COLUMBUS, Ohio — On a recent evening in the Ohio State football facility, Buckeyes co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell picks up his iPhone and glances at a few of the 275 unread text messages. He shrugs his massive shoulders and smiles at the small victories of life. Earlier in the week he had as many as 512.
Fickell, 43, is caught in the middle of two surreal opportunities. He’s preparing Ohio State’s defense for the College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 2 Clemson. He’s simultaneously beginning his career as the head coach at Cincinnati, a job he earned on Dec. 10 after arriving at Ohio State in 1992 and serving as either a player, assistant or interim coach for all but three years since.
Fickell has arguably had more impact on the Buckeye program than any single figure the past two decades. And his relentless dedication to Ohio State ended up being the biggest obstacle in his career development. He’d done so much for the place, and the place in turn meant so much to him, that leaving the reciprocal comforts proved daunting. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” Fickell said. “The blessing is that you are at Ohio State. The blessing is that it’s where you went to school and you are really good. The curse is you aren’t pushed to leave and to prepare yourself.”
To understand the mentality Luke Fickell will bring to Cincinnati, it’s best to look back at his wrestling career. In high school, Fickell compiled a 106–0 record as a wrestler, including pinning all 12 of his postseason opponents his senior year within three minutes. (The YouTube clips are gold.) As a football player, Fickell was the embodiment of a blue-collar player. His father, Pat, is a Vietnam veteran who worked in a rail yard much of his career. Luke eventually ditched wrestling for football and famously played in the 1997 Rose Bowl with a torn pectoral muscle as a senior. But he never abandoned the wrestling mentality, focusing only on what’s directly in front of him—the next game plan, recruiting call or film clip.
That changed this off-season, when Fickell made a conscious decision to start exploring head coaching opportunities. Free time isn’t easy to come by for Fickell, as he and his wife, Amy, have six kids between 2 and 14. But he set time aside this summer to build a coaching philosophy and core values, and lay out exactly how he’d run a program. “Luke has been ready for a head coaching job,” said Rutgers coach Chris Ash, who worked with Fickell as a coordinator at Ohio State. “He hadn’t made up his mind he wanted to do it.”
Once he did, Fickell reluctantly began to market himself. Even former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who treated self-promotion with the same disdain he did sideline fashion, told Fickell the game had changed. The old method of doing a good job and waiting for someone to notice wouldn’t work anymore. Fickell changed agents, met with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and put the word out through influential Buckeyes in the media world like Kirk Herbstreit, Joey Galloway and Chris Spielman. Smith called Fickel “non-promotional,” a great quality to have in a top assistant. Fickell had to act counter to his instincts and put himself out there.
In past years when schools would call Fickell, he viewed it more as an inconvenience during the throes of recruiting and bowl preparation. This time, Cincinnati called him on a Tuesday night and they met for the interview at his house that Thursday. Fickell was flying back from a recruiting trip in Dallas that evening and landed at 6:15 p.m. His interview began at 7 p.m. in his home. Fickell had just two days to prepare, but he’d been ready for months. “If you are not prepared, you have no chance,” he says. “Because of some of the stuff I did, I was really comfortable.”
In the end, everything fit. When he and Amy discussed Luke exploring coaching jobs six years ago, she mentioned Cincinnati as a preferred destination because it's close to both their families in Columbus and has a strong Catholic community. “To stay in the state and be around people you know,” Fickell said, “you couldn’t have written a better script.”
Fickell learned on the job from two national championship-winning coaches in Urban Meyer and Tressel. They have both experienced extreme success with extremely different styles.
When asked about his polar opposite mentors, Fickell immediately brings up an intriguing name—Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. Fickell worked with Dantonio at Ohio State for two years in the early 2000s. He’s seen Dantonio’s style become a medley of two of his mentors, Nick Saban and Tressel.
Fickell hopes to combine the strengths of Tressel and Meyer with his own twist, much like Dantonio did at Cincinnati and Michigan State. He pinpointed Tressel’s people skills and consistency as traits he’d like to emulate, noting Tressel’s penchant for remembering names, connecting with people and being compassionate. Fickell brought up Meyer’s “aggressive leadership,” which focuses on taking staff and players out of their comfort zones to force them to grow. He paused for a second and then said, “The ability to combine those things would be crazy.”
Those who know Fickell best say his defining trait as an assistant coach is the strength of his relationships with the players. The depth of those relationships hasn’t gone unnoticed. “He’s going to be one hell of a dude,” said Ted Ginn Sr., the legendary coach at Glenville High School in Cleveland. “He’s going to be a good asset to Cincinnati because I know what he stands for. I know that he’s strictly for the kids.”
Fickell’s only other shot at being a head coach came in 2011 after Tressel’s departure in the messy aftermath of an NCAA investigation. Ohio State went 6–7 and Fickell recalls a mostly joyless experience, as he said he didn’t even have a press conference for nearly two weeks after becoming head coach. Fickell said he enjoyed the players and competition, but never felt the sense of achievement or accomplishment of becoming a head coach because of all the dark clouds hovering from the scandal. At Cincinnati earlier this month, he got to experience all those things. And along the way, there’s been an outpouring of good feeling from all those who’ve crossed his path over the decades at Ohio State. “If you call anyone who ever played for him, they’ll start by telling you he’s a good human being, he’s a father figure guy,” Smith said. “His impact on our program, I don’t know if you can articulate it.”
For the next week or two, Fickell’s attention will be split. But Fickell has made it clear that his vision and purpose are clear, as soon he’ll be attacking the Cincinnati job like an opponent in a singlet. Until then, forgive him if he doesn’t text you back.