(Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports, OhVarsity illustration)
It’s official: The University of Cincinnati has hired Ohio State Co-Defensive Coordinator Luke Fickell to be the 40th man to lead their program. After a week of searching, the Bearcats decided to go back to the Ohio State well for the first time since 2003 when they hired Ohio State’s Mark Dantonio.
I’ll cut to the chase: On the surface, this is not what most UC fans were looking for. Fickell doesn’t have experience leading a program, outside of a one-year stint as interim head coach in Columbus in 2011. He’s defensive-oriented coach taking over a team whose offense peaked at mediocre in 2016. Furthermore, he was on the radar of very few people, including myself. This year’s coaching carousel had a handful of sexy names on it, and Fickell wasn’t one of those. There’s no other way to slice it.
Coaching hires are typically very hard to judge before a year or two, so I certainly won’t write off Fickell before the ink dries on his contract. I have a lot of questions, but I’m also hopeful. Here’s what we’re looking at:
- Luke Fickell is very Ohio. He got into coaching 18 years ago, and he hasn’t left the state of Ohio since then. 16 of those years were spent with the Buckeyes, and the other two were spent with the Akron Zips. You won’t find many coaches who know the state better than Fickell does. Cincinnati is a hotbed of high school football, and UC needs to capitalize on that. Past UC coaches have done it to great success. The last regime slipped in that regard, and the result on the field showed. The formula at UC over the past 13 years has been simple: Recruit the city if you want to win. I think Fickell can do it.
- Maybe he’ll bring Kerry Coombs. I’ve been outspoken against the idea of Coombs as head coach, but I think there’s a spot for him on UC’s staff, and frankly I’m rooting for it. If there’s one coach who knows the area better than Fickell, it’s Coombs. He coached high school in Cincinnati from 1983–2006 before coaching at UC from 2007–2011, the best five-year stretch in Bearcats history. For the last five years, he’s been with Urban Meyer in Columbus. He’s in his 34th year of coaching, and all 34 have been in the state of Ohio. Get him on Fickell’s staff, and that’s 52 combined years of Ohio football experience. That goes a long way in the insular football community of Cincinnati where reputation means a lot when landing recruits.
- He’s learned under some of the best. From 2002–2010, he served under Jim Tressel, who won the Buckeyes a national title. From 2012–2016, he served under Urban Meyer, who also won the Buckeyes a national title. I don’t know how much of that will rub off, but those are two pretty good coaches to learn from.
- The Bearcats have won with a defensive mind in the past. In 2003, the UC program was sorely in need of new blood. They had floundered to a 53–63 record in a decade under Rick Minter. They nabbed OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio, and he became the man that rebuilt the program. 13 years later, UC is in a better place, yet still in need a bit of a rebuild. Maybe an Ohio State defensive coordinator can do it again. There are worse things than playing tough, defensive football. Temple just won the AAC doing it. Plus, the football team inheriting a Mick Cronin defense-and-toughness mentality might be cool.
- He does have a year of head coaching experience. To be clear, Fickell should not be categorized as a former head coach. He’s very much a coordinator, but a nice perk is that he has 13 games as the head honcho under his belt. It wasn’t a great season, and it was just an emergency fill-in job, but the practice of being a head coach can’t possibly hurt.
- He stuck around OSU despite a rocky, humbling stretch. After the 2011 season, it became clear that he wouldn’t remain as head coach at Ohio State. The Buckeyes were bringing in hot shot Urban Meyer, and Fickell was going to be demoted back to co-Defensive Coordinator. Rather than run from adversity and take the head coaching job at a smaller program, he took the chance to fight through discomfort and better himself in Columbus. From a 2014 ESPN article:
“I’ve been mad, uncomfortable, pissed,” Fickell said. “The reality is that is what makes you better, makes you grow. You asked why I stayed. Everybody wants to be challenged — comfort is not the greatest thing in the world.”
- I think a lot of what I mentioned above is a bit overrated. I know that sounds really bad, it’s true. People tend to think that coordinators from big programs are more likely to succeed, “players coaches” are more likely to succeed, local guys are more likely to succeed, etc. I prefer people who have proven that they can succeed. I’m not saying Fickell can’t do it, but I don’t think UC is in a position to take many risks. The Bearcats need to get back to winning, and they need to do it quickly. I think the most surefire way to go about that would’ve been hiring a guy who’s proven he can do it. Fickell is an unknown. Programs like Cincinnati can be crippled by consecutive bad coaching hires, so UC should’ve tried to avoid that at all costs. I don’t think this is it.
- He checks none of my boxes. My criteria for the candidates at the top of the list I made in early November was: young, energetic, offensive-minded, with past head coaching success. Fickell hits none of those marks. He’s not particularly young — at 43 he’s a decade older than some candidates I wanted. He’s not exactly a fireball — his demeanor is more Tuberville than Brian Kelly. He’s not offensive-minded — he’s never coached the offensive side of the ball. He’s never been a head coach, at least not to any success — he had the 2011 season, but that was interim, and it didn’t go phenomenally well...
- Ohio State’s 2011 season under Fickell was a train-wreck. He inherited a messy situation in the wake of the Tattoo-gate fallout in Columbus and guided the Scarlet and Gray to a 6–7 record. Those seven losses mark the most in 105 years of Buckeye football. He also finished the season by losing four straight games. That tied the longest losing streak in OSU history and the first since 1943. To be fair, it wasn’t truly his fault, and the record is a bit deceiving, but it’s there and I can’t really ignore it.
- He’s essentially never coached outside of Ohio State. Since he joined the Buckeye staff in 2002, there might not be a better program in America, aside from Alabama. That’s a long time to coach in the friendly, winning confines of Columbus. Who’s to say what will happen when Fickell finally steps out from underneath the umbrella of Tressel and Meyer? Great head coaches and great recruits can cover up weaknesses of coordinators, and Fickell has always had both. We don’t know how things will go when he has neither.
Overall, I give this hire a hesitant thumbs up. He’s certainly not who I was looking for, or even cut from that same cloth. But there are definite upsides, and I’m going to give Fickell every opportunity to prove he can win here. I think he can.
I said this after Tuberville stepped down, and I’ll say it again: I think UC football is better today than it was yesterday. The Bearcats needed new blood and new life, and I think they’ve gotten that, even if it wasn’t the first choice of many fans.
Welcome to Clifton, Coach Fickell. Let’s go win some football games.
Before we look towards the future, a reflection on the last four years: