Fickell finds comfort zone in new role
COLUMBUS (AP) — Now that more than a year has passed since Luke Fickell was dropped into an almost unwinnable season of controversy, frustration and transition at Ohio State, he’s able to see it as a life lesson.
“You can’t get some of those experiences just reading about it or seeing it or trying to study it,” he reflected this week. “To actually do it is invaluable.”
Fickell was elevated from defensive coordinator to fill in as interim head coach while the Buckeyes fought off challenges on two fronts: on the field and in a lengthy NCAA investigation.
Under Fickell, in charge of a team for the first time and stuck with one that was assailed by a drumbeat of suspensions, innuendo and sanctions, it was a torturous season. The Buckeyes went just 6-7, losing their final four games, while the NCAA was rapping the program for major violations which took place under the guidance of the coach the previous 10 years, Jim Tressel.
“It’s probably one of the hardest things you could possibly do, replacing THE Jim Tressel and him not having any head coaching experience,” said a lineman he recruited who now toils on the Buckeyes’ front wall, Nathan Williams. “Just the type of man he is, he took that challenge, he stepped up when he needed to and he did the best job he possibly could under the circumstances.”
Fickell was tapped by athletic director Gene Smith to take over when Tressel was forced to resign in May of 2011. On the day he was introduced as the interim, the former Ohio State player and veteran coach said, “Yeah, it’s a tough situation. But I’ve told you before that if they told you (that) you had one shot … If you know me, there’s no retreat. There’s never been any challenges that I wouldn’t accept, big or small. I’ve had this dream (to be a head coach) and this plan and I’m excited for it.”
Now, still only 39, he jokes about how difficult the long campaign was.
“One of the great things about being a head coach is the offseason, where you maybe set a schedule or you get to do this or there’s a Nike trip of some sorts,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not sure I got to experience some of those little joyful things.”
Instead, he got all the tough assignments, like addressing the hard questions when he had three players suspended on the eve of the season opener for accepting $200 in cash at a charity event. Then he had to come up with a makeshift lineup when other players were suspended up to five games for getting too much pay for too little work at summer jobs.
The Buckeyes didn’t have their top receiver, DeVier Posey, until mid-November. After the star quarterback the previous three years, Terrelle Pryor, bolted to the NFL after being implicated in the NCAA violations, Fickell ended up with a true freshman, Braxton Miller, running things.
As the season advanced, the losses mounted and the NCAA probe dragged on and on. Fickell was left to answer questions best directed at his predecessor. Players wanted to know what the future might bring, the media wondered if he could maintain the massive program, and at the same time recruits asked what might be coming up. Fickell had to balance a home life which included a wife and four small kids while worrying about his own job prospects.
HIs friend and former Ohio State teammate, defensive assistant Mike Vrabel, remembered what it was like.
“He did everything he thought he could do and we thought he could do at the time,” he said. “The way it got thrust upon him — not planning for it — and you look at the manual on everything that goes into this (head coaching) thing, there’s a lot more to it than what I’d ever thought. Going from a defensive coordinator and a linebackers coach to the head coach in such short time is a pretty heavy task.”
It became evident late in the season that Ohio State wasn’t going to rehire him.
The week of the Michigan game, a scarlet-letter day on the Buckeyes’ schedule each year, Fickell was almost too beaten down to even address what his season on the firing line had been like.
“From the time I’ve had a chance to step into this role I’ve not had a chance to step back and even think a whole lot about it,” he said. “That’s kind of the way I attacked it from day one.”
His players admired the way he handled things.
“He was thrown in a very tough situation and of course everyone is going to judge wins and losses but I think there’s other parts to be judged as far as keeping us together like he has,” center Mike Brewster said last season. “It’s been a crazy 12 months and we made it out in one piece. It wasn’t the season I imagined but the fact my buddies and I stayed together, I’ll remember that.”
Urban Meyer, who won two national championships during a sparkling career at Florida, was sought out late in the season. He was hired just after the Buckeyes lost at Michigan and before an ironic match-up with Florida in the Gator Bowl.
After Meyer was brought on board, he went to great lengths to speak with and include Fickell in conversations about the team and building his coaching staff. Meyer barely knew Fickell before, but got to know him then.
“The reason he’s here is because he’s an excellent football coach, and an even better person,” Meyer said in December, while Fickell pursued the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. “And I didn’t know that. I needed my time. I think Luke is a head coach, at some point. I don’t know him well enough to tell you when. I can tell you as a person and a family man, he’s all you want.”
After he lost out on the Pitt job, he happily accepted his old position at Ohio State. He’d dipped his toe into the waters of being a head coach, had learned a lot, and now could go back to doing what he enjoyed doing the most — the hands-on, daily work with the players.
He shares the coordinator job with Everett Withers, who went through similar trials and tribulations a year ago after he was elevated from defensive coordinator to interim head coach at NCAA-sanctioned North Carolina. They seem to work together well.
“The biggest thing is when I came here, I told Luke, ‘Look, I’m here to help, to lend ideas,”’ Withers said. “I said, ‘I’ve done it at other stops, you’ve done it here for a long, long time. This place has been successful on defense, so there’s no need to change a whole lot.”’
The defense has given up lots of yards and points but the Buckeyes are still off to a 3-0 start and ranked 16th in the nation. The massive fan base is optimistic and confident, a decided change from the dark days of a year ago while the NCAA was pounding on the door and things were going belly-up on the field.
Fickell jokes that, since he and Withers never got to go on any coaching junkets to the tropics, they might just drive to a riverboat casino in Cincinnati some weekend.
A year wiser, he knows Ohio State’s administration and those thousands of scarlet-and-gray fans appreciate that he didn’t allow the whole precious franchise to blow up during his year tending it.
“Nonetheless, it was a great experience,” he said. “You learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about others and you know who really has your back and how people react and respond in situations. There’s no doubt — you can’t get that experience anyplace else.”
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap