Luke Fickell, the Ohio State defensive coordinator, was brought in to take over for Urban Meyer when he left for Florida. He was given a three-year contract with the expectation that he would lead Ohio State back into prominence. After two years of poor performance, Fickell was fired by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.
WEST HARRISON, INDUSTRIAL REGION — At Camp Higher Ground, Cincinnati’s off-campus football training facility in the hills just beyond the Indiana state line, Luke Fickell sits at a corner table in the dining hall.
Behind him, Cincinnati’s most anticipated squad eats lunch before a delayed afternoon session. The Bearcats had earned their highest-ever preseason AP poll rating (No. 8) only three days before. Cincinnati has gone 31-6 since 2018, and was almost unbeaten last season under Fickell, one of the sport’s fastest-rising coaches.
Fickell, on the other hand, was in a different situation ten summers ago, ready to lead Ohio State into an uncertain season. He had gotten his dream job under nightmare circumstances when he was 38 years old. After being punished for failing to disclose that he knew athletes had received illegal perks, head coach Jim Tressel resigned during an NCAA investigation into the program. Fickell, a Columbus native who played defensive line for the Buckeyes and became a full-time Ohio State coach under Tressel in 2002, found himself in an interim position he didn’t want but wasn’t ready to take on.
“As a leader, I didn’t really know who I was,” Fickell said. “It’s possible I’d been around Coach Tressel or Coach [John] Cooper. ‘OK, what would you do?’ I hadn’t taken the time to ask. ‘How would you go about doing it?’ Nobody truly understands how hard I worked, how much I cared, and how much I trusted. Becoming a head coach for the first time is similar to being a pilot. Or are you ready to take on the role of father? No, no, and no. You may take as many courses as you want, but you won’t know until you try it.”
Fickell didn’t realize it at the time, but his 2011 season at Ohio State, which featured seven defeats for the first time since 1897 and the program’s first loss to Michigan since 2003, sent him on a self-discovery trip. Under extremely difficult circumstances, an assistant coach who was too preoccupied with recruiting and other in-the-moment responsibilities to prepare for head-coaching interviews became a head coach. A guy who played under a Hall of Fame coach (Cooper) and worked for another (Tressel) required time under a third (Urban Meyer) to help him develop his own leadership profile.
After 2011, he lost the ambition to be a head coach, only to reclaim it many years later.
“I recognized all of my errors, and it was probably the greatest thing that could have occurred to my career,” Fickell said. “In eight months, I felt like I had lived a lifetime.”
Fickell returned to coaching as a head coach later than anticipated, and at a lower-profile school than other coaches with his Ohio State credentials. Despite the fact that colleges will continue to call, he feels he is exactly where he should be, leading a top-10 squad he recruited and nurtured into a season full of expectations and potential.
Fickell has never really prepared to be a head coach until Memorial Day 2011.
Fickell garnered attention as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and would instinctively respond “Yes” when asked whether he wanted to head his own team. He had discussed being a head coach with Tressel, but had not yet laid out the requirements. The employment queries typically occurred when Fickell was out recruiting, and instead of explaining his goals and vision, he’d just put something together for interviews.
Following Tressel’s departure, Ohio State appointed Fickell as interim coach for the 2011 season. A team that had dominated the Big Ten and appeared in three of the previous nine national championship games faced NCAA penalties and player punishment.
“My greatest mistake was trying to be Coach Tress,” Fickell remarked. “I felt that was what we needed, but it was definitely the [opposite] because you can’t be someone you aren’t all of the time.”
The 2011 Ohio State season would be anything from ordinary. In defeats to Miami and Michigan State, the Buckeyes scored a combined 13 points, then squandered a 21-point lead at Nebraska to go to 0-2 in Big Ten play. The NCAA added to star wideout DeVier Posey’s punishment and punished three other players the day before Nebraska’s defeat for being paid for work they didn’t do at a summer job.
Even Ohio State’s victories were unusual. Braxton Miller, a freshman quarterback, completed just four passes in a victory against Illinois, then defeated Russell Wilson-led Wisconsin the next week on a 40-yard touchdown throw in the last minute (he ended with 89 passing yards). The Buckeyes subsequently went on to lose four straight games in single digits, including the Michigan loss.
Cooper, who coached Fickell at Ohio State from 1993 to 1996 and oversaw the program from 1988 to 2000, said that the school’s decision to hire him after Tressel resigned reflected how he was seen.
“He didn’t get off to a great start here at Ohio State, but the thing I like about him is that he never gave up,” Cooper said. “I was hoping he’d have another chance.”
Fickell wasn’t interested in getting one, at least not soon now. Meyer was hired by Ohio State in late November, and Fickell returned to his previous position as defensive coordinator.
He got a call for a head-coaching position that winter, but he wasn’t really interested.
Fickell said, “I didn’t have a positive experience as a head coach.” “It wasn’t enjoyable.” There was nothing about it that I liked. You were yanked away from your children and your connections. It simply didn’t seem right.
“There are many aspects to operating a software. It may not be suitable for everyone.”
“Don’t Send Your Ducks To Eagle School,” a leadership book by John C. Maxwell, was referenced by Fickell.
Fickell said, “I felt like maybe I don’t want to be an eagle.” “I enjoy living in my own little universe.”
Meyer began his introduction of his coaching staff during a basketball game in January 2012 with Fickell, who got a standing ovation and shouts of “Luuuuuke” at Value City Arena. “That’s powerful,” Meyer remarked to Fickell after the applause lasted so long.
“He’s an ultimate competitor, and his first year as a coach, in terms of wins and losses, didn’t go the way he planned,” said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who played linebacker for Fickell and Tressel at Ohio State and was Fickell’s defensive coordinator at Cincinnati for the past four seasons. “We never spoke about him wanting to be a head coach again, which is a shame because he’s from Columbus, Ohio, and the defensive coordinator at Ohio State isn’t a terrible job, dude.”
Fickell loved his job so much that he didn’t want to quit until the summer of 2016.
Fickell returned to his position as defensive coordinator when Ohio State hired Urban Meyer. It wasn’t until 2016 that he felt the urge to return to head coaching. Greg Bartram is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
THE FIRST INDICATIONS WERE SMALL. Fickell started reading about leadership. He spent more time observing and listening to the head coach at NFL minicamps than spying on the defensive staff and their tactics.
He said, “My passion shifted.” “I realized that if I want to accomplish something, I need to be prepared.”
Fickell had to be much more deliberate in the end. During the summer, he set aside several weeks to lay out his head-coaching strategy. After playing under Cooper and then working under Tressel and Meyer, as well as future head coaches like Mark Dantonio, he had no lack of resources. Mike Vrabel, a college classmate and roommate with whom Fickell was best man at Vrabel’s wedding, was on the fast road to become the Tennessee Titans’ head coach in 2018.
Fickell could pick up pieces from others, but blatant copying was incorrect, as he discovered in 2011.
He questioned himself, “Who are you, truly, and who do you want to be?” “You can’t be Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, or John Cooper at the same time. Because you spend so much time with them, you’re a part of them all, but you need to find out who you are.”
The next stage was to figure out where he wanted to go and when he would be able to get there. After the 2016 season, Cincinnati found themselves in need of a coach.
Ohio State sports director Gene Smith stated, “There were colleges we spoke about, they were available, some he wasn’t interested in.” “There were certain areas he just wouldn’t go.” He comes from a big family and is a person who places a high importance on values. Cincinnati is one of those programs that is a good match for him.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Fickell had a clear idea of how he wanted to play. His teams would play extremely tough, particularly on defense, while placing a high value on the run game and fundamentals, as well as minimizing errors.
The bigger difficulty would be in determining how to lead. Fickell understood he couldn’t be led by his emotions or impulses. He also realized that he wouldn’t be able to connect with a 120-man roster in the same manner that he did with a 10-man linebacker room. Those connections may develop over time. He had to put his faith in his team, just as Tressel and Meyer had put their faith in him.
Fickell, like most rookie coaches, had challenges. Cincinnati was 4-8 in 2017, losing seven games by more than ten points and four by more than 22 points. The Bearcats responded by going 11-2 in 2018, and they haven’t looked back since.
A Power 5 athletic director who has seen Fickell remarked, “He is a tough competitor.” “Within the storm of games, he’s created that feeling of confidence, composure, and calm that his team really loves and enables them to go out and just play loose and free.”
Luke Fickell (99) started 50 straight games as nose guard at Ohio State from 1993 to 1996, a program record that held until 2017. Getty Images/David Pensinger
DURING THE PRESEASON, COACHES WORK LONG DAYS, BUT IN LATE JULY AND EARLY AUGUST, Fickell would stay up late and rise up early. From the Tokyo Olympics, he couldn’t get enough Olympic wrestling.
Fickell may earn his livelihood as a football player, but he is magnetically attracted to the mat as one of Ohio’s best high school wrestlers.
“He still has a strong, burning love for wrestling,” Cincinnati senior quarterback Desmond Ridder said of Fickell, who went 106-0 in his last three years at DeSales High School in Columbus and won three state championships. “You can tell how large they are by looking at his hands. He just enjoys grabbing people and throwing them to the ground.”
As a football player and again as a coach, Fickell was molded by wrestling. When he needed to be humbled, it taught him not to seek the limelight and how to create a work ethic and tenacity in those around him. The 48-year-old still has the physique of a scrapper.
He started 50 straight games as nose guard for Ohio State, a team record that held until 2017. Cooper said Fickell has never missed a practice.
Freeman described himself as a “blue-collar, Midwest person.” “He’ll make sure you understand the importance of hard effort.”
Cincinnati had toughness before Fickell came, but it has definitely developed physically and psychologically throughout his time, according to Ridder. Building toughness in 2021 is not the same as it was when Fickell was on the team. “The days of, ‘Do 100 up-downs just because,’ I don’t believe that’s relevant,” Freeman said.
Darrian Beavers, an all-conference linebacker, stated, “He’s always been a down-to-earth person.” “I don’t have to be afraid of him anymore.” You may be afraid to say anything to the head coach in some programs, but you can walk up to him and say anything. Or he’ll approach you and ask you things, such as, “What do you want?” What do you believe the team requires?
“This is why we’ve had so much success with this program.”
Fickell has certain vintage characteristics, but with a contemporary twist, according to Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham.
“It all comes down to mental toughness, and wrestlers are known for it. They’re going to put in a lot of effort and be consistent in whatever they do “According to Cunningham. “He has a manner of connecting with the athletes that you wouldn’t believe is typical of an old-school wrestler. In his day-to-day dealings with his team, he isn’t like that.”
At Ohio State, Luke Fickell had a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the country. Getty Images/Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated
A LARGE PERCENTAGE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL COACHES ARE FROM OHIO, but few have a stronger connection to the state than Fickell.
“Especially in Columbus,” Tressel added, “where he’s clearly well-known, well-respected, and well-liked.” “However, he had a lot of connection across the state of Ohio, and young people can see his sincerity, competitiveness, and enthusiasm.”
At Ohio State, Fickell had a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the country. He’s bolstered it at Cincinnati, which can’t compete with the same level of talent but has had success locally and regionally, as well as with transfers from the area seeking for a new start, such as Beavers, who started his career at Connecticut.
In three of the last four years, Cincinnati has signed ESPN top-50 recruiting classes, finishing ahead of Power 5 schools. In tight end Leonard Taylor and quarterback Evan Prater, Ridder’s anticipated replacement in 2022, Fickell has signed two ESPN 300 prospects from the state, and has discovered and groomed others into stars. Although the initiative has expanded to adjacent states (Indiana, Kentucky) and the South, Ohio remains at the center of Fickell’s approach. Nearly 40 players from Cincinnati and the surrounding area are on the 2021 roster.
“No one knows more about what’s going on in terms of recruiting in this state and the surrounding region than Cunningham,” he added. “He recognizes its significance, and he most likely demonstrates it when he meets with these high school coaches. He treats them with the respect he believes they deserve.”
Smith recalls discussing Fickell’s admiration for Ohio high school sports with then-athletic director Mike Bohn as Cincinnati started its coaching search. Smith refers to Fickell as a “state icon.”
“They’re individuals who do things the correct way, whether they’re the football coach or the wrestling coach,” Fickell said. “I’m not saying they don’t do it properly elsewhere,” she says, “but a lot of people are moving to the South or Texas because high schools make a lot more money and these coaches are practically college coaches.” I believe that in the Midwest, we see individuals who are high school coaches because they are teachers who like coaching.
“You treat people well, and it has made a significant difference in how they see you. It’s a step farther. It’s more of a connection.”
THE BEARCATS are heavy favorites to win the American Athletic Conference for the second year in a row. Ridder, the reigning AAC offensive player of the year, All-America cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, and seven other all-conference picks from 2020 headline a strong squad.
Cincinnati’s schedule includes road visits to No. 17 Indiana (Sept. 18) and No. 9 Notre Dame (Oct. 2), giving them a chance to become the first Group of 5 team to reach the College Football Playoff.
Beavers said, “We all know this is a championship squad.”
The most pressing issue about the program is how far Fickell can lead Cincinnati in 2021. The next inquiry is typically, “How long will he be at the school?”
Fickell has previously been courted by Michigan State and others, but he has chosen to stay at Cincinnati, which rewarded him with a deal worth $3.4 million per year that runs through 2026. He, his wife, Amy, and their six children adore the region, including their eldest, Landon, a freshman offensive lineman for the Bearcats. Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Butch Jones (Tennessee), and Dantonio (Tennessee) are three of Cincinnati’s last four coaches who have departed for Power 5 jobs (Michigan State).
Cooper remarked of Fickell, “I didn’t expect he’d be there as long as he is.” “I assumed he’d accept the Tennessee job, or the Michigan State job, or one of the other positions.” He didn’t even take them. He’s done a fantastic job in Cincinnati; his son plays for him, and he’s got a strong squad returning. As a result, he doesn’t need to be in a rush. Before he leaves, he’ll have to be very picky.
“I believe you’ll see him in a top-10, if not top-five, coaching job someday.”
Coaches like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Louisiana’s Billy Napier, who has stayed at a Group of 5 school despite overtures, will be mentioned for Power 5 vacancies in the next cycle. As one athletic director put it, “Power 5 athletic directors are well aware of Fickell’s skills and future ambitions.” “In his heart of hearts, he aspires to be Ohio State’s head coach. He will, however, be very selective. It will be an exceptional program with an elite history if he goes anyplace.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who is just 42 years old and has a 23-2 record with the Buckeyes, seems to be a long-term solution in Columbus. Fickell will very certainly be on the short list for any Tier 1 position in the area that becomes available — Notre Dame, Michigan, or Penn State, for example. The most likely vacancy after this season is at Michigan, but it would also cause the greatest difficulty for Fickell, a lifelong Buckeye.
“Some individuals are constantly looking forward to the next thing,” Tressel remarked. “He loves where he is — he’s in a fantastic position, he adores Ohio, and his family adores the town.” In the past several years, I’ve had a number of inquiries from colleges inquiring about Fickell. There will be a lot of people pursuing him, but he won’t allow that stop him from doing his job.
“That’s where he’s concentrating.”
The expectations around Cincinnati this season, according to Fickell, make it “more emotionally taxing.” Since his arrival, Cincinnati has accumulated the finest group of talent. However, he understands from his experience at Ohio State, which was never short on talent, that the greatest teams aren’t necessarily the most talented.
He’s far less worried about his personal prospects.
“Those [coaches] were saying, ‘Always have a plan, two moves ahead, there’s my next task,’” he added. “I’ve been lucky in that I have a mindset of not worrying about what comes next for me. Because here is where I want to be, there is no tension, which is fortunate.”