TAMPA, FLA. – Gophers coach P.J. Fleck is going through a split.
At least that’s what it feels like.
His partnership with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca — which began in 2010 when Fleck worked under Ciarrocca at Rutgers — ended officially Thursday morning, about the same time the Gophers took off for Wednesday’s Outback Bowl. Fleck said he heard the news of Ciarrocca, his right-hand man since he became a head coach at Western Michigan in 2013, leaving for the Penn State offensive coordinator job the morning before and orchestrated a quick uncoupling, with Ciarrocca joining a Big Ten Conference foe.
“That was difficult to hear just because you have such a great relationship. But you know that’s going to happen at some point,” Fleck said after the team’s first practice in Tampa, Fla. “Kirk’s given me seven amazing years, and it’s a relationship. It’s a little bit like a little breakup.”
Ciarrocca took Ricky Rahne’s place on James Franklin’s staff after Rahne became the head coach at Old Dominion. Franklin and Fleck are also good friends. Ciarrocca has been a sought-after coordinator in recent years, including nearly leaving in January to become the offensive coordinator at West Virginia before having an 11th-hour change of heart.
With Ciarrocca already in Dallas with Penn State for the Cotton Bowl, the Gophers will turn to wide receivers coach Matt Simon in the interim to call the Outback Bowl. Offensive quality control assistant coach Greg Harbaugh will oversee the quarterbacks, whom Ciarrocca also coached.
Ciarrocca is a Pennsylvania native. He shared ahead of the Gophers’ 31-26 win against Penn State on Nov. 9 how he grew up a Nittany Lions fan, even owning team logo pajamas. Fleck said he knew Ciarrocca’s goal was to finish his career closer to home and said it was “inevitable” for an opportunity like this to come up for his close friend.
Gophers seniors receiver Tyler Johnson and linebacker Thomas Barber said the players learned of Ciarrocca’s departure in a meeting Thursday morning and accepted it pretty quickly, with eyes on beating Auburn.
Ciarrocca was one of 15 semifinalists this season for the Broyles Award, presented to the top assistant coach in college football. He coached sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan to a record-setting 10-2 season, the Gophers’ first 10-win regular season since 1905 and the first seven-win conference season in program history.
His offense was the third-highest scoring in Gophers history and accumulated the second-most passing yards, with Morgan surpassing marks for passing yards and touchdown passes.
The offense also boasted two 1,000-yard receivers in Rashod Bateman and Johnson as well as a 1,000-yard rusher in Rodney Smith. All starters return next season, minus Johnson and Smith.
“Change is inevitable in college football. Look everywhere around the country, everybody leaves, moves. It’s hard to keep people seven years. That’s very difficult to do,” Fleck said. “Our players, they’re resilient. They understand. They understand this profession.”
In February after the near-miss to West Virginia, the Gophers gave Ciarrocca a one-year contract extension that would have paid him $720,000 again next season, his current salary. But Fleck signed a new contract this season, which included a provision for his assistant coaches to raise their salary pool by $1.05 million next year, plus another $200,000 in 2021. So Ciarrocca, who originally made $700,000 when he started in 2017, was in line to make $1 million with the Gophers each of the next two years.
When the Board of Regents approved Fleck’s deal, it approved the framework of the new two-year contract for Ciarrocca. That new contract would have included a $250,000 buyout for Ciarrocca to pay upon leaving, but because he was still working under the previous contract, his buyout payment to the university is just $50,000.
Fleck said his attention now turns to finding a way to be even “better and upgrade” in Ciarrocca’s wake. That process has started.
“We’re going to be pretty aggressive,” Fleck said of the coaching search. “I know a lot of people. There’s a lot of people who want the job, heard from a lot of people. … I don’t want it to last that long.
‘‘I have some interviews set up already. And so we’ll do a lot of things through the phone from here.”
Replacing Ciarrocca and his nearly 30 years of coaching experience won’t be easy, especially as the Gophers try to maintain continuity with their steady improvement in Fleck’s three seasons. But Fleck will also have to grow accustomed to the absence of a constant presence in his personal life.
“It lasts a few days where you’re probably like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t believe he left.’ Or, ‘Oh, I can’t believe he’s not letting me do this,’ ” Fleck said of how he’ll get over the parting. “And next thing you know, in two, three days, you’re talking again. So it’s all good.”