P.J. Fleck received a phone call at home Christmas morning in 2019. His offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca informed him that he was leaving to take the same position at Penn State.
Fleck's wife, Heather, looked at him after he hung up.
"Christmas morning?! Come on, Kirky!'' she said, using her nickname for Ciarrocca.
"And that was before the kids even opened presents," Fleck recalled this week. "It was like, 'Yeah, that's what Santa brought to us.' "
Fleck still jokes about it because he took the news in stride, despite it being a professional blow to the Gophers football coach. What happened next in their relationship was even more telling: Fleck did not hesitate in welcoming his mentor and close friend back with open arms when he went looking for an offensive coordinator again last December.
Kudos to Fleck for how he handled a delicate situation. Not every head coach would have made that same decision, bringing back a coordinator who left for another job at a conference rival two years earlier.
Fleck's actions revealed two things: He refused to let pride or ego or anything else interfere with his decision. And he was wise to go back to a relationship that produced historic results in 2019.
"Zero hesitation," Fleck said. "I don't think pride can ever be a part of decisionmaking that's good for the organization. Coach Ciarrocca is one of the best football coaches I've ever been around, period. And I've said this before: I'm not saying I wouldn't have done what he did in his situation."
Fleck understood Ciarrocca's reasoning. He grew up in Pennsylvania rooting for Penn State. The allure of returning home to coach at a school he loved was something he couldn't pass up.
"So there was no grudge ever held whatsoever," Fleck said. "I hated to see him leave because he's a great friend of mine."
When Fleck decided to move on from Mike Sanford Jr., he re-hired Ciarrocca in a matter of days. The process was seamless since Ciarrocca was available after being fired from Penn State after one season and then spending last season as an offensive analyst at West Virginia.
Fleck could have looked elsewhere and chosen a different coordinator, but that would have brought more unknowns. He knew precisely what he was getting with his old sidekick.
"How can I not do what's best for the University of Minnesota and the players inside the organization?" Fleck said. "I'm just thankful that he was willing to come back because people see it only from my side. Look at it from his side. Do the kids want you back? How are they going to react when I get back? Do the coaches want me back? How do they feel?"
If there was any awkwardness, it faded quickly, and Ciarrocca's imprint has been abundantly evident throughout a 4-0 start, particularly with quarterback Tanner Morgan.
The Gophers head into Saturday's homecoming game against Purdue ranking among the nation's leaders in various metrics. Unlike last season, the offense boasts versatility and the ability to be both methodical and explosive.
Nobody has benefited from Ciarrocca's return more than Morgan, who became one of college football's most efficient passers in 2019 in setting a host of program records. That version of Morgan has reappeared in the early stages of this season.
Morgan ranks fourth nationally in passer rating (the same spot he finished 2019) and is the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the week after a surgical performance at Michigan State. He is completing 77% of his passes.
The measure of Ciarrocca's influence on his quarterback extends beyond statistical data. Study Morgan's body language. Notice how calm and self-assured and decisive he looks in reading the defense and knowing where to throw the ball.
Morgan said this week that he has never felt more comfortable running an offense before quickly adding, "but I can get a lot better."
Ciarrocca will bring it out. The way he coaches Morgan and prepares him and then calls the game on Saturday maximizes the quarterback's strengths.
"It's an awesome feeling for me," Morgan said. "I love being coached by him every day."
That helps explain why Fleck had zero hesitation when he was on the phone again with his old friend.