Some coaches want to be the head coach and run their own show. Others decide they’re happy with being an assistant coach.
For the last several years before long-time Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell became the head football coach at the University of Cincinnati on Saturday, you’ve wondered which category he might be in.
There is no doubting Fickell’s competitiveness or that he plays to win. Before he ever got to Ohio State, he won three consecutive state wrestling championships and was 108-0 in those three seasons. He started 50 games as a Buckeye and won 41 of them.
When the subject of playing Michigan comes up, he is quick to volunteer how much it still hurts that he won only once as a player against OSU’s biggest rival. He played the entire 1997 Rose Bowl game with a torn pectoral muscle.
His high school football coach once called him “the most mentally tough person I have ever been around in my life.”
On the other hand, as an Ohio State assistant he was part of one of the most successful college football programs in the country. He was being paid very well as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Surrounded by family members and an extended family in his hometown, he and his wife Amy, a Spencerville High School graduate, and their six children were happy in Columbus.
He’d had a tumultuous year as Ohio State’s interim coach in 2011 after Jim Tressel was forced out for failing to inform his bosses and the NCAA of violations he was aware of. There had been interviews with Pittsburgh, Northern Illinois and Akron after that, but he stayed on at OSU and appeared to dial back his pursuit of a head coach’s job.
In a recent interview with Cleveland.com, the 43-year-old Fickell said his desire to become a head coach had been rekindled earlier this year.
That wish became reality when UC introduced him as the man it hopes will bring the Bearcats out of the disappointment of the Tommy Tuberville years.
An OSU to Cincinnati move worked before for Cincinnati and for an Ohio State assistant. In 2003, UC hired Ohio State defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio, who started a run of success continued by Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, before departing to become Michigan State’s coach.
Fickell has been on Ohio State’s coaching staff the last 15 years, including 12 years as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He will stay at OSU through the Buckeyes’ playoff run.
He has a reputation not only as an attention-to-detail coach but also as a good recruiter and evaluator of talent.
Ohio State, being Ohio State, will attract someone who brings many of those same qualities to replace him. But he will be missed.
Fickell is one of those coaches who, as they say, will never be out-worked unless someone invents a 25-hour day.
Except for two years at the University of Akron, his entire coaching career has been at Ohio State. It will be interesting to see how much of his approach at Cincinnati will be similar to what he has been a part of at OSU.
Should the Bearcats’ players be learning the words to the alma mater and preparing to hear about “four to six seconds of relentless effort” and other things that are ingrained at Ohio State?
Maybe. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some things John Cooper, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer did repeated at Cincinnati. It might have already started.
The first statement from Fickell that UC released on Saturday sounded awfully familiar, so I did some digging into the archives.
Fickell said, “It’s with much pride and humility that I accept the awesome honor of being the head coach at the University of Cincinnati.”
On the day Tressel was announced as Ohio State’s coach in 2001, he said, “It is with tremendous excitement and humility that I accept the challenge and responsibility as the head football coach at The Ohio State University.”
Dantonio, Kelly and Jones all succeeded at UC, which won 10 or more games five times between 2005-2012. The Bearcats played in the 2009 Orange Bowl and the 2010 Sugar Bowl, where it lost 51-24 to Florida, coached by Meyer in his next-to-last season in Gainesville.
Those big-time bowl trips came when Cincinnati was in the Big East Conference, which was then one of the leagues with a tie-in to the Bowl Championship Series. The Bearcats now play in the American Athletic Conference.
Time will tell if Fickell’s timing was right and UC was the right choice for him. But there is no doubt because of Fickell and where he came from, UC is on the radar of more recruits than it was before Saturday.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.