On the early evening of Nov. 3 in Champaign, Ill., the Gophers’ football season lay in shambles. A 3-5 Illinois team had just administered a 55-31 beatdown of Minnesota, and the stats behind it made the outcome look even worse.
The Fighting Illini tore through the Gophers defense for 646 total yards. They galloped for 430 rushing yards. And they had four touchdown plays of 67 yards or longer in dropping Minnesota to 1-5 in the Big Ten.
Something had to be done, and the next day coach P.J. Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith, replacing him with defensive line coach Joe Rossi on an interim basis.
Seven weeks later, the script has been flipped. The Gophers (6-6) own a pair of blowout Big Ten wins and are proud possessors of Paul Bunyan’s Axe. They allowed only 16.3 points per game in a 2-1 finish and will face Georgia Tech (7-5) in the Quick Lane Bowl on Wednesday in Detroit.
A season salvaged, thanks in large part to Rossi.
“That’s a testament to the guys and their preparation,” Rossi said, redirecting the credit to his players, whose performance helped him get the interim tag removed after the win at Wisconsin on Nov. 24.
Before joining the Gophers, Rossi was a defensive coordinator at Maine and Rutgers. To fully understand his background, a chat with Jack Leipheimer is a good place to start.
Rossi, 39, lists Leipheimer among his biggest coaching influences. The two go back to the late 1990s, when an undersized but overachieving defensive lineman out of Pittsburgh Central Catholic came under the wing of the defensive coordinator at Division III Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.
“Motor running 100 miles an hour all the time — practice, games,” Leipheimer said of Rossi.
At Allegheny, Rossi was a three-time All-North Coast Athletic Conference pick as a versatile defensive lineman who once had a 12-sack season.
“I hate to use this word, but it’s apropos for him: He was a natural,” Leipheimer said. “He had a nose for the football.”
Rossi also caught the coaching bug at Allegheny and asked Leipheimer for some on-the-job training.
“I showed him how to break down film,” Leipheimer said. “He did a lot of stuff for me from a preparation standpoint as a player. He’s the only player I ever had do that.”
When Leipheimer left Allegheny in 2001 to become head coach at Division III Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., Rossi became his defensive line coach, then defensive coordinator two years later at age 24.
Rossi embraces the path he took from D-III to the Big Ten.
“I’m a guy who is very partial to coming up through the D-III ranks as a player and a coach, because when you’re there, you have to do everything,” he said. “There’s no academic support, there’s no weight room staff. There’s no nothing, it’s you. You get an opportunity to see if you really love coaching the game of football, and you have to really do every job. You get a chance to fail.
“I just know the struggle that goes on at Division III, making $4,000 a year on a meal plan,” Rossi added. “… I am who I am as a coach because of that time as a Division III player and as a Division III coach.”
A ‘whirlwind’ year
After his two-year stint as defensive coordinator at Rutgers, Rossi joined Fleck’s original staff in 2017 as a defensive quality control coach, then became defensive line coach last January. The year has been eventful for him off the field, too.
In October, Rossi’s wife, Lynsey, gave birth to their second son, Luca, who joins Nico, 3.
“It’s been a whirlwind for me, it’s been a whirlwind for my wife,” Rossi said. “It was the Ohio State week when we welcomed Luca. ... I didn’t miss any meetings or practice, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. She’s the one that deserves all the credit.”
When the Gophers defense struggled in their first six Big Ten games, giving up an average of 43.2 points and 507.7 yards, Fleck made the call to change coordinators. That wasn’t easy for Rossi, who was a college teammate of Smith’s and coached with him at Maine and Rutgers.
“I’m sure [Rossi] will tell you this isn’t how he wanted it,” Leipheimer said. “Robb couldn’t be happier for Joe, and you’re not going to find a bigger supporter of Joe.”
The defense responded quickly in Rossi’s debut, a 41-10 rout of Purdue. The Boilermakers gained only 233 yards and didn’t score a touchdown until 5:28 remained in the fourth quarter. Following a 24-14 loss to Northwestern, the Gophers beat Wisconsin 37-15 to claim the Axe for the first time since 2003. Rossi’s defense forced four turnovers. Then came the promotion.
“Coach typically after wins gives out game balls, and he gave the last game ball to me and said, ‘For our new defensive coordinator,’ which was pretty special,” Rossi said.
Added Fleck: “When I told our team what we were doing, they went absolutely ballistic. … He deserved it. This isn’t a gift. He earned it.”