By now you’ve likely heard the news: Minnesota wide receivers coach Matt Simon will share the title of co-offensive coordinator with newly-minted quarterbacks coach (and former tight ends coach) Greg Harbaugh Jr., with the former assuming play-calling duties.
The news has sparked mixed reactions among Gopher fans.
The most disappointed fans seem to be the ones who were hoping head coach P.J. Fleck would look outside the program for a “splashy” hire. They wanted a proven commodity, and Simon hardly fits the bill. He has been co-offensive coordinator in name only the last three seasons, ceding play-calling responsibilities to Mike Sanford Jr. and Kirk Ciarrocca.
But hiring an offensive coordinator with no play-calling experience is not uncommon.
Tommy Rees was 27 years old, with no experience as an offensive coordinator, when Brian Kelly handed him the keys to Notre Dame’s offense. He had served as the Fighting Irish’s quarterbacks coach the previous three seasons. In Rees’ first season as offensive coordinator, Notre Dame averaged 448.5 yards of total offense and 33.4 points per game. His first two years as offensive coordinator were so successful that Kelly courted Rees to join him at LSU, though Rees ultimately rebuffed his overtures in favor of remaining in South Bend.
Michigan’s current co-offensive coordinators, Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss, are another example. Prior to being promoted, Moore had served as the Wolverines’ tight ends coach for three seasons and Weiss had been been with the program for one year as quarterbacks coach. Neither had been an offensive coordinator at any point during their coaching careers.
This was their first season together as co-offensive coordinators and Michigan averaged 458.8 total yards of offense and 40.4 points per game under their watch.
You may think the talent level at Notre Dame and Michigan makes it easier to be a successful offensive coordinator in their programs, but would you hand the keys to a Porsche to someone who has never driven a car before? If anything, you would think hiring an offensive coordinator with no play-calling experience would be an even bigger gamble for programs like Notre Dame and Michigan than it would be for a program like Minnesota.
These types of hires don’t often generate much excitement among fans because they are generally based on factors outside the view of the public. Fans don’t get to see who is involved in game-planning each week or how much each assistant coach contributes. They are not privy to the conversations that take place between assistant coaches during games in the booth, over the headset, or in the locker room. Fans only see the result, not the process.
There is a reason Fleck opted to bring in Mike Sanford Jr. to serve as the primary play-caller in 2020, rather than give that responsibility to Simon. Just as there is a reason Fleck has decided to hand over the reins to Simon three years later. Fleck didn’t believe he was ready then but obviously he believes Simon is ready now. All you can do is trust his process.
Fleck has certainly had a front row seat to Simon’s maturation as a football coach. The pair have been coaching together for nine years now, first at Western Michigan and then at Minnesota.
Ciarrocca has had probably the next best seat, having served on the same coaching staff with Simon for seven of the last nine years. He made clear his opinion of Simon in a profile by The Athletic last summer, telling Mitch Sherman that it “is only a matter of time before the whole country knows him.” Tanner Morgan and Chris Autman-Bell are also quoted in the article, with the former specifically praising how Simon handled play-calling in two of the Gophers’ bowl games. He stepped in as interim play-caller in the 2020 Outback Bowl and the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Bowl when the offensive coordinator position was temporarily vacant.
Simon may not fit most fans’ definition of a “home run hire,” but to be fair, he hasn’t even taken a pitch yet. We’ll see what happens when he steps to the plate this fall.