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DiMauro: Jeff Hafley deserves some praise

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Among the first lessons in Columnist School goes like this: If you criticize the bad, you should praise the good, lest you get exposed as a fraud with an agenda.

There has been considerable bad through the first five weeks of Boston College’s football season, enough to warrant appropriate criticism of coach Jeff Hafley. Example: I wondered last week if his best days at BC were behind him, following the stench of a 28-point loss at Louisville.

But the Eagles have also shown spasms of promise, evidenced by Saturday’s rousing second-half rally that gave BC a 27-24 win over Virginia. And so if we are going to question Hafley’s methods in times of peril, we should praise him for BC’s perpetual resilience this season.

What happened Saturday before 41,868 at Alumni Stadium is further evidence that Hafley has not, as some have suggested, “lost the locker room.” On the contrary. There is no greater attribute for a team than the ability to withstand and then conquer dire circumstances.

A 21-7 deficit at halftime at home to a winless team Saturday qualified as dire.

“We have a resilient team. We really do,” Hafley said after the game. “Do we need to play better in some areas? Sure. Do I need to coach better in some areas? Sure. We have a resilient group that could have laid it down and they didn’t. Multiple times in the game. I thought they showed that and I’m proud of them and I love them.”

Consider the mood at halftime. A confounding season had found another indignity, the completion of a Hail Mary that allowed Virginia another two-touchdown lead. Who among us didn’t think, “here we go again?” Who among us didn’t consult the mental rolodex, contemplating Hafley’s successors? Who among us wasn’t concerned the players might succumb to the frustration? “

I don’t think we were deflated. I thought we had momentum going until the Hail Mary. I really did,” Hafley said. “I felt it on the sideline and maybe I’m crazy, but I felt it. And then yeah, I guess the Hail Mary did deflate us. Speeches only go so far. So what you’re saying to get them all fired up to run out of the tunnel – that doesn’t last. It’s who they are and how resilient they are and how much they trust and believe in their team.”

The Eagles have shown as much all season. And that’s a credit to Hafley and his coaches, for not merely being able to preach resiliency, but to get the players to believe it. It’s certainly fair to wonder why they’ve faced two-touchdown deficits to Northern Illinois, Florida State and Virginia. It’s certainly fair to wonder why they came frighteningly close to losing to Holy Cross. But it’s also true that BC has rallied each time, even when the situations were ominous.

The significance of resilience isn’t to be understated, even though it is stated quite often. Athletes at all levels spew cliches about it all the time. But it’s another thing entirely to actually do it. And the Eagles are doing it.

“We had a little talk at halftime, just emphasizing how guys have to do their job,” defensive end Donovan Ezeiraku said after the game. “Guys don’t have to quit. Adversity comes our way. We’re just not going to quit. We’re just going keep on going, keep fighting. We knew that.

“We looked ourselves in the mirror (after the Louisville loss), especially on Monday, the off day. We’ve got to change. The defense took ownership of that loss last week, letting up all those points. We had a big emphasis on doing your job and just being playmakers having some fun. Guys not playing to mess up, (but to) just go make a play.”

Yet even as the Eagles played their best half of the season, they met with more distress, this the scariest kind: Teammate Ryan O’Keefe motionless on the turf. They eventually rallied around O’Keefe as he was wheeled off the field, unaware of the injury’s severity. And yet they managed the adversity, as they have all season, figuring out a way to win the game using all three phases.

The offense drove, the defense held and special teams scored, Liam Connor’s clutch 42-yard field goal.

“Our guys rebounded,” Hafley said, alluding to seeing O’Keefe’s injury. “It was pretty emotional for a lot of guys. It was emotional for me to be honest with you. I’ve never been in a situation on the field like that. And you kind of had to reset yourself because your mind starts going in different ways.”

Read those words again: You kind of had to reset yourself because your mind starts going in different ways. This has been the story of BC’s football season.

They have found ways to reset, the Eagles have, in spite of making themselves and many of us contemplate whether we need to gulp Mylanta or Maker’s at various times. But if we’re going to criticize Hafley for all the predicaments and penalties, then we really ought to praise him for keeping his team together.

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Rider: A breath of fresh air

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Over the last 15 seasons of Boston College football, fans have come into each year with a simple hope. One where the team would finally eclipse the 7-win mark. For a magnitude of different reasons, they have not been able to do so.

Steve Addazio could not shake the number seven during his tenure, gaining the moniker “Seven win Steve” due to his almost perpetual 7-6 record as head coach, something he accomplished in five of his total, you guessed it, seven seasons at the helm.

The 2018 was the peak of Addazio’s success in Chestnut Hill as the team reached 7-2, a place in the AP poll and College Game Day made its way to the Heights. Bottoming out losing their final three games on top of a freak-of-nature bowl cancellation left the seven-win mark intact. The following year, 2019, was the end of the Addazio era. Despite a season-ending win that granted the Eagles bowl-elligibility, the Eagles fied

This is where Jeff Hafley entered the fold. With all the pomp and circumstance, excitement exploded from through the Yawkey Athletic Center ceiling, as Hafley birthed a catchphrase the program would rally behind, “Get In.”

With any coaching change, roster turnover is to be expected. Pair that with the Covid-19 pandemic that shook the world at its core, and face of the program A.J. Dillon departing for the NFL. Despite this, the BC community was sold on the new head coach. After Hafley laid out his vision for the school in his introductory press conference, then proceeded to navigate through adversity of the inaugural 2020 campaign. Hafley’s inaugural season was deemed highly successful with their 6-5 record.

“And we’ll be sitting up here we’ll be talking about a lot of great things because in all honesty, I want to compete and I want to win, I want to get better and I want this to be a top 25 program. That’s real, that’s the truth, and it can be.” Hafley continued with his vision,. “I want there to be magical moments and magical seasons, like you guys have seen with Doug and Matt. We need to bring back those magical moments to the heights. That’s why I’m here.”

Similarly to his predecessor, Hafley was unable to bring BC to the next level. Although he had the Eagles at Bowl eligibility in three of his four seasons, he subsequently won six games in each of those seasons. It seems that not only was he not fulfilling the expectations to raise the program, they seemed to have taken a small step back. Hafley’s tenure was mired with frustration, inadequacy, and disappointment in living up to the lofty expectations set by the fanbase. It ultimately was the inability to see the vision materialize, or even give a sense of a palpable path leading towards it in four seasons.

This brings us to the present day of Boston College football and the state of the team, and expectations are once again high and hopeful.

With newly minted head coach Bill O’Brien set to roam the Alumni Stadium sidelines there is a lot to like with this marriage. At the time of this writing, there have been no reports of a mass exodus for the current roster. It seems as though O’Brien will have a majority of the team intact for his initial season. That includes stand-out quarterback Thomas Castellanos, who announced via his Instagram “We staying” allowing BC fans and alumni worldwide to breathe a side of relief.

It cannot be understated just how important it is to get the majority of the team to buy back in, and accept new leadership — especially in this day and age in college football where the transfer portal is prevalent. Boston College administration knew what they had to do to keep the fallout form Hafley’s departure to a minimum, and the quality hire of O’Brien does just that. It instantly allows BC to keep their momentum off their bowl win in December and look to elevate, not rebuild.

Simply put, Hafley was coaching for his job this upcoming season. With the likes of a much more difficult schedule in ’24, the doubt was valid. BC has the likes of a trip to Florida State to open the year, Mizzou, and a Fenway Bowl rematch down in Dallas with SMU. Michigan State is also set to come to Chestnut Hill. This is a stark contrast to the 2023 schedule, which most pundits agreed was one of if not the easiest in FBS. Going from a guy who was coaching for his preverbal life, and in a corner alone, to a guy whose track record speaks for itself and has the backing of an entire community.

O’Brien has already instilled more juice and buzz into the program than any player, coach, or moment has since Lane Stadium went quiet in 2007.

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BC football notebook: Bill O’Brien with a great start to his Eagles career — ‘You can win at a place like this’

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On Thursday afternoon, Boston College introduced Bill O’Brien as their new head coach of the football team. Athletic Director Blake James opened with remarks detailing the search, and what the team was looking for in a new coach.

“We talked to our players, and the players gave us the input they wanted and they wanted a winner,” James said. “They wanted someone who’s passionate. They wanted a motivator.”

With previous head coach Jeff Hafley up and leaving BC so late into the offseason, it was a concern that the candidate pool would not be as robust as one would prefer. As it turned out, not only was there a high level of candidates available, but options the likes BC has not seen before in previous searches.

“I talked with Father Jack as we interview candidates in person,” James explained. “And he grabbed me and said Blake, this is the strongest pool of candidates we’ve ever had for the football head coaching positions here at Boston College. But one candidate stood out from the rest. Who’s the best fit for Boston College.”

Boston College is a unique place. The challenge that is ever present for BC is the academic standards that the university upholds. O’Brien quickly made note of the rigorous schedule his players have with early morning workouts before attending class for the day.

“I don’t know if everybody knows this about the Boston College program right now, is that this is a morning program. So these are young men who get up at 5:30 every morning, and they work out with us. They meet on football. That’s how they practice in the spring. That’s how they practice in the in the fall, and then they go to class. And as the leader of the Boston College football program, that’s something that’s one of the main reasons why I want the job, you can win at a place like this.”

The education portion of BC has always been part of the package. O’Brien embraces that.

“This is a place where young men can come and play good football, get a great education, and give back to the community. And I think that’s what Boston College is all about,” he said. “And so I just want you to know that this is an outstanding group of young men who will proudly represent Boston College both on and off the field.”

As someone who had close ties to the university, it was the values in the university mission that aligned with the new head coach, who plans to continue instilling them in the team.

“We had great discussions about the values of Boston College, faith, education, and service to others. Commitment, integrity, respect, and loyalty. Those are the things that make Boston College such an incredible place and really why I wanted the job. I will do my best every single day to instill these values in our players, our student-athletes, every day that I’m here as that football coach.

“As I already mentioned, my responsibility to this program is to instill in our student-athletes the values of Boston College, character, hard work, respect, and integrity, in everything that we do. We will strive for success on the field and in the classroom will cultivate our minds and our talents and use those in service to others.”

Along with the values of BC, O’Brien outlined what the DNA of his team will be.

“We can win with guys who want to get a great education and play good football in the ACC. In keeping with the great tradition of Boston College, we’re going to be a smart, tough physical football team. We’ve already talked about that for five days. We might not win every game, but we will not be out tough. We will not be out competed, we will be a tough, smart physical football team.” O’Brien continued, “We’ll be a good situational team. And we’ll be a team that plays complementary football in all three phases.”

O’Brien’s next remarks were directed at the school’s former players and alum, and of great value. Last spring, The Heights released a piece highlighting the disconnect between the current program and their alumnus. O’Brien made a vow, and a plan, to earn their trust and support. It’s evident that he hopes they can be actively involved with the current team.

“I want to extend a message to the BC football family for coaches, but especially with players, I have tremendous respect for the history of this program. The great admiration for your loyalty. We respectfully request the chance to earn your trust and support through communication and a tremendous work ethic. You will always be welcome in this program. And we hope you will be a big part of our program.”

The speech concluded with a nice anecdote that had a ‘homecoming’ feel to it. As a local guy who grew up in the Boston area, O’Brien touched on the fulfillment that becoming the BC head coach meant to him.

“As a lifelong BC fan, a lot of us went to Brown, but we were secret Boston College fans, I promise you. I went into coaching. In 1993, I went into coaching at Brown. I always dreamed about being the head coach at Boston College. My career has taken some twists and turns taking me down roads, I never could have imagined that as I stand here today, I couldn’t be more grateful that the road has finally taken me back home to Boston College.”

Boston College has the reputation of being a ‘stepping stone’ school. In short, being a ‘Power 5’ school in FBS makes it an attractive position alone, but the issue BC has had in the past is candidates use their success here to move onto more attractive blue blood schools. O’Brien has the resume and pedigree to follow suit.

With his extensive experience, he views this as a final destination, something Eagles fans should rejoice at the notion.

“When I had the honor of meeting Father Leahy, about being committed to this program, you know, this is a program that does that will do things the right way,” Obrien continued, “Jeff Hafley did a really good job. You know, he did he did a good job here. We need to build on that. And we also need to build on what’s been done in the past year, you know, over time, obviously, you know, having connections to coach Bucknell and Coach Coughlin and Coach O’Brien, you know, no one the success that they have here in the formula that they did, but that’s something that I really believe in. And I can’t wait to get that goal.”

Previous successful Boston College football programs all had similar characteristics. Tough, hard-nosed teams. O’Brien is not looking to change the blueprint, his vision is seemingly to get back to those roots.

“This will be a team that will that on the football field will play smart, will be tough,” he said. “We will be a physical team will be a team that does the simple things. Well, we have to we have to be the team that wins the penalty battles and wins the turnover battle that plays the best on third down and plays the best in the right area. We have to play this situational football off the field. You know, this is a place where I believe that we all in the football program have to embrace what Boston College is and you can do both.

“Boston College is a place where you can do a lot of great things. I am not into the prediction thing. What I will promise you is that we will field a very, very competitive football team with a bunch of guys that will play hard and that will be tough,” O’Brien added. “Will we win the national championship every year? Who knows? I don’t know. I’m not a predictor. I’m not a genie. I’m just telling you that we will show up every Saturday and we will play to the best of our ability.”

He then touched on NIL, and how they’ll embrace it.

“We need to work. It’s called work, you have to organize your time, you have to budget your time properly. And you got to work. And so we’re gonna put the work in. You know, some things won’t happen overnight. Some things will take time, some things will happen quicker, but it’s all about work. I think you can balance it, when you organize it. You have great people around you with great people here.”

Coaching staff

BC made a Valentine’s Day splash on Wednesday, hiring two more defensive staff members. They reportedly picked up Washington State’s DBs coach Ray Brown for the same position and Maine defensive coordinator Jeff Commissiong as the defensive line coach.

Brown spent two years with the Cougars, though before that was with Abilene Christian, Utah State, and Troy.

For Commissiong, it’s a bit different. He was with BC from 2007-2013 in the defensive line role before spending a number of years with Old Dominion and a brief stint with Cornell, which led to his coordinator role at Maine.

HC: Bill O’Brien
OC: Will Lawing
DC: Tim Lewis

QB: Jonathan DiBiaso
RB: Savon Huggins
WR: Darrell Wyatt
OL: Matt Applebaum

DL: Jeff Comissiong
ILB: Paul Rhoads**
OLB: Sean Duggan**
CB: Ray Brown

ST: Matt Thurin**

* * = not clear if O’Brien is bringing back or not

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DiMauro: O’Brien delivers instant cachet for BC football

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There are few other endeavors that cause the malarkey-o-meter to tilt with greater intensity than your basic introductory press conference.

Often, the participants employ those plastic smiles people wear when they’d rather be elsewhere. They offer more opinions than facts. Meanwhile, gullible members of the gallery, eager for change, will let their agenda overshadow their critical eye.

And then there’s what happened Thursday at Boston College. Not saying bits of the aforementioned paragraph didn’t apply. But there was Bill O’Brien at the podium, wearing his BC tie, talking about his new BC football program and it hit you: This is what instant cachet looks, sounds and acts like.

Instant cachet: A man with the extensive background, but with local ties. A man who alluded to Ryan Day, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft in his opening remarks. A man who won at Penn State. Coached under Nick Saban. The man who coached Tom Brady for heaven’s sake. And yet the St. John’s Prep man with Colleen, his wife, the magna cum laude BC grad of 1992.

Seriously. You couldn’t have locked Fr. Monan, Bill Flynn, Jack Bicknell, Doug Flutie and Tom Coughlin in a room with the metaphorical genie and his three wishes and engineered a better fit for BC football.

And now he’s here.

“I grew up outside of Boston (Andover) with my family, as a lifelong BC fan,” O’Brien said. “A lot of us went to Brown, but we were secret Boston College fans. I promise you when I went into coaching in 1993, I always dreamed about being the head coach at Boston College. My career has taken some twists and turns and has taken me down roads I never could have imagined. But as I stand here today, I couldn’t be more grateful that the road has finally taken me back home to Boston College.”

Now for some full disclosure: Cachet notwithstanding, I was most interested in O’Brien’s responses to transfer portal and Name-Image-Likeness questions. Like it or not, the marriage of those entities has created new rules regarding player procurement and retention – rules with which many coaches have grown uncomfortable. Translation: You better embrace the portal and your NIL collective, because their influence on your talent base will be significant.

Among Jeff Hafley’s best parting gifts to BC was developing a solid relationship with Tom Devitt, the director of “Friends of the Heights,” BC’s growing NIL collective. Hafley did well in the transfer portal before leaving for the NFL. “Friends of the Heights” contributed mightily to that.

“I’m excited to work with the Friends of the Heights group to keep building on what they have already started,” O’Brien said. “Tom Levitt and I had a good meeting yesterday.”

You’ll note O’Brien got the name wrong, calling him “Levitt” and not “Devitt.” He gets a mulligan. O’Brien rallied later when asked directly about NIL and the portal.

“You need to embrace it. And we need to work. It’s called work,” O’Brien said. “You’d have to organize your time, budget your time properly. Some things won’t happen overnight. Some things will take time. Some things will happen quicker. But it’s all about work. I think you can balance it when you organize it and you have great people around you. We have great people here.”

Otherwise, I believed O’Brien more when he said BC will be a good situational team (a Belichick staple) more than I did when he said this was his “destination” job. He incurred a wry grin when he was asked if you can win a national championship at BC, delivering a diplomatic answer:

“Boston College is a place where you can do a lot of great things. I am not into the prediction thing. What I will promise you is that we will field a very, very competitive football team with a bunch of guys that will play hard and that will be tough,” O’Brien said. “Will we win the national championship every year? Who knows? I don’t know. I’m not a predictor. I’m not a genie. I’m just telling you that we will show up every Saturday and we will play to the best of our ability.”

And then his last words may have resounded the loudest. Bill O’Brien talked about closing the borders. Many coaches say that. But O’Brien can. Know why? He coached Tom Brady. He knows the NFL. Kids who are offered a competitive NIL deal will be drawn to BC more than ever. Instant cachet.

“I can honestly tell you that high school coaches, especially when I talked to some of the guys that had coached here in the past,” O’Brien said, “one thing that’s very, very important is that we do as good a job as we can of putting a wall up around New England and keeping these best players in New England, coming to Boston College. 

“Players that embrace what Boston College is all about. Good football players who care about academics and care about getting a great education. Not letting them go to Clemson or Miami. Let’s keep them at home where their parents can drive 20 minutes 30 minutes to come watch and play right here in this beautiful stadium.”

Mike DiMauro, a columnist in Connecticut, is a contributor to Eagles Daily and a member of BC’s class of 1990. He may be reached at m.dimauro@theday.com or @BCgenius

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