New Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys wasted little time shaking up his staff, firing offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski on Sunday, one day after the regular-season finale.
The moves abruptly changed the continuity this staff prided itself on under former coach Jerry Kill, who retired for health reasons Oct. 28. The Gophers said they will begin the searches to replace Limegrover and Zebrowski immediately.
After the news broke, Tony Poljan, a consensus three-star quarterback recruit from Michigan, announced on Twitter that he was pulling out of his commitment to the Gophers.
“Due to the ever changing leadership at the University of Minnesota I am opening my recruitment up and decommitting,” Poljan tweeted.
Poljan was among many recruits over the years that cited staff continuity under Kill as a big reason they were drawn to the Gophers.
Limegrover first joined Kill and Claeys in 1999, when they were working at Emporia State, a Division II school in Kansas. Zebrowski came aboard at Northern Illinois in 2010, and the whole group made the move to Minnesota together after that season.
“I wasn’t expecting [to be fired] because I thought I’ve given everything I have for five years,” Zebrowski said. “And I thought our kids, offensively, have played better and given us chances. Mitch [Leidner], I thought had a terrific year, and played well, and really kept getting better.”
The Gophers increased their points-per-game average each of their first four seasons under Limegrover — from 18 to 22 to 26 to 28. But this year, with three starting offensive linemen hurt for much of the year, they averaged 22.6 points, second fewest in the Big Ten.
On Saturday the Gophers had five turnovers, including four by Leidner, in a 31-21 loss to Wisconsin. The Gophers held their annual team banquet Sunday morning, and then Claeys gave Limegrover and Zebrowski the news in the afternoon.
“Matt and Jim are both terrific people and coaches, but I have decided to make a change that will better fit my offensive philosophy, which is to have one coordinator calling the plays,” Claeys said in a statement. “They have been great representatives for the university and always put our student-athletes first, and I thank them for their contributions to our program and wish them well.”
Limegrover, 47, and Zebrowski, 48, are both married with two kids, and the families both live in the Woodbury area.
“To be honest, I’m not even really thinking about it for myself right now because I’m pretty confident, bordering on cocky, that I’ll be able to land on my feet,” Limegrover said. “The whole thing that was going through my mind is that my wife and my kids just love it here.”
When Kill retired, Claeys took over as interim coach, and hinted that day that offensive staff changes could be coming if he were hired to keep the job.
“I pretty much know on defense what I would like to do,” Claeys said Oct. 28. “[Offense] is the side of the ball that we would look at, and the philosophy of that, and find something that fits my personality and what I think can be successful again at the University of Minnesota.”
The Gophers finished 1-4 under Claeys, with the four losses coming to teams that currently rank in the Top 15 nationally in scoring defense — Wisconsin (first), Ohio State (second), Michigan (11th) and Iowa (15th).
The Gophers lost to Michigan 29-26 and would have won had they been able to score from a yard out with 19 seconds remaining. Claeys and Limegrover both blamed themselves for not making Leidner spike the ball to stop the clock when that sequence started.
Besides offensive coordinator, Limegrover also served as the team’s offensive line coach. Others in the Big Ten who wear those same two hats are Ohio State’s Ed Warinner, Michigan’s Tim Drevno and Wisconsin’s Joe Rudolph.
“I will say this is a conversation I’ve had with Coach Kill,” Limegrover said. “… From a standpoint of being an offensive line coach and being a coordinator, that took a lot out of me. And I got to the point, I didn’t know if I was doing either one particularly well.
“And for better or worse, I had a guy who was 100 percent in my corner and wasn’t going to let me out that easy, in Jerry Kill.”
But it’s Claeys’ team now, and this move made it clear he’s not afraid to do things his own way.