Gophers coach P.J. Fleck shares many similarities with his new offensive coordinator.
Fleck was the youngest coach in the Power Five when he joined the Gophers in 2017 fresh off his first head coaching job at Western Michigan. Fleck, now 39, has hired 37-year-old Mike Sanford Jr., another up-and-comer with head coaching experience, as his play caller.
The Gophers announced Friday that Sanford, the offensive coordinator at Utah State, will become the Gophers OC and quarterbacks coach. He fills the spot that Kirk Ciarrocca, Fleck's right-hand man for seven years, vacated when he took the same job at Penn State last week.
Matt Simon, who stepped into the position on an interim basis for the Outback Bowl, will remain as wide receivers coach but also becomes the co-offensive coordinator.
"I am thrilled to welcome Mike, his wife Anne-Marie and kids Peyton, Gunnar and Griffin to Minnesota," Fleck said in a statement. "I have known Mike for many years, and he will be an elite addition to our staff. Mike is one of the brightest young minds in the game and brings a wealth of experience to our offensive staff room and our offensive system."
Sanford, a former Boise State quarterback, first met Fleck in 2014, when Sanford was the offensive coordinator at his alma mater at the same time Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle was Boise State's AD. Fleck, coaching Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, hung out with the Boise State offensive staff as they game-planned for the Fiesta Bowl and helped them brainstorm. Their relationship grew when Sanford visited Fleck's home in 2016.
Sanford, who was unavailable for comment Friday, previously told MLive.com he felt a "kinship" with Fleck because they were both creative, emerging coaches not afraid to think outside the box.
"I think the one thing that I really like about guys like P.J. Fleck … is they're going to be a head coach and lead in their own personality," Sanford said, per MLive.com. "… The guys who are really good head coaches are typically the ones that are really authentic to who they are."
Sanford has extensive experience and has crossed paths with several of the biggest names in college football. He started his coaching career in 2005 as a graduate assistant working for his father, former USC quarterback Mike Sanford Sr., at UNLV. He then spent two seasons on Jim Harbaugh's Stanford staff. He was also on Willie Taggart's Western Kentucky staff in 2010 and with Brian Kelly at Notre Dame for two seasons.
Sanford has helped develop star players, too, coaching Oakland Raiders quarterback DeShone Kizer at Notre Dame in 2015-16 and helping recruit Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey at Stanford.
The Lexington, Va., native was the Western Kentucky head coach from 2017-18, accumulating a 9-16 record. This season with Utah State, Sanford's offense averaged 431.3 yards per game, 44th in the FBS.
The Gophers offense is fresh off a dominant 31-24 victory over Auburn in Wednesday's Outback Bowl. Simon called that game, helping the Gophers to nearly 500 yards. It's unclear why Fleck chose to hire from outside to address the coordinator role, as the head coach was unavailable for interviews Friday.
Sanford and Simon will have a lot of tools at their disposal next season. Nine Gophers starters return on offense, including quarterback Tanner Morgan, receiver Rashod Bateman and the entire offensive line. Minnesota averaged 34.1 points per game this season, behind only Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten.
Sanford hinted at his offensive philosophy in a 2015 Bleacher Report story.
"The biggest thing that I've found is that, obviously, championship football, a lot of times it comes down to who runs the football the best," he said, "and then who makes the explosive plays down the field in the throwing game."