Despite Long Odds, Don’t Count Out Luke Fickell Yet
When Luke Fickell was handed the job as Ohio State’s interim head football coach on Memorial Day, it looked like “Mission: Impossible.” But despite the odds stacked against him, Fickell is starting to win people over. - Jim Weber
Let me count the obstacles that the 37-year old must overcome to remain the Buckeyes’ head coach after this season:
• Take over a program at the end of May. Becoming a new head coach is hectic enough as-is when someone is hired in January. For Fickell to get the job and all the responsibilities that come along with it (coaching, managing, recruiting, fund-raising, etc.) just three months before the season kicks off is flat-out insane.
• Man one of the top five coaching jobs in America despite no previous head coaching experience at any level. The most impressive part of his resume is being Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator, although everyone knows it’s Jim Heacock’s unit and that Fickell was second fiddle.
• Have success with longtime offensive coordinator Jim Bollman likely calling all the plays since Tressel stepped down and key offensive assistant Darrell Hazell off to coach Kent State. To say that Bollman isn’t a fan favorite in Columbus would be a vast understatement. In fact, many in Columbus think this could be the single biggest obstacle to Fickell’s success.
• A first-year starting quarterback now that Terrelle Pryor is off to the NFL. The job is between the underwhelming Joe Bauserman and true freshman Braxton Miller. If Fickell just wants to play it safe and not embarrass himself, he’ll play Bauserman. If Fickell wants to go all-in to stay in Columbus, he will go with the extremely talented but raw Miller who many think can be Pryor without the baggage.
• The loss of seven starters on defense, including DE Cameron Heyward, CB Chimdi Chekwa, S Jermale Hines and LBs Brian Rolle and Ross Homan. While Ohio State is legendary for reloading on defense despite losing talent to the NFL, it would have been a daunting task to do it this fall even with Jim Tressel still at the helm.
• Three of the team’s best offensive players (WR Devier Posey, RB Boom Herron, OT Mike Adams) suspended for the season’s first five games. Combined with the loss of Pryor, the offense that Ohio State will job out for the season opener against Akron will look like its JV team.
• A loaded schedule that includes at Miami (FL) and vs. Michigan State with Posey, Herron and Adams suspended and at Nebraska, vs. Wisconsin and at Michigan the rest of the way. That’s five potential losses right there not even counting contests at Illinois and vs. Penn State.
• A guy by the name of Urban Meyer waiting in the wings as a coaching free agent with two national title rings. Oh, and he happens to be an Ohio native who is a former OSU assistant. Throw in the possibility of a new athletic director to replace Gene Smith by January who is looking to hire “his guy” to run the program, and Fickell better not look over his shoulder this fall.
Get the idea?
So you can see why many college football fans view Fickell as nothing more than a place holder for one of the top coaches in America to swoop in next January. Given these conditions, it would take a Herculean effort for the Buckeyes to win eight regular-season games and play in a New Year’s Day bowl (if they’re eligible), but that still likely wouldn’t be enough to secure Fickell the job.
The consensus around Columbus is that Fickell would have to make it completely impossible for the school to let him go by winning nine regular-season games this fall and possibly a bowl game to ensure his stay in Columbus, something which wouldn’t even be fair to expect from Tressel or Meyer given the circumstances.
As impossible as the task may seem, Fickell has been exemplary in his first several weeks on the job.
He wowed observers at his introductory press conference by showing that he wouldn’t go down without a fight with quotes such as “Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.”
He also won big points in Columbus for saying he didn’t speak with Pryor about the quarterback returning to school before his eventual exit (Fickell said he was at a Taylor Swift concert when Pryor called). Whether he snubbed Pryor or not, fans loved the impression that he blew the star quarterback off because he wasn’t going to deal with the prima donna like Tressel had done.
And Fickell’s shown the same steely resolve when speaking publicly since then, and even mixed in some humor when he recently appeared on “The Dan Patrick Show,” saying that he would emerge victorious if every Big Ten football coach was thrown in the Octagon for a UFC fight (being one of the best wrestlers in Ohio high school history, that’s not exactly a bold statement).
It might not seem like a noteworthy comment to those outside Columbus, but Ohio State fans started to wonder: “Maybe Fickell won’t play things so close to the sweater vest and actually bring some fresh air to the program…”
He’s also made it clear that there’s a new sheriff in town that will abide by NCAA rules and a coach who will preach a blue-collar mentality by promising that Ohio State will lead the nation in “effort, turnovers and toughness.”
Yes, it’s classic coach-speak, but Fickell’s introductory press conference would make politicians proud for the way the new head coach orchestrated it. After all, this is the guy that Ohio State fans fell in love with during the 1990s for being an undersized overachiever who started four seasons at nose guard and led the Buckeyes to a 1997 Rose Bowl victory.
Whether it’s accurate or not, many believe that Tressel sold his soul by recruiting players like Maurice Clarett and Terrelle Pryor to Columbus and got away from the blue-collar mentality that Ohio State football was built on. In his first press conference, Fickell reminded Ohio State fans not only why they loved him as a player, but also why they love Buckeye football.
And from listening to the Ohio State players speak, it’s clear that Fickell is preaching an “Us Against The World” mentality that seems cliche to sports fans but is a go-to for any coach in search of motivation. And given the way critics have already written off the Buckeyes for the upcoming season, Fickell should reiterate that theme to his players all summer and season long.
As a result of all this, Gene Smith has sung Fickell’s praises and even removed his “interim” title several weeks ago. It might only be a symbolic move but it shows that Fickell’s already winning over believers in the athletic department and also gives him more authority with his players.
And that brings me to Fickell’s latest smart move: Adding his former teammate and roomate Mike Vrabel to his coaching staff. Just retiring from the NFL, Vrabel will surely have limited responsibility as a linebackers coach, but that isn’t the point. As a Columbus native, I can say first-hand that Fickell, Vrabel and Matt Finkes are Ohio State’s version of the “Big Three” when it comes to the most beloved players in program history as they were all overachievers who were Buckeye-state born and bred.
Anyone Fickell can bring onto his staff to instill that mentality into the current team and remind Ohio State fans why they fell in love with Fickell the first time can only be a good thing.
Granted, it’s one thing to win over the fan base in the offseason, and a completely different thing to keep their support once the games being. And there are still many that believe that Fickell’s first couple weeks on the job have all been well and good but won’t mean squat next January. At best, people feel, it will only help him land a good gig elsewhere next fall.
But give the man credit: In six weeks on the job, Fickell’s shown he won’t give up the head-coaching gig without a fight, reinvigorated a fan base that badly needed it following Tressel’s scandal, laid out his blue-collar plan for success that harkens back to how he played and gotten his players to vow they will dig in and fight to make the naysayers eat their words.
Hey, it’s a start.