafley has been a class act in every interaction I’ve had with him, but if these claims prove true, then that’s hard to defend. 

The timing of his departure is also tough to swallow. No matter how you felt about Hafley as a coach, the timing is less than ideal. BC posting photos on social media of the team practicing the same day Hafley left could further confirm that some were left in the dark. And with the coaching hiring cycle basically finished, James has to scramble to not only find a new head coach, but the right head coach in a time where there’s so much uncertainty in college football. 

Regardless, Hafley’s departure marks an end of an era for BC. While there won’t be any tears shed by fans, that doesn’t mean it can’t be bittersweet, and even scary, until a new face of Chestnut Hill is appointed.

February 3, 2024

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