With the Quick Lane Bowl and National Signing Day behind him, Golden Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck is focused on hiring a new defensive coordinator in the next few weeks. It’s one of the most important decisions since he arrived in Minneapolis in 2017.
The departed Joe Rossi is among the top defensive coordinators in the nation and was the most valued of all assistants on the Minnesota staff. Fleck’s personnel and conservative offenses haven’t been built to win shoot-outs, and winning depended on the defense doing more than its share.
With the Gophers coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and going into an expanded and more competitive Big Ten in 2024, the defense needs to recover from an off year when injuries, blown assignments and results were troublesome. Scheme wasn’t the issue and it’s likely whoever Fleck hires will continue with a basic four-man defensive front and won’t be exotic in alignments, play-calling or personality.
If Fleck’s preference were to hire from his existing staff, that likely would have happened by now. Safeties coach Danny Collins called plays in the bowl win but has never been a college defensive coordinator. However, Fleck likes Collins’ coaching, and he was instrumental in recruiting Koi Perich, the safety from Esko and the prize of the 2024 incoming freshman class.
Collins could end up with the job of defensive coordinator, if the external search process doesn’t deliver. That seems unlikely, though, because the position is attractive to many candidates who would be able to join a Big Ten program and earn a salary expected to pay between $800,000 and $1.2 million.
The candidates list could certainly include coaches from the Power Five, Group of Five, FCS and even the NFL where the Carolina Panthers are among the most dysfunctional franchises in the league, and a probable coaching staff shakeup after the season might have Tem Lukabu interested in the Gophers.
He joined the Panthers as outside linebackers coach this year after three seasons at Boston College as defensive coordinator. The 2022 BC defense ranked in the top-50 nationally in several categories.
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, Lukabu played linebacker at Colgate and his coaching stops include Rutgers where he was an assistant with Fleck more than 10 years ago. Fleck will want the right chemistry with whomever he hires, and having worked with someone in the past could provide a candidate with an edge in the selection process.
The Panthers inside linebackers coach, Peter Hansen, might be of interest, too. He was the defensive coordinator at UNLV prior to joining the Panthers this year. His resume includes two stints at Stanford where he was part of Pac-12 defenses among the most dominant in the league. Hansen has five years of NFL experience and has worked for coaching gurus Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio (serving both with the 49ers and Stanford).
The FCS level is a major drop from the big money and player talent found in the NFL, but great coaches can be found there. About a year ago Northwestern hired North Dakota State’s defensive coordinator David Braun. When chaos hit the Wildcats last summer, Braun was named interim head coach. All he did in that role was earn Big Ten Coach of the Year recognition and have the interim tag removed from his title as a surprising Northwestern team went 8-5 including a stunning 37-34 overtime win over the Gophers.
FCS Villanova has an impressive defensive coordinator in Ross Pennypacker who has the attention of those in the know. Pennypacker has worked at the Division III, Division II and FCS levels and Daniel House from the authoritative Gophersguru.com website wrote that he is an “ascending coach.”
House has studied Villanova film and wrote that the Wildcats’ “fundamentals, physicality and details instantly jumped out.” House has Pennypacker on his list of candidates for the Gopher opening. Pennypacker’s resume includes coaching defensive lines and special teams. He would likely be an inexpensive hire for Minnesota.
Earlier this month USC hired North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz to coach its linebackers. About a year ago Colorado hired Kent State head coach Sean Lewis as its offensive coordinator. Better pay and opportunity at the FCS level makes it a reality that head coaches from the FCS (Entz) or Group of Five (Lewis) are willing to become assistants.
With that in mind, does Fleck interview Buffalo head coach Maurice Linguist? He was an assistant on Fleck’s 2017 staff coaching defensive backs and he is known for his recruiting chops. His resume includes stops in the NFL and college coaching. After three challenging seasons at Buffalo, including 3-9 this fall, could Linguist be interested in moving on?
Buffalo plays in the Mid-American Conference where Ohio defensive coordinator Spence Nowinksy turned heads this season. His defense was No. 1 ranked among Group of Five teams. He has coached at seven college programs starting in 1999 with a grad assistant role at Wisconsin and along the way developed a reputation for success in pressuring quarterbacks. He played football at Minnesota State, Mankato and later coached at his alma mater.
Kansas State defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman, who reportedly earns $825,000, is nationally known for his success with the Wildcats. It might take at least $1.2 million to make him come back to the area he grew up—Hammond, Wisconsin which is less than an hour drive to Minneapolis. He’s in his fifth season at Kansas State where his 2022 defense helped carry the Wildcats to a Big 12 Championship as they ranked in the top 30 nationally in five categories.
His background includes coaching stops at North Dakota State and at his alma mater Minnesota State. He has 12 years of experience as a defensive coordinator, five at Kansas State and seven at Minnesota State.
Rutgers linebackers coach Corey Hetherman never coached under Fleck but his boss, defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak, did. Fleck coaxed Harasymiak away from his head job at Maine in late 2018 and his titles at Minnesota included co-defensive coordinator before he left for Rutgers in January of 2022. Hetherman also worked for Harasymiak at Maine. Before that Hetherman was defensive coordinator for demanding head coach Curt Cignetti at James Madison from 2019-2021. His defenses in all three seasons were among the best in FCS and in 2021 he was the AFCA FCS Assistant Coach of the Year.
Hiring Hetherman could be small retribution for the Gophers who in recent years have seen key coaches and players go to Rutgers. Included in the trek to New Jersey have been coaching talents Kirk Ciarrocca and Hetherman, and safety Flip Dixon who made Big Ten honorable mention in 2023.
So who ultimately gets the Gopher job? Well, the question could be dismissed with a “wait and see” reply, but in the meantime here is a final four to contemplate: Hetherman, Nowinsky, Pennypacker and Lukabu. Klanderman would be a “home run hire,” but probably won’t leave Kansas State where his ties to head coach Chris Klienman are deep. If so, here’s a “vote” for Hetherman.