When it comes to joining P.J. Fleck’s coaching staff, there’s a certain rite of passage applicants have to weather: Rutgers.
Of the top 11 coaches on the Gophers, six worked at Rutgers at some point in their career, including Fleck himself. They all make a return to Piscataway, N.J., on Saturday.
“Rutgers means a lot to all of us, somehow, some way,” Fleck said. “… It’s hired a lot of us. It fired a lot of us. … There are probably personal feelings on a good and a bad side … but I think we all learned so much from that place. That is what makes us unique.”
Fleck worked at Rutgers in 2010-11 as wide receivers coach on Greg Schiano’s staff. Fleck said that job turned him from a boy to a man, and he still credits Schiano with shaping his career. Even this week, Fleck pointed out his hefty and detailed practice scripts, something he picked up from Schiano.
Kirk Ciarrocca was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Rutgers from 2008 to ’10 before his firing. He was Fleck’s boss there but would eventually become Fleck’s longtime offensive coordinator.
“He was the best position coach I had ever worked with,” Ciarrocca said. “… I listened to him, and I was like, ‘Oh, this guy, he knows it. He knows it better than I do.’”
Special teams coordinator Rob Wenger crossed paths with Ciarrocca as an operations assistant and player development person at Rutgers in 2008-09. But the other three Gophers coaches with Rutgers history were all post-Schiano.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and defensive line coach Jim Panagos coached there from 2012 to ’15, and receivers coach Matt Simon stopped in New Jersey from 2012 to ’13 before joining Fleck at Western Michigan.
In four seasons, Rossi and Panagos experienced the program’s rather turbulent nature firsthand, as the team competed in three conferences, winning as many as nine games and as few as four, while also dealing with plenty off-field controversy. They were part of Kyle Flood’s staff that all lost their jobs.
“I got a chance to see it going well, and I got a chance to see it going not so well,” Rossi said. “You learn from both of those experiences. … It was just part of the journey.”
Rutgers now isn’t much better. The Scarlet Knights are 1-5 and fired coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty after four games. Players are asking to redshirt the season, and the team’s former tight ends coach Nunzio Campanile is now interim coach and offensive coordinator.
“You talk about a difficult situation,” Fleck said of how Campanile is handling the transition. “And he has just absolutely crushed it.”
Campanile told reporters this week he is familiar with much of Fleck’s staff because of its Rutgers’ pedigree.
“When [Fleck] was here, I was super-impressed every time I came to practice that he was able to be that energetic, that positive and that competitive at all times,” Campanile said. “And obviously in the two programs he’s had the opportunity to coach, he’s done a great job of instilling that culture.”
Who knows? Maybe Campanile can take after the Gophers coaches and render tumultuous times at Rutgers into a successful career beyond it.
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org