Before becoming the new Gophers offensive coordinator, and before his first leap of faith with P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan, Kirk Ciarrocca had one of those stretches that can define a coaching career.
Ciarrocca had been a fairly successful Division I-AA coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Delaware, helping mold quarterback Andy Hill, among others, into late-round NFL draft picks. Then, along came Joe Flacco, a 6-6 transfer from Pittsburgh with a rocket arm.
“It was a fun ride,” Ciarrocca said. “I’d never coached anybody that was a first-round draft pick at quarterback. I remember when the scouts came around, I said, ‘If he can’t make it in the NFL, I’m never going to coach one that can.’ ”
Flacco went on to become a Super Bowl MVP for the Ravens, and Ciarrocca became a co-offensive coordinator at Rutgers.
In 2010, Rutgers needed a new wide receivers coach, so Ciarrocca (pronounced shuh-ROCK-uh) set up a breakfast meeting with Fleck at the annual coaching convention.
“I spent about five minutes with him, and I knew he was the kind of guy we were looking for,” said Ciarrocca, 51.
Three years later, when Fleck landed the Western Michigan head coaching job at age 32, he asked Ciarrocca to be his offensive coordinator.
It took some soul-searching for Ciarrocca, a Lewisberry, Pa., native who graduated from Temple before starting his coaching climb on the East Coast.
“I had never been out of my little triangle — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — my whole career,” Ciarrocca said. “When [Fleck] called, my wife said, ‘You’ve always said how special he is. And you thought he was going to be a great head coach. Let’s do it.’ ”
Western Michigan was coming off a 4-8 season and had averaged 29.3 points per game. Coincidentally, that’s exactly how many points the Gophers averaged last season, an improvement from the previous season’s 22.5 mark.
Fleck and Ciarrocca went backward before they went forward at Western Michigan. The Broncos went 1-11 their first year, averaging 17.2 points per game. The next two years, Western Michigan averaged 33.8 and 36.0 points, before climbing to No. 9 nationally last season, at 41.6.
“We had an elite three-year run there,” Ciarrocca said.
It culminated last year with a 13-0 regular season, the Broncos’ first Mid-American Conference title since 1998 and first New Year’s Six bowl game. They lost the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin 24-16 but still shattered several program records.
Wide receiver Corey Davis, an expected first-round NFL draft pick, became the nation’s career leader in receiving yards (5,278). Zach Terrell, a four-year starter at quarterback, passed for 33 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
“Coach Ciarrocca’s really good,” Davis said. “He puts a lot of emphasis on the ball and execution and everything we have to do leading up to the game. The main thing is just taking care of the ball.”
Western Michigan had the fewest turnovers in the nation last season, with eight.
Fleck constantly preaches: “The ball is the program!” He got the slogan from Ciarrocca.
“Taking care of the ball — I really believe it’s a personal choice,” Ciarrocca said.
Now, Ciarrocca is trying to mesh his system with a Gophers offense that will have seven returning starters once tight end Brandon Lingen and three offensive linemen — Jared Weyler, Garrison Wright and Vincent Calhoun — recover from their surgeries.
The Gophers return running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks but need to replace quarterback Mitch Leidner. The new QB — most likely Conor Rhoda or Demry Croft — will run Ciarrocca’s spread offense, which relies heavily on the run-pass option (RPO), forcing quick decisions both before and after the snap.
When executed properly — as Western Michigan, Penn State, Clemson and other teams did last season — the RPO can make things difficult for opposing defenses.
Balance is key, Ciarrocca said: “If we need to run the ball for 400 yards to win, we can do that. If we need to throw the ball for 400 yards, we can do that.”
Western Michigan kept teams guessing last season, rushing for 3,204 yards and passing for 3,533. So when Fleck got the Gophers job in January, he made sure to keep Ciarrocca.
“He can do it all,” Fleck said. “But what he does is, he allows his coaches to coach. He’s an incredible listener, the best listener I’ve ever met. He’s one of my best friends, and he’s a phenomenal play caller.”
Ciarrocca proved it at Delaware and Western Michigan. His next test will be solving the Big Ten.