Joe Rossi was still just beginning his second stint, both as father to a baby boy and interim defensive coordinator, working more than ever.
Most hours, it was football. Practices, meetings, game-planning to turn around a defense that had been the Gophers’ Achilles’ heel most of 2018. But in the scant off time between his first and second game as coordinator, he slept at the hospital.
It was more of a three-hour nap, really. Rossi’s second son, born before the Ohio State road trip last October, caught a common virus and needed some overnight stays. Amid hectic prep for Northwestern, Rossi found that the only way to be there for his family, including his wife and now-3-year-old son, were quick visits like these.
Rossi, 40, has been a defensive coordinator four times already, but this is the first time he’s done it with kids. That presents a whole new challenge, and it comes at a crucial time for coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers.
Fleck has a well-established, successful offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca, his right-hand man since 2013. And with nine offensive starters returning, the Gophers should score touchdowns. Preventing them is still the question.
Rossi showed promise last fall after Fleck fired former defensive coordinator Robb Smith, following high-scoring losses to Iowa (48 points), Nebraska (53) and Illinois (55). With Rossi as interim coordinator, a switch flipped. In the final four games, including wins against Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech, the Gophers allowed an average of 14.75 points per game.
Should Rossi develop into the defensive equivalent of Ciarrocca, that would be a significant step in Fleck’s quest to build a championship program. Rossi already has an impressive, albeit small, sample size on the field. And Fleck is sure about him as a person off it.
“I mean this, he’s one of the greatest husbands, fathers I’ve ever seen. I’m inspired by watching him,” Fleck said, adding Rossi will often beat him into the office before 4:30 a.m. “He cares so much about our players, cares so much about his family and his wife, Lynsey. When I watch him, it’s just, he has time for everything.”
Making a coach
Lynsey Rossi said what makes all the family sacrifices worth it is how incredibly clear it is to her that her husband “was put on this Earth” to be a coach.
Joe Rossi knew when he was 14, a freshman playing at Central Catholic, a storied Pittsburgh school that has produced several Division I football coaches, including former Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover.
Rossi went on to play on the defensive line at Division III Allegheny College and started coaching even before he graduated. He’d wake up at 5 a.m., to drive 35 minutes to Thiel College, another D-III Pennsylvania school, in time for that team’s morning workouts.
He was Thiel’s defensive line coach for two seasons before becoming a defensive coordinator for the first time at age 24. Jack Leipheimer, who’d coached him at Allegheny, was Thiel’s head coach and offered the D-coordinator job. Rossi’s infamous response: “What are you, on drugs?”
But Leipheimer and Ken O’Keefe, Rossi’s first head coach at Allegheny, combined to teach Rossi his most defining characteristic: attention to detail. Ask Gophers players from defensive lineman Carter Coughlin to linebacker Thomas Barber to cornerback Terell Smith, and they all describe Rossi as detail-oriented, obsessed with the fundamentals, the technique, the little things.
Lynsey nicknamed her husband “the Taskmaster” because his self-discipline and focus mean he always accomplishes what he wants to finish. He’s even passed on his “don’t cut corners” trait to his toddler, Nico, who has now become just as diligent as his dad when it comes to putting away his toys.
Rossi’s other coaching stops also helped shaped him. At Maine, where he was defensive coordinator for three seasons, Rossi learned how to build a successful team without an abundance of resources.
At Rutgers, Rossi experienced how to endure the extremes. In his four seasons there, the team competed in three conferences, winning as many as nine games and as few as four. There was also plenty of off-field controversy.
Rossi was unemployed after a tumultuous 2015 season and stayed out of coaching, having the rare opportunity to be with his first son his entire first year. His next job came with the Gophers in 2017 as part of Fleck’s new staff.
“The number one thing I love about working for Coach Fleck is that he has a clear vision of what the program is and where it’s going, and he has high expectations for the staff and the players, and he will not compromise on those,” Rossi said. “… I’ve been other places where that wasn’t always the case. And when all those lines get blurred, that’s when there’s problems.”
The next step
Rossi took control of the Gophers defense with the team desperate to stay in bowl contention. Despite the short prep time, Rossi said his focus wasn’t on strategy. It was on the players and how they were handling such an abrupt change.
Even now after a full offseason, Rossi hasn’t enacted a major overhaul. Instead, he tweaks. He puts together different personnel packages that play to players’ strengths. He works on strengthening bonds.
“Details, thoroughness, everyone being clear exactly what needs to be done, like, to a T,” Rossi said. “We’re going to teach guys. We’re not going to be yelling and screaming all the time.
“… The more comfortable that they feel, the better they feel about their relationships with their position coaches and the guys on the staff, the more they’re invested in, the more that they work. And as a coach, you get more out of that experience yourself.”
Rossi, an East Coast guy at heart, might be more direct than his current Midwest counterparts. In coaching, that works because he helps players understand what they’re doing.
But that makes his softer family side even more unexpected. Coughlin said he couldn’t even tell Rossi’s home life was so busy last year. Lynsey said she recently took the kids to an open practice, and she could see how surprised the other coaches were when her husband pulled funny faces at his 10-month-old, Luca.
Lynsey said the only time she has ever seen her husband waver in the slightest about his career is since he’s had kids. It never bothered him to miss weddings or vacations for football in the past. Not seeing his boys as much, though, is an emotional toll.
Much like those hospital visits last season, though, he makes the most of his few nighttime hours. He ensures his young sons know: Even when they think Dad’s not around, he’s there.
“He’ll go in when Nico is sleeping,” Lynsey said, “and kiss him good night and take a picture of him giving him a kiss, so I can show him the next day.”