Ahead of the 2016 football season, Ryan Day and Jeff Hafley needed jobs.
The pair of 37-year-old position coaches landed in San Francisco, interviewing for posts on the 49ers staff amid a regime change. The team went 2-14 with Day as the quarterbacks coach and Hafley manning the secondary, and Day departed for Ohio State following the season.
It would seem their chapter would close as two ships passing in the night, a brief stint together as assistants coaching on opposite ends of the ball who found marginal team success.
That’s not how they saw it, though.
“I told him on Sunday, we were going to coach together,” Day said. “I didn’t know I’d be the head coach here, and that’s how it would work out. But I always knew I’d coach with him again.”
Now the head coach and co-defensive coordinator of the No. 4 college football team in the country, respectively, Day and Hafley are writing new chapters together, but their story began almost 20 years earlier.
Day and Hafley’s collegiate careers ran nearly concurrently, with Day playing quarterback for New Hampshire from 1998-2001 and Hafley playing wide receiver for Siena from 1997-2000.
Their coaching careers began immediately after, as Day coached tight ends for his alma mater and Hafley coached running backs at Worcester Polytech before ending up as a defensive assistant for Albany in 2002.
With New Hampshire and Albany less than four hours apart, it was working summertime football camps on the East Coast where the young coaches first took notice of each other. Even when Day left for Boston College in 2003, Hafley said the two hung out and talked football at camps.
From there, both worked up the ranks –– Day becoming an offensive coordinator for Boston College after stints at Temple and Florida, while Hafley took defensive backs coach positions at Pittsburgh and Rutgers –– before breaking into the NFL in 2012 for Hafley and 2015 for Day.
The end of the 2015 NFL season saw both Day and Hafley’s head coaches fired, and job openings in San Francisco found the pair reunited. Hafley said they even interviewed together with former Oregon and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly.
When the season began, Hafley and Day found themselves frequenting each other’s offices with schematic questions, seeking perspective from the other side of the field.
Their relationship wouldn’t end there.
“On a lot of the road trips, being that we were on the West Coast, we’d leave two days before, so we would spend a lot of time together in a hotel, just picking each other’s brain, talking football, sharing thoughts,” Hafley said. “I think there was a mutual respect, and I think we just kinda clicked.”
In Hafley’s first year, the 49ers pass defense jumped from No. 27 in 2015 to No. 14, but five consecutive losing seasons in the NFL and no playoff appearances began to take a toll, and he said he wasn’t having fun coaching anymore.
It was then that the coaches began discussing their future in football.
“We had several conversations about coaching in college, and that’s where we both wanted to end up,” Day said.
That transition happened quickly for Day, who was hired as former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2017. Hafley remained in Tampa Bay for another two years, but Meyer’s retirement after the 2018 season left an opening for Day to take over the Buckeye program.
Suddenly, the 17-year assistant coach was in a position to assemble a staff of his own.
“I had a list of guys that I was colleagues with and people I respected, but you just never know where people are at in their careers and where things are at, and you try to piece it together the best you can,” Day said. “But [Hafley] was always a guy that I obviously wanted to have on staff.”
After five blowout wins to begin the 2019 season, Day’s offense is No. 7 in the country in total yards, and Hafley’s defense is giving up the second fewest yards in the nation. Not only is Hafley winning games again, but his passion for the job has returned.
“This is the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time,” Hafley said. “I feel re-energized, I love the staff, I love coaching for coach Day, I love these players, I love coming to work every day and I haven’t been able to say that in a long time, but I mean that. This is fun.”
They met as 23-year-old aspiring coaches, but now that both are 40 with multiple kids, their priorities have shifted. Day’s accommodation for family enhanced what Hafley called a special culture at Ohio State.
“He respects our family and our time so much, and in this business, that’s very rare to have a head coach that truly respects that,” Hafley said. “What do I mean by that? You guys could see my daughters running up and down the hall any time you want. My wife can come in here and feel comfortable any time she wants.”
The type of tight-knit relationship Day and Hafley have formed is what the first-year head coach said he hopes to be exemplary of his program from top to bottom.
“Our team can feel the staff chemistry,” Day said. “If we love each other as coaches, then they’re going to feel that, and that was just as important as any.”