CEDAR FALLS — When Ryan Mahaffey played tight end at the University of Northern Iowa, head coach Mark Farley saw a hard-working, determined and productive player who was accountable, reliable, dedicated to his teammates and mature beyond his years.
Those traits helped Mahaffey become a three-time all-Missouri Football Conference performer and a scholar-athete. They helped the Panthers to three league titles, three trips to the FCS playoffs, including a 2008 semifinal appearance, and a four-year record of 38-13. And they helped Mahaffey to NFL opportunities with Baltimore, Indianapolis and Miami.
Farley also saw the makings of an outstanding football coach in Mahaffey, who now at the age of 31 has returned to the UNI program to serve as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator and tight ends coach.
“He’s prepared,” said Farley. “I’d start with his background. I remember when I recruited him into coaching (in 2013). He was in between NFL positions and he was down here practicing right before spring ball. I said, ‘If it doesn’t work out in the NFL by June or July, you can be our tight end coach.’
“He brought great energy to that. He was a great teacher and a great recruiter.”
An opportunity to be part of an elite program at Notre Dame lured Mahaffey to South Bend, Ind., as a graduate assistant for two seasons. He then returned to UNI for one year as the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach before heading to Western Kentucky where he coached tight ends for two seasons.
Those experiences gave Mahaffey an opportunity to learn from coaches like Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Mike Denbrock (Cincinnati offensive coordinator) and Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers head coach). They also exposed Mahaffey to college football’s elite at Notre Dame and to a program trying to find its way at Western Kentucky.
“He has really grown quickly in this profession because the experiences he’s had have been so extreme,” said Farley. “That’s why I know he’s ready. He is so prepared, he loves this place, and he is coaching for all the right reasons.
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“He has the energy that the offense needs and he also has the detail that I expect from the offense and the toughness that an offense has to play with. If they’re around that every day, that should show as we go through the season.”
A Grinnell native who is married to former UNI golfer Molly Schwemm, Mahaffey doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out.
“I think the thing that gives me the most confidence to be able to fill my responsibilities is I’ve tried to prepare extremely hard,” he explained. “Obviously going into something for the first time, it’s great to have a head coach with as much experience as Coach Farley. He’s had a lot of success and he’s been in this business a long time. He does a great job helping me get myself ready and being in constant communication as far as what we need to get accomplished and what we need to do.”
Mahaffey said he is the product of his personal experiences, beginning with his playing days.
“A huge part of my foundation as a coach was the guys I played for while I was here,” he said. “Coach (Bill) Salmon, Coach (Mario) Verduzco, Coach (Rick) Nelson, Coach (Erik) Chinander, Coach Farley ... they were great men of character first and foremost. They were relationship-type coaches. They established relationships with their players and they really focused on the details and the execution every single day.”
Mahaffey wants his UNI offense to embody the attributes that have defined successful Panther teams for decades.
“Obviously, UNI football’s known for running the football and being physical,” said Mahaffey. “That’s at the core of what I think we want to do on the offensive side of the ball, and it’s a big part of our identity and the tradition and foundation that’s been set here for us.
“We’re optimistic we’ll find ways to be creative and at the same time stick to our core identity, which is running the football. We have some diverse backgrounds on the offensive side of the ball, which helps bring about creative ways to go out there and put our personnel in positions to have success while at the same time playing to the identity of this football team and the brand of football that Coach Farley and our offensive staff is trying to play.”