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Built in the Steel City: Gophers DC Joe Rossi was Born to Coach

When a young and energetic coaching intern walked into the head coach’s office for his annual review, he thought it was just another day on campus. Former Thiel College head coach Jack Leipheimer kicked off the meeting like normal but slipped in a surprise.

Leipheimer looked his young intern in the eye and said, “By the way, you’re going to be the coordinator.”

After delivering this news, the longtime head coach will never forget the expression that swiped across Joe Rossi’s face.

“He looked at me like, are you nuts? I said, ‘No, I’m not nuts, you’re going to be the coordinator. I’ll still coach the secondary, but you’re going to be the guy,’” Leipheimer said.

After working with Rossi for just two seasons, Leipheimer, a defensive-minded coach, felt comfortable handing over play-calling duties to his intern. He gave Rossi control of the defense and let him put his fingerprints on the scheme.

“I told him, ‘I’m not going to change your calls. We’ll meet every week and go over the game plan, what you’re thinking and how you’re coming up with stuff and we’ll meet throughout the week and I’ll ask you questions about certain things,’” Leipheimer said.

Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s quick rise up the coaching ladder was fueled by his infectious energy, work ethic, intelligence and passion. Leipheimer immediately saw those traits when he first coached him at Allegheny College in 1997.

Built in the Steel City

Rossi, a Pittsburgh native and standout high school player at Central Catholic High School, discovered his love for coaching while playing college football in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The young defensive lineman committed to Allegheny College, a campus located two hours north of Pittsburgh. Leipheimer, the Allegheny Gators’ defensive coordinator at the time, quickly noticed Rossi’s talent and put him in the starting lineup as a true freshman. 

“Joe came out of Pittsburgh Central Catholic, so he had enough inner-arrogance, I will call it. He wasn’t one of those guys that walked around like ‘look at me’ type of thing, but he had inner-arrogance. He knew that he was going to beat you. He just knew it because nobody was going to outwork him and you got that sense for him,” Leipheimer said. “I mean, you don’t start your first college game as a freshman. I didn’t put him out there because I liked him, I put him out there because I thought he was going to help us win a football game.”

Lighting the Coaching Flame

Rossi started every game of his college career and accumulated 23 sacks, which still ranks fourth on the Gators’ all-time list. While playing his junior season, the star defensive end discovered his true passion – he wanted to be a coach.

“He was always a student of the game, but Joe actually approached me during his junior year and said that he had aspirations of being a coach. [He asked me if we could] get together and work on things. And I said, absolutely,” Leipheimer recalled.

A quick conversation with Leipheimer was the spark that lit Rossi’s coaching journey. From that moment forward, the young coach never looked back.

“I started giving him projects to do from a defensive breakdown standpoint. The one that stands out to me that I remember, I said, take last year’s games and I want you to chart every scoring drive and I want you to analyze and tell me why they scored. And for a junior in college who has all kinds of things he could probably be doing to spend his time, he gave me back a very detailed report,” Leipheimer said. “It turned out our average scoring drives that we gave up the year before was seven plays, it went for 64 yards, but there was an average big play in there of 24 yards and that kind of stuff.”

Rossi spent time watching film with Leipheimer and soaked in all of the things he taught him about game planning and opponent tendencies. The duo kept working together until Leipheimer became the head coach at his alma mater, Thiel College, during Rossi’s senior year.

Even then, the pair could not be separated.

“I grabbed Joe and I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be leaving in January here, I’d like you to come and be a GA for me when you graduate,’” Leipheimer said. “And Joe said, ‘OK.’”

Three days a week, while Rossi was finishing his senior season at Allegheny, he made the 30-mile drive and attended Leipheimer’s 6 a.m. workouts at Thiel College.

“He never missed one, was never late. When I got down here, he was coaching the linebackers for us and he just went after it,” Leipheimer said.

Rossi started out as an intern at Thiel and coached the linebackers/defensive line. While doing so, he studied the game, learned new techniques and connected with players. Leipheimer remembered all of the time and energy Rossi put into discovering the smallest details before game planning meetings.

“[His] work ethic, passion and intelligence [stood out]. I mean, he picked up things. Every time we had a game planning meeting when I was a coordinator and he was a position coach, he was on top of things. He’d point some things out that maybe I hadn’t seen yet or was looking at things that maybe I hadn’t even thought about yet,” Leipheimer said. “I can just tell you this, he was damn impressive.”

“Point the Toe”

Rossi picked up many of these tricks by watching and learning from Leipheimer over the years. Every summer, about three weeks before players arrived, the veteran coach held “Coach Camp” and re-taught the entire defensive scheme to his staff. After Leipheimer instructed them for a couple days, the coaches were in charge of teaching.

“During that three-week period, we would re-teach the defense every camp, every summer. And we would review fundamentals, how we’re going to tackle, what our foot placement is, make sure we’re hitting with the same shoulder-same leg, how you’re going to defeat a cut block, how you’re going to defeat a reach block, a drive block,” Leipheimer said. “Also, how you’re going to take on a blocker as a linebacker – are you going to take it over the top or are you going to blade him to get by him? Just all of those little things.”

Leipheimer took notes during the mock “coaching clinic” and made sure no details were missed by any members of the staff.

“Early on in Joe’s career, when I was the defensive coordinator and the head coach, we would go over everything, every aspect of the defense and then I would say, ‘OK, clinic me your first meeting, clinic me on these fundamentals, clinic me on this scheme, clinic me on this blitz, clinic me on this coverage’ and then he had to get up on the board and do it,” Leipheimer said.

If the veteran coach found a mistake, he would immediately correct it. For example, if Rossi or another assistant forgot one small detail while teaching a technique, Leipheimer stopped everything.

“If he didn’t talk about the toe being pointed, I would point it out to him. That is the way he was brought up and taught. I can’t tell you how many times small steps take you in the right direction, you’re going to get where you want to go,” Leipheimer said. “[I always say] let’s make sure we pay attention to all of the little details because that’s what is going to provide the difference down the road.”

Born to Coach

Leipheimer felt confident naming Rossi his defensive coordinator at Thiel because he knew the players would be prepared every week. It is why the veteran coach let Rossi do his job and refrained from injecting his opinion during games.

“There were times where Joe asked me on the phone, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘You’re calling ‘em.’ He was looking for a life line and I wouldn’t give it to him,” Leipheimer laughed.

All of those firsthand experiences on the Allegheny and Thiel football fields shaped Rossi into the coach he is today. As someone who watched the young coach grow and develop, Leipheimer is proud to see his former player, intern and coordinator moving up the coaching ladder.

“I’d like to think there is a lot of stuff from me in him, but I can’t take the credit for that. He’s a unique individual who was born to be a football coach.”

Rossi’s Next Chapter: Maine

Three years after becoming the defensive coordinator at Thiel, Rossi was offered a job as the special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach at the University of Maine. Robb Smith, a fellow Allegheny alum and defensive coordinator at Maine, recommended Rossi to head coach Jack Cosgrove. Shortly after Rossi was hired, Cosgrove noticed the young assistant’s talent and work ethic.

“Joe was coming from Thiel College, he was their defensive coordinator. He really loved football and he was very, very well-schooled in the game. He was a really good coach in in terms of X’s and O’s,” Cosgrove said. “Also great with the players – relationships and things like that were important to him.”

Rossi kept tuning up his craft, studying the game and finding new coaching techniques. Eventually, his hard work paid off and another opportunity arose in 2009. Smith, Maine’s defensive coordinator, was hired by Greg Schiano at Rutgers. Cosgrove quickly replaced Smith by promoting Rossi.

Once that happened, it did not take long for the young assistant to make his mark on Maine’s defensive scheme. In his first season as play caller, many opposing coaches immediately noticed Rossi’s talent. Rich Nagy, the head coach at Hofstra, remembered the challenges of scheming against the young coordinator.

“He’s very smart, very detail-oriented. He’s always searching for ways to do things better. I know he has a system that he believes and trusts, but he’s still always searching to make things better and I think he’s a perfectionist in that way,” Nagy, the current head coach at Allegheny College said.

Nagy vividly recalled an early October showdown against Maine back in 2009. That day, Rossi’s defense created seven takeaways and Maine squeaked out a 16-14 victory. Nagy found Rossi after the game and asked him what it was like preparing for the game.

“I was like, ‘What did you think? And then he really just went into detail on our offense and what he saw on tape and things like that,” Nagy said. “And at that point I was like, this guy is smart. I knew he was a good coach, but that just confirmed that he was just a little step above some people right now.”

Brian Quick, Meet Joe Rossi

Maine continued growing as a program and made a deep run in the 2011 NCAA Division 1 FCS playoffs. Cosgrove remembered getting ready for a huge second round matchup against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers were led by wide receiver Brian Quick, a future second-round pick by the St. Louis Rams. Quick was a 1,000-yard receiver who tested FCS defenses the entire season.

That is until he met Joe Rossi’s defense in the playoffs.

“[Quick] caught like five passes for 18 yards that day because we just were so well-prepared, so well-coached defensively,” Cosgrove said. “It’s one of those days where you go to a place that has FCS Championship banners all over the field and you go in there and you kick their butt the way we did, that points back to the preparation and the coaching that was done beforehand and getting ready for the game.”

Maine advanced to the next round and prepared for a big challenge – Georgia Southern’s triple-option offense. The coaches drew up a detailed game plan, but it was completely thrown out the window with the Black Bears trailing 21-10 at halftime. Rossi made major adjustments and nearly helped Maine pull off a comeback.

“I remember the in-game adjustments that Joe made. He came up with some ideas and things that we really went to work on and did a much better job in the second half and had a chance to win the game,” Cosgrove said. “We didn’t, but it was an example of in-game adjustments and Joe thinking on his feet and really doing a great job getting our guys to believe in some things that we had to do simply because the things we brought in weren’t working.”

Hire him right now, coach — he’s ready.’

The Black Bears fell short in a 35-23 loss, but the program’s success in 2011 caught the attention of coaches across the country. Cosgrove lost all of his offensive coaches and a pair of defensive assistants to bigger jobs. Maine’s longtime head coach (now at Colby College) was debating who he should hire for those positions. Cosgrove eventually walked into Rossi’s office and told him one of the defensive assistants was leaving.

“I looked at Joe and I said, what do you think about Joe Harasymiak? And Joe looked right at me and said, ‘Hire him right now, coach — he’s ready.’

Rossi’s instant recommendation of Harasymiak is something that Cosgrove will never forget.

“That was the kind of thing that I always remember about Joe. He was always thinking about not just the team X’s and O’s and things, but about the people involved in the team. Teaching and coaching is something that he was born to do,” Cosgrove said. “When coaches give you answers like that — ‘Hire him right now, coach’ — how do you even dispute it?”

After losing multiple coaches, Cosgrove was relieved that Rossi, one of the program’s most experienced assistants, had not left. However, his phone eventually rang too. Kyle Flood hired Rossi as Rutgers’ new special teams coordinator.

“I’m going, ‘Oh, shit.’ I just lost my veteran guy and I’ve got these two young guys who are not ready for this,” Cosgrove said.

Cosgrove managed the loss of Rossi by completely trusting Harasymiak, Rossi’s recommended coach, along with Jordan Stevens, the current assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator at Yale. Cosgrove’s tough decision actually turned out even better than he could have expected.

The Maine Trio

Years later, everything came full circle. Rossi, the defensive coordinator at Minnesota, is working at the Power 5 level with a young coach he once recommended. Harasymiak, also known as “Young Joe” by Cosgrove, was hired by P.J. Fleck to work on Rossi’s defensive staff in 2019. One year after joining the Gophers, Harasymiak became the team’s defensive backs/safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator.

Rossi and Harasymiak are not the only former Maine assistants on Minnesota’s coaching staff either. Dan Nichol, the Gophers’ Director of Athletic Performance for Football, was a member of the same staff. Cosgrove, now the head coach at Colby College, often thinks about the time he spent with his former trio of assistants. He now watches their careers blossom from afar and feels a tremendous amount of pride.

“It’s really cool [to see them succeed],” Cosgrove said. “I get great joy, out your way, you have Joe Rossi, Joe Harasymiak, you’ve got Danny Nichol, he was our strength coach. Danny is a phenomenal strength coach, one of my all-time favorite guys. And I see Robb Smith is now back with Schiano and there are so many of those guys that have done well and it really makes you feel good to be a small part of the success that they’re having.”

Back Where it All Started

Even though he is busy working as a Power Five defensive coordinator, Joe Rossi never forgets about his biggest mentors, including the man who got him started as a coach. Rossi and Leipheimer exchange texts or talk when the Gophers’ defensive coordinator is driving into work.

Two decades after the conversation that lit Rossi’s coaching flame, the bond between a longtime coach and his prodigy is stronger than ever.

“We have a couple hour time difference, so sometimes I’m calling him and it’s 5 a.m. and that’s OK, that’s how we stay in touch,’ Leipheimer said. “[Seeing him move up the coaching ladder] means everything to me. I love Joe like a son and our whole family feels the same way about him.”

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