Head coach P.J. Fleck and his staff are preparing for another unique challenge this week. Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has tested positive for COVID-19 and will not coach Saturday’s game against Illinois, according to the team.
Rossi tested positive during one of Minnesota’s daily antigen testing periods this week. His initial diagnosis was confirmed by a PCR test. After hearing about his positive result, he immediately returned home, isolated and started working remotely.
At this time, no other members of the coaching staff have tested positive for COVID-19 during daily antigen testing periods. Since Big Ten football resumed, the Gophers have been working to get their young defense back on track. Now, a new leader is set to take over in-person coaching responsibilities.
Safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak will call the defense during Rossi’s absence. Harasymiak has two years of coordinating experience from his past stop in Maine. Prior to joining the Gophers last season, Harasymiak was Maine’s head coach for three seasons. He led the program to its first FCS semifinal appearance and earned Coach of the Year honors from the American Football Coaches Association. Harasymiak quickly became one of the top young coaches in FCS football, but ultimately decided to pursue a Power Five coaching job.
The Coaching Tree Connection
Harasymiak’s connection with Rossi brought him to Minnesota. Rossi was Maine’s defensive coordinator when Harasymiak became a defensive assistant in 2011. It didn’t take long for the Gophers’ defensive coordinator to quickly notice the young coach’s energy and talent.
“[Harasymiak] was restricted earnings, but he was like a full-time guy [in Maine]. We had a full-time guy leave and we promoted him, and he was, I don’t know, at the time, 24 or 25 [years old], because he was elite. And then, like a month later, I left, but he was still there as the defensive backs coach,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said in 2018. “The defensive coordinator left a couple years after, that had replaced me, and they promoted him. And he was the defensive coordinator for I think, two years, probably one of the younger defensive coordinators in the country.”
When former Maine coach Jack Cosgrove retired in 2015, he called Rossi to ask him about Harasymiak. Cosgrove and Rossi both gave Harasymiak a strong endorsement for the open head coaching position. After working in the program for five years, the then-29-year-old was named Maine’s new head coach.
“The head coach, Jack Cosgrove, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, he was retiring and I talked to him. And he said, ‘I think I’m going to push for Joe.’ And I said, ‘Coach, I agree with you, this guy is awesome.’ And so they did it. Joe got the job and he just had them in the National Semifinals, which is the furthest that they’ve ever gone,” Rossi said in 2018. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for [Harasymiak]. He’s an elite coach, elite person, high energy, able to connect with the players, just an impressive, impressive coach.”
After working with the safeties in 2019, Harasymiak was promoted to co-defensive coordinator this offseason. Last year, he played a major role in deploying unique and creative coverage schemes for Antoine Winfield Jr. Harasymiak also gained play calling experience behind the scenes. Head coach P.J. Fleck asked him to call the defense during Sunday night underclassmen scrimmages. Soon after hiring Harasymiak, Fleck noticed his talent and potential.
“You’re talking about guy who gave up [a head coaching job] to come to the University of Minnesota and coach our safeties,” Fleck said in 2019. “I’ve already sat in his room. One of the best teachers I’ve seen. He has tons of energy. Very intelligent, very smart. He’s got coordinator written all over him. He’s already done that at the FCS level, but he is very, very sharp and our players have adapted to him very, very quickly.”
Dating back to his days in Maine, Harasymiak has a strong fundamental understanding of Rossi’s defense. This will help him navigate an extremely unique situation. Before the season started, Minnesota’s coaching staff put together an emergency coaching strategy.
Now, the first plan is going into action. A young Gophers assistant is set to call his mentor’s defense during Saturday’s game against Illinois.
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