The story goes that Kirk Ciarrocca was always diagramming football plays, aligning formations, scheming for an advantage.
Go back to the first time.
His mother remembers her only son, maybe 5 years old, playing with a new pack of green, plastic Army men.
He immediately divided them into sides of 11 and began running his own football game. He maneuvered them into plays he saw from watching games on TV.
It only grew from there.
He was the kid who offered strategy suggestions to his youth league coaches. The one who’d pass notes back and forth in English class — offensive and defensive plans to stump one of his teammates.
He was the 5-foot-8, try-hard, high school receiver who promised to win the next pass play because he knew exactly what his defender would do before he did it.
His football mind just ticked differently than everyone else around him.
That’s what fueled the intensity, the work ethic, the way he could be so fiery on the field and so laid-back off it. The way he would win everyone over.
It all has molded him into one of the most sought-after assistant coaches in the country — and now the man in charge of Penn State’s offense.
The Red Land High grad is in his coaching prime at 55.
Even he couldn’t imagine that he would come home to help lead his favorite team one day.
“Kirk was always a little smarter than the rest of us,” said former high school teammate Bill Snyder. “He just got it more …”
“As a coach,” said former Red Land High assistant Mike Sweigart, “you felt like you were OK with him on the field because he was always one step ahead.”
His mother, Nancy Ciarrocca, offered this:
“The one thing Kirk can do is he can watch someone and know what they’re doing wrong” — and then make them better.
“I think he was destined to do that.”
From York County to big-time football
He grew up a mile or two outside of small-town Lewisberry in northern York County.
His parents spent their lives serving others. His father, Frank, was a lineman and then a trouble-shooter for Pennsylvania Power and Light, always on call to get peoples’ electric running again. His mother was a nurse.
Kirk Ciarrocca learned a work ethic from his father, one that still shows up in relentless game film study and pregame preparation. His mother taught him to be a good listener, that there’s always another side to someone’s story.
His coaches at Red Land gave him a forum as an up-and-coming coach, even though no one quite knew it yet.
“Luckily, I was around people who allowed me to express my opinion. … When I got to high school and got around my coaches … they allowed me to ask, ‘Why?'” Ciarrocca said.
Playing the game, it turned out, was just enough of the entry needed. Big programs like Penn State weren’t interested in his abilities, so he planned to suit up for Division III Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. He hoped to study law.
A knee injury wiped out his career before he ever played a down of college football. He transferred to Temple, took sports business classes, and the time away from the game gnawed at him.
After graduation he returned home to help his old Red Land head coach Jim Page while working an IBM entry-level job at nights.
“Right away it was like, ‘This is what I want to do.'” Ciarrocca said.
He went back to Philadelphia to coach more high school football, earn a graduate assistant position at Temple and to be with his future wife, Kim. She was a standout lacrosse and field hockey player who would go on to play nationally.
He pursued her with the same steady, measured passion he became known for in coaching. He introduced himself by offering to carry her bags, found time to attend all of her games and married her only after seven years together.
He bounced around small football jobs at first, from Western Connecticut to Delaware Valley College, from Princeton to Penn. His reputation spiked at the University of Delaware where he tutored eventual Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco and helped win a Division I-A national title.
A gig at Rutgers earned him a friendship with fellow assistant coach P.J. Fleck, and opened more doors. When Fleck became a head coach, he hired Ciarrocca to run his offenses and do what many thought was impossible: lead Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl and then Minnesota to a 10-win regular season.
No opponent, including Ohio State, picked apart Penn State’s nationally ranked defense last year like Ciarrocca’s Golden Gophers.
Less than two months later he got the job offer he could not refuse.
‘Coming home’ to Happy Valley
The secret to Ciarrocca’s coaching success may be in his delivery. Few are able to blend his acumen with proper doses of intensity, patience and a calming reassurance.
Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin laughed when detailing a recent practice field scene:
“It’s funny watching (Ciarrocca) out there, he’s a fiery guy. And he’s not the biggest guy. You see him screaming at Will Fries, and Fries is 6-6 and 305, and you got this little guy pointing up at him and screaming and yelling.”
It’s almost, though, as if Ciarrocca can turn a switch for the better. He’s described as ultra-laid-back and rarely ruffled off the field, to the point of shocking observers.
“You have to check his pulse sometimes to see if he’s alive,” his wife said about home life. “Very quiet, just goes with the flow, everyone loves him. He is a great listener. I go to him all the time for advice.”
Kim Ciarrocca, a former coach herself, marvels at his understated ability of turning sharp observations and plans into teachable lessons. It’s been particularly valuable during his past two coaching stops in rebuilding programs.
His job at Penn State will be different. He’ll be tasked with helping nudge the program to the final, most difficult, elite level nationally.
The challenge has been uncompromising, considering how the pandemic wiped away nearly all hands-on ability to get to know his new players. He waited 10 months after being hired to actually coach on the practice field.
But he’s making his presence felt, no matter.
“Coach Ciarrocca, he’s a mastermind. He’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. I just can’t wait to take on this season with him,” said junior receiver Jahan Dotson.
He’s renowned for his ability to build his offense around what he has to work with, and scheming for opponents. At Penn State he’s blessed with luxuries at tight end, running back and along the offensive line but questions at receiver. He must help a returning starting quarterback develop to the next level, much like he did with Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan.
“He has ability to make players better. Because good players can’t overcome bad coaching. He has the ability to make good players great and great players elite,” said Clayton Carlin, a coaching mentor, friend and defensive coordinator at Sam Houston State.
“He’s a tireless worker and a humble person, and that’s not always the case in this profession. He’s earned everything in this profession. He has worked his way to get to where he is at Penn State.”
He’s there, finally, and ready to make his coaching debut at his highest level yet.
The bonus is being able to easily drive to York County to see his parents, who still live in the same English Tudor home where he grew up. He’s closer now to his sisters, son and daughter and old teammates, coaches, friends.
He laughs, hoping he can have more impact now on his childhood dream program than he ever could as a player. Only once, he admitted, did he ever attend a game in Beaver Stadium, and that only when he slipped in without a ticket as a kid.
His second chance comes on Halloween against national championship contender Ohio State.
“I’m going back home,” he told his wife after accepting the job in December.
She understood the opportunity, some 50 years in the making, in a sense.
“OK, we’re going back home.”
Frank Bodani is a sports reporter for the York Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @YDRPennState.