Hafley builds bonds whether in pros, college
Immersed in January recruiting trips, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley would wake up unclear about whether he was coming or going.
Turns out it was both. Life for an assistant football coach on the recruiting trail means checking in and out of hotels so often the suitcase never gets cold. Sugar Land, Texas, yesterday. Vero Beach, Florida, today. Concord, California, tomorrow.
“Getting on the road, getting on airplanes and traveling, I had to get used to doing that again. I got a little tired going from city to city,” Hafley said of shifting from the NFL, where he spent the past seven years, back to college, where he spent the first 11 years of his career.
“But it’s also exciting because we don’t have to draft them now,” he said. “We get to pick them.”
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Not just pick them, but also develop them as people. Is Hafley up for that? He insists he is. Why else leave the NFL, where he was the secondary coach with Tampa Bay, Cleveland and San Francisco — the last stop is where he worked with Ryan Day in 2016 before Day joined the Buckeyes as quarterbacks coach in 2017.
I was curious about how easily Hafley, 39, would transition from working with NFL veterans to hanging with high school recruits and college players. It is one thing to coach a 37-year-old father of four who is old enough to remember Barry Switzer; quite another to mentor an 18-year-old who thinks football began with Zeke Elliott.
Switzer knows. He coached Oklahoma for 16 seasons and the Dallas Cowboys for four. I called him for perspective.
“The NFL is about getting to the Super Bowl and nothing else,” Switzer said Friday. “A player on your squad may be there two days and he’s gone to the waiver wire. We won the Super Bowl 23 years ago (1995 season), and 15 of those players weren’t on the team the next year.”
Switzer did not miss those 15 players personally, because he did not know them personally.
“I didn’t know any of their siblings. I didn’t know their desires or ambitions. The pro game is only about coaching football,” he said. “Those son of a bitches are highly motivated. Even the 53rd guy on the team is making more than he ever will again in his life, so they’re all out there busting ass.”
College coaching is about recruiting players for life, Switzer said, adding that he enjoyed working in the NFL but loved coaching in college. He maintains more contact with former Sooners than with former Cowboys.
“But the games are played the same way. Eleven on both sides and they’re both physical and violent,” he said.
Hafley thinks players are coached the same way, too, and is not concerned about relating to Ohio State players.
“I think the misconception is that it’s different. I don’t believe it is,” he said of coaching NFL and college players. “Richard Sherman will call me, we’ll talk just as close as I’ve been with 18- and 19-year-olds. You want to develop relationships. You want to develop trust. You want the guy to run through a wall for you ... because he knows you love him. You want that relationship no matter how old they are, and I think the same will go with these guys as it did coaching in the NFL.”
If Hafley runs into challenges, he need only ask his boss for advice. Day spent 2015 and '16 in the NFL coaching quarterbacks before returning to college coaching. The Buckeyes say his main strength is being able to connect with them.
It’s a people business. Hafley is a people person. He will be just fine.
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