Fleck’s Turnaround; The Rise of Joe Rossi: It All Started vs Purdue

Photo: Brad Rempel - University of Minnesota

Joe Rossi made his debut as Minnesota Gophers defensive coordinator on November 10, 2018 vs the Purdue Boilermakers. The Illinois Fighting Illini had just put up 55 points on the Gophers a week earlier, finally forcing Fleck to make a major change mid-season. Then DC, Robb Smith, was fired. Rossi was handed play-calling duties.

Jeff Brohm’s shiny new offense had posted 38 or more points in 4 of its last 5 games, going into the matchup. Oddsmakers saw a track meet (o/u: 58.5), even though the forecast called for snow. Instead, Rossi & Co punched the Boilermaker offense in the face for four-straight quarters, while Kirk Ciarrocca picked their defense apart. Final score: 41-10, Gophers win.

Brohm was 1-0 vs PJ Fleck, as a Big Ten rival, going into that late-season dual. Overall, Brohm was 2-0 against PJ (1-0 vs Fleck with W. Michigan). Since that victory, Fleck has beaten the Fighting Jeff Brohms three-straight times and now holds a 4-1 record vs Purdue as Minnesota head coach (4-2 overall).

Deeper than Purdue

But it wasn’t just the division rivalry vs Purdue that Joe Rossi helped turn around, on that snowy night in Dinkytown. That win and the arrival of Rossi turned the tide on PJ Fleck’s program at the University of Minnesota. The Gophers lost the following week, to the eventual Big Ten West champions (Northwestern: 14-24). then closed out the season with two more dubs.

The defense dominated Wisconsin (37-15), in Madison, to close out the regular season. Then, they suffocated Georgia Tech’s (34-10) triple option offense in the Quick Lane Bowl a month later. In 2018 the Gophers were 4-5 with Robb Smith as DC; 3-1 under Rossi.

Then, 2019 happened. Minnesota went 11-2 and beat Auburn (31-24) in the Outback Bowl. That made the PJ Fleck and the Gophers 14-3 with Joe Rossi as defensive coordinator. The last two years haven’t been as successful, from a record standpoint. But that was more of a Mike Sanford problem, it appears, than an anything else problem.

Joe Rossi + PJ Fleck

Zoom out even further, PJ Fleck held a 9-12 record with Smith as his defensive coordinator. Since Joe Rossi took the reigns (mid-2018 to current), the Minnesota Gophers are 30-11. Now, time accounts for some of those wins. Fleck’s program was a lot younger, when Robb Smith was DC.

But the change under Rossi has been monumental. Minnesota went from a defense that gave up 40-50 burgers on the regular, to one that opponents are lucky to score 10 on. And yes, the Gopher offense has been high powered through four games this season and ripped up the Big Ten in 2019. But outside of some hiccups in 2020, it’s been the defense that has kept this program afloat in harder times offensively.

And I don’t want to alarm anyone with this stat, but it feels wrong not to share it. With Kirk Ciarrocca and Joe Rossi at PJ Fleck’s side, the Minnesota Gophers football team is 18-3. I’m counting the Outback Bowl because Kirk may not have been there, but it was his offense the Gophers ran.

Enjoy Joe Rossi While He’s Here

The Gophers’ dominance on defense goes beyond wins/losses and statistics. If you prefer anecdotal evidence, talk to Rossi’s players. He’s nicknamed “The Guru” because he remembers everything and he’s always considered the smartest guy in the room. What’s even better about him? He hates that nickname.

Here’s a clip from PJ Fleck defending Rossi, when things were going sideways in 2020. Below it is a 2021 quote from linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, about his DC’s steel-trap of a brain.

“He is the walking library of plays. He can watch a play in practice and say the Sam linebacker … sheds (a block) early and the ball bounces. He can go back in time and tell you exactly when that happened in game, a 10-year-old play. He’ll be like, ‘I will tell you a time Indiana was playing Ohio State in 2017 and their Sam linebacker did the exact same thing and the ball bounced for a 40-yard touchdown. It’s just funny because guys get a little chuckle out of it. It’s true because sometimes he’ll pull up the play and show us.” — Mariano Sori-Marin (via Pioneer Press)

There’s some bitterness to writing this blog about how great Joe Rossi is. Blogs and articles just like this one are sure to hit the world wide web frequently over the next couple of months. Hype that is likely to push Rossi into a head coaching job this offseason. And he’ll deserve it.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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