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‘Friends of the Heights’ is BC’s most important athletic initiative

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There was considerable consternation from loyalists of Boston College recently, upon reading that some football recruits flipped their commitment from BC to land elsewhere. A popular hot take: The kids found a better program.

Au contraire.

The kids, according to sources who follow recruiting, likely found schools offering better NIL deals.

This is the new reality of college sports: Who has enough money in their Name/Image/Likeness coffers to keep their programs competitive and attractive?

Consider, for instance, the contrast between BC’s new $3 billion capital campaign – with a $400 million goal for athletics – and the recent words of Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy:

“Don’t build it, put the money in the bank,” Gundy said at a recent media session. “Put the money in the bank and spend it on NIL. That’s just the future. I’m not saying I agree with it. I only know the signs of the times.

“Players used to want to go somewhere for shiny new facilities and new uniforms and things like that. They still want to go somewhere where they win, but they also want the other stuff. I’m going to hypothetically build a situation: If you brought in 50 of our players and said ‘We’ll NIL you $50 to $60,000 a year in cash or we can build you a new weight room and meeting room, which one do you want?’ They’re gonna take (the money) right? That’s what kids do nowadays.”

This is not to suggest that BC’s goals and ideals align with Oklahoma State’s. But Gundy’s message, while perhaps odious to many of us who still value the concept of higher education, is a cautionary tale to anybody unwilling to adapt and adjust to the new reality. Name/Image/Likeness is the newest illustration of athletic Darwinism.

At BC, the NIL initiative is called “Friends of the Heights,” created not long ago by four forward thinkers who may turn out to be the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to BC athletics: alums Joe Popolo, Scott Mutryn, Brian Tusa and Sam Raia. BC grad and former University of Hartford basketball coach Tom Devitt was recently hired as the initiative’s full-time general manager, indicating a level of seriousness that ought to have BC fans thankful and encouraged.

“The importance of this is multi-faceted,” Devitt said. “No. 1, it sheds light on the BC value system. And equally as important, it allows us to compete at the highest level possible. That competition will continue to advance BC as an institution on national and international stages.”

Devitt, like many of us, has discovered some distaste for the NIL concept among BC alums. Some have been reluctant to contribute for ideological reasons. And while it is noble to maintain a value system, there is a practical side that is clearer than a bottle of Poland Spring. If you don’t contribute to future successes don’t complain about current failures.

Devitt offers a metaphor:

“Seventy percent of Americans today have never rolled down a car window,” Devitt said. “In terms of the operation of the vehicle, things are simply done differently. If you get into a car and are seeking fresh air and you’re looking for a handle to roll down a window, you’re going to start sweating.

“Boston College has done an unbelievable job to make sure this initiative aligns with our values. Because so much of this is service oriented, it lines up perfectly. But remember, if you are seeking fresh air but doing it the way you did 30 years ago, you are going to sweat.”

Then Devitt paused and asked, “If student-athletes of other eras had these opportunities, would they have turned them down?”

It is quite possible that a simple lack of understanding about how NIL works lies at the roots of the ideological distaste. BC fans are not alone.

“We’ve heard it all, right? Our fan base is no different than any other fan base. Our coaches are no different than any other coaches in college sports,” Oklahoma State athletic director Chad Weiberg said during a media opportunity. “This is not the way college athletics has worked all these years and decades. There are a fair amount of people that don’t like it.

“It is now part of college athletics. It is not going away. And for us to remain competitive, it’s one of the areas that we are going to have to compete in. We have to continue to do a good job in the area of educating and telling our fans how they can get involved. There are a lot of ways that they can get involved and I think that is part of the confusion.”

This is why anybody with an affinity for BC sports should visit the Friends of the Heights website (friendsoftheheights.com) to learn more. Memberships begin as low as $25 per month, but they will accept any dollar amount as a one-time donation. Here’s Devitt:

“There are tax deductible contributions, commercial contributions (asking for teams or players to sponsor your company), many ways to give, and many levels of membership,” Devitt said. “We are grateful to accept all amounts of funding. This is not pay for play. Non-profit rules are very strict. For example, when a student-athlete partners with a charity, they have to do the work first and then earn compensation after that.”

Devitt said NIL money has even helped more than one BC student-athlete to pay tuition. Others are using it to gap tuition debt.

“This is not Livvy Dunne hosting the ESPYs. These are real life scenarios,” Devitt said. “There’s a misnomer about how all Div. 1 student-athletes are on a full ride. Far from the truth. NIL can be used as a vehicle to gap tuition costs, too.”

BC sports are painting a rosier picture. Football has won two straight. Hockey is in the top five in the country. There is optimism around basketball. Student sections are howling. And yet with successful teams and successful players come the poachers.

“Common sense says that a student-athlete can still love it at BC, not want to leave – and still be coerced by the various forces in his or her life,” Devitt said. “We’re not necessarily looking to outbid other schools. This is for the student-athlete who values the BC degree and who can have a great experience here.”

This much we know: There are decades worth of loyal BC grads who have done well for themselves. There’s money out there. BC also has a number of graduates in the media who can spread the word about the importance of Friends of the Heights, including (but certainly not limited to) Joe Tessitore, Jon Sciambi, Molly McGrath, Bob Wischusen, Mike Lupica and Bob Ryan.

Our individual opinions about the bonafides of NIL are noted, but alas irrelevant. This is about keeping BC competitive. I’m in. How about you?

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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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