P.J. Fleck’s phone rang at 2 a.m. As any college coach will attest, a phone call in the middle of the night often causes a moment of panic.
“It’s not one you want to answer,” Fleck said.
This time it was his offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who wanted to know if he still had his job.
“Absolutely,” Fleck answered.
Ciarrocca had called Fleck the day before in January and told him that he was pretty sure he was leaving. Ciarrocca’s friend Neal Brown had been hired as the coach at West Virginia and had offered him a job as offensive coordinator. For years they had talked about coaching together again, and this was their chance.
Close friend, more money, Power 5 conference … Ciarrocca found it very enticing. But he wanted to think about it some more. Ciarrocca and his wife, Kim, talked until the wee hours, dissecting each situation, until the answer felt right.
“I like to finish things,” Kirk Ciarrocca said last week. “I feel like we have some unfinished business here.”
His 2 a.m. phone call to Fleck became the most important offseason development for the Gophers football team. The offense looks powerful — potentially the Gophers’ best since Glen Mason’s tenure — when combining returning talent with Ciarrocca’s system and play-calling.
College coaches job-hop with such frequency, often rewarded with more lucrative contracts, that Ciarrocca’s decision to stay in place felt refreshing. He received a one-year extension at the same salary to remain on Fleck’s staff.
“I turned down a chance to go with a really good friend,” Ciarrocca said. “But I’m already working for a really good friend at a place that I really love.”
Fleck’s trust in Ciarrocca is reflected in the freedom he gives him. He allows his veteran coordinator to handle game-planning and play-calling so that he can focus more on game management and running his program with big-picture vision.
“Together, I think we make a really good team,” Fleck said.
This might be the first season in which Ciarrocca’s full offense is on display at Minnesota. Injuries, youth and lack of talent limited the scope of what he could implement his first two seasons. Not anymore.
The offense features three starting-caliber running backs; a wide receiver core led by future NFL draft pick Tyler Johnson; a mammoth offensive line that averages 6-6 and 340 pounds; and sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan, who went 4-2 as a starter last season.
“I think we have a chance to be good,” Ciarrocca said. “Last year we were average. Some games we were above average. They’re hungry. Really hungry. They really want to be special. Now, is it going to happen for them? I don’t know. We’ll see. But I love the way they work.”
One of Ciarrocca’s strengths lies in his ability to adapt his scheme to fit his personnel, and then improvising when needed. He didn’t run wildcat formation at Western Michigan but added that to his playbook to take advantage of Seth Green’s unique skill set. Green’s role became more prominent after running back Rodney Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game.
Ciarrocca initially planned to use Green only in short yardage and goal-line situations. He ended up with 76 carries and eight rushing touchdowns last season as a change-of-pace option at wildcat.
“When Rodney got hurt, in between series, I was just thinking, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ ” Ciarrocca said. “I was like, ‘Well let’s use a little bit more wildcat and see how it goes.’ It was effective for us. How will that fit into this year? It’s part of our package, but I don’t know yet. We’re still developing our identity.”
Ciarrocca plans to expand his playbook, because his talent and experience warrant that. An offense built around Johnson, Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim, Shannon Brooks and Rashod Bateman lends itself to creativity.
The man charged with orchestrating it is happy with his decision to stay put.
“Once I got off the phone with P.J., I went right to sleep,” Ciarrocca said. “And it was probably the best sleep I had in about seven or eight days. Once I make a decision, I don’t look back.”