Is Jeff Hafley’s jump to the NFL part of an inflection point for college sports?


Sometimes in life the message, and the messenger, are flawed, but the deeper meaning exposes a reality worthy of paying heed. Such it is with an unexpected college coaching move, and the reaction by Kirk Herbstreit.

Event one: Jeff Hafley, the head coach at Boston College the past four years, leaves to become the defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers.

Event two: ESPN’s Pete Thamel, who broke Hafley’s move, cites “a source” blaming part of the departure on the state of things at the college level, where “coaching has become fundraising, NIL and recruiting your own team and transfers.”

Event three, and this is the one that may mean the most: Herbstreit, the ESPN mainstay who is not exactly a bomb-thrower in the public sphere, reacts with a tweet that starts out woe-is-me, but then veers into actual solutions:

New governing body.

CBA, as in collective bargaining.

Players union.

Revenue sharing.

These have all been third-rail items for those who run college athletics, but here’s one of the preeminent voices in the sport pushing for them. Not Jay Bilas, another ESPN analyst who for years has been preaching about the need for changes. Herbstreit, who has the eye of coaches and other big decision-makers.

We might be at an inflection point. Even if the messengers are imperfect.

Hafley, who few casual college football fans had heard of before Wednesday, is only leaving Boston College. He was moderately but not wildly successful — 22-26, making bowls in three out of four years. It’s not the wildest career move to jump to the NFL and be a coordinator, where a year later you could be in the head coaching cycle. And coaches not wanting to recruit and preferring the NFL long predates the portal and NIL.

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But the overall point is a real one. Many college coaches are telling their administrators to do something, to fix what ails the sport. And it’s not unwinding the clock to when players couldn’t transfer without sitting and couldn’t earn money off their abilities. There’s an understanding that the old system isn’t coming back. There’s a desire for a new system that works.

The signs are growing that their bosses are getting the message. But how quickly it will take them to get there is unclear. For too long they’ve been tilting at the windmills of federal legislation, but the difficulty of that is hitting home.

NCAA president Charlie Baker had a series of reform proposals in December that stopped short of full-fledged revenue sharing and making players employees, but they were steps. Creating a new subdivision for teams that can directly pay athletes, allow schools to make their own NIL deals with players, and more.

Baker is at least trying. But his organization is also still sending mixed messages: It has claimed the need for regulation and guardrails because of the “wild west” of NIL. It is also investigating Tennessee and Florida for breaking NIL rules in that supposedly lawless wild west. And the news of the Tennessee investigation this week was another part of the inflection point. Tennessee’s attorney general, teaming up with Virginia’s attorney general, immediately sued the NCAA, seeking to toss all the NIL rules.

Maybe it’s just the baying of politicians seeking to score points. But sometimes the baying gets results, especially when the other side is the NCAA, the Washington Generals of court cases.

That’s why the CBA route should be desirable: Courts tend to defer to collectively bargained rules, rather than those imposed by the organization being sued. How that union is formed and run would need to be worked out, so it’s probably time everyone started that work.

There are, of course, other real concerns about the consequences of athlete employment and other changes: How does it impact women’s sports, and non-revenue sports? What about smaller schools? These are complicated, tough questions that require creative solutions. The sooner people in college sports get to that, rather than pushing to unwind the clock, the better.

That seems to be all that most coaches want. Don’t believe the histrionics. There is not going to be a mass exodus to the NFL or just to the beach. Nick Saban was 73 and wasn’t going to coach forever. A few more may bolt, but there’s too much money, too many good jobs, and too much passion for what’s good about the sport for all the good ones to leave. Coaches tend to be pretty simple: Just tell us the rules, they say, and make the rules the same for everybody, and we can work with that. Yes coaches also want control, but realize that what they once had is beyond them now, so reasonable transfer rules are the main hope now.

The current situation, where players can ask for more money every year, using the portal as leverage, is what’s driving coaches crazy. Some may say it’s only fair, that’s the free market. Others, and I fall in this camp, say there are reasonable rules that can exist, just as there are in the pros, but the only way to get there appears to be the CBA approach, just as in the pros.

Herbstreit is there, joining many others. Others may soon follow. College sports may finally be making progress. Even if it’s painful.

(Photo of Jeff Hafley: Jamie Rhodes / USA Today)





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