Tampa, Fla. – Matt Simon received a call from Gophers coach P.J. Fleck Wednesday night.
“Hey. Listen. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
His next sentences detailed a fairly drastic and last-minute change. Simon was no longer just the Gophers’ up-and-coming wide receivers coach. He’s now the interim offensive coordinator with a big Outback Bowl game to call against No. 12 Auburn in a week.
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca — Fleck’s longtime colleague — departed for the Penn State offensive coordinator job Thursday morning, leaving the Gophers without a play caller and a quarterbacks coach.
Greg Harbaugh, the Gophers offensive quality control assistant coach, will oversee that group in the interim.
“I thought Matt Simon and Greg Harbaugh did a great job on such short notice,” Fleck said after Thursday’s first practice in Tampa. “… But the game plan is done. The game plan’s been done for about a week now. And now, it’s just adapting it to our style, adapting to Matt, what he wants to be able to put in.”
Fleck said the New Year’s Day game, which gives his No. 18 Gophers a chance to beat an SEC powerhouse, will be a collective effort from the whole coaching staff to run the offense.
“I’ll probably have a little bit of a bigger say,” Fleck said, “just in terms of just helping them through all that.”
Fleck coached Simon as a receiver at Northern Illinois from 2007-08 before adding him to his Western Michigan coaching staff in 2014 as his wide receivers coach. Simon also acts as the passing game coordinator. Harbaugh was a graduate assistant during Fleck’s last season at Western Michigan before following him to the Gophers in 2017. He spent 2018 as the receivers coach at Chattanooga before coming back to the Gophers.
“He’s been in the quarterback room the entire year, just with Kirk and just sitting back there and really putting every game plan together,” Fleck said of Harbaugh, adding both Harbaugh and Simon are very familiar with the Gophers’ system.
This season, Simon coached two 1,000-yard receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. Bateman was the Big Ten Receiver of the Year, while both he and Johnson made the all-conference first team.
Johnson said Simon “does a great job of going over the entire scheme from each play” and is “definitely ready” to take on this bigger role.
Linebacker Thomas Barber said Simon’s coaching has even helped him on defense.
“He’s had to make me elevate my awareness of his receivers, and how smart he’s made his receivers. Helps me understand route combinations, especially with this type of receivers we have on this team,” Barber said, adding that it has taken his game to the next level. “… Understanding what kind of route combinations you get as a linebacker. Not just being that run-fit linebacker but dropping into coverages and seeing coverages and seeing the kind of combination of routes opposing teams do because you kind of see that with this offense in the way our receivers go off of each other in different routes.”
Fleck already has started seeking Ciarrocca’s permanent replacement, with several phone interviews already lined up and interested candidates reaching out to him the past two days. But Simon’s and Harbaugh’s new responsibilities give them a hands-on way to prove they’re up to the challenge.
“They’re both capable,” Fleck said. “And it’s a great opportunity for both of them. It really is. I trust those guys. And if I didn’t think they could do the job, I wouldn’t let them do the job.”