After two years apart, Kirk Ciarrocca and P.J. Fleck met at a small airport recently, the old and new Gophers offensive coordinator and Minnesota's head coach reuniting in hopes of reinvigorating the team's offense.

Did they share a "welcome back'' hug? A hearty handshake, perhaps? A solid slap on the back?

"It really was kind of weird,'' Ciarrocca said. "He got off the plane, and I'm standing there, and he comes walking in, 'Hey, Kirk.' I was like, 'Hey, P.J. What's going on, bud?' … It was like I never left. I've had that feeling a lot since I've gotten back, which makes me smile.''

Said Fleck, "It just felt like, 'Yep, Kirk's here to pick me up. Just get in the car and go.' It just felt very routine.''

On Monday, Ciarrocca met the local media for the first time since being named Gophers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach on Dec. 6, his second go-round in the job after holding those titles from 2017 through the 2019 regular season. While admitting he was a little nervous, Ciarrocca detailed three major reasons that made it easy to return to the Gophers after spending the 2020 season as Penn State's offensive coordinator and the 2021 campaign as a senior offensive analyst for West Virginia.

"One was P.J. He's a great head coach, he's a friend, and I know that it works with him, that we can play off each other, and I'm really comfortable with him,'' Ciarrocca said.

"Two, the staff. These are all guys who I've worked with before. I have tremendous respect, so there were no questions for me about what the work environment was going to be like from the head coach and with the staff.

"And really, the third thing was the kids that are here,'' he added. "I knew I had a relationship with the older kids. I was hoping they would welcome me back and be excited about it. I felt like there was going to be a trust that we would have immediately. … I'm here as more than a football coach.''

The challenge ahead

Ciarrocca, 56, replaces Mike Sanford Jr., who was let go after two seasons in which the Gophers finished 3-4 and 8-4. A big part of the issue was Minnesota's passing game. Quarterback Tanner Morgan passed for an average of 161.3 yards per game and had 12 touchdown passes this season. Two years ago under Ciarrocca, Morgan passed for 250.2 yards per game and threw 31 TD passes.

Morgan said he was excited at the news of Ciarrocca's return and welcomes the challenge that will come.

"We know the details are going to get ironed out and all kinds of stuff is going to get fixed in terms of things we can get better at,'' Morgan said, "and that starts with myself.''

Said Ciarrocca, "Tanner and I, our relationship really clicked. I thought we really worked well together.''

Ciarrocca was Fleck's offensive coordinator at Western Michigan for four years. Previously, Fleck was wide receivers coach at Rutgers, with Ciarrocca working as offensive coordinator. Fleck knows he'll have a meticulous coach running the offense.

"Just the thoroughness, the attention to detail, the organization, how he goes about making a game plan, bringing everybody involved in the game plan,'' Fleck said. "I trust him. I trust him a lot, and that's why you hire him.''

Ciarrocca was let go as Penn State's offensive coordinator following a 4-5 season in 2020 before being hired by West Virginia coach Neal Brown. In his analyst role with the Mountaineers, Ciarrocca couldn't coach on the field but could offer advice.

"The role that I had was kind of a neat role,'' Ciarrocca said. "If anyone could figure out how to make a living doing that, it's not bad where you walk around and give your opinion with no consequences.''

On-field coaching will wait

The Fleck-Ciarrocca reunion was taking shape before the Gophers found out they'd be playing in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 28 in Phoenix. Their opponent? West Virginia.

"Ah, I honestly couldn't believe it,'' Ciarrocca said. "I wasn't overjoyed, to be honest with you. I don't think anybody was [overjoyed] at West Virginia or at Minnesota.''

Under an agreement between Fleck and Brown, Ciarrocca will not coach in the bowl game. Wide receivers coach Matt Simon will call the plays in Phoenix.

Ciarrocca's heavy lifting will begin in 2022, when his influence on the Gophers offense will stand out.

"P.J.'s built a great culture here and a really good program, but I still think there's some meat on the bone,'' Ciarrocca said. "I'm excited about helping get over the top here with everything.''