(@GoBearcatsFB on Twitter)
I tend to consider myself a pretty reasonable person, especially when it comes to sports. I’m definitely a diehard fan, and homer-ism takes over at certain points, but I pride myself on being rational. I think I skew optimistic because that’s how Cleveland sports fans tend to be, but I’m also not afraid to voice my concerns. That’s what I did when Fickell was hired.
I outlined what I thought were upsides before acknowledging that, for all of Luke Fickell’s “intangibles,” he’s still just a guy with very little experience running a team or scoring points like the Bearcats are accustomed to.
Before I go any further, I still think that’s the case. The press conference didn’t magically give Fickell three years of head coaching experience and it didn’t magically give him a track record implementing the kind of high-scoring offense the Bearcats need in the AAC. The press conference did, however, make me feel like his “intangibles” might be worth more than I originally gave them credit for.
There are a lot of unique circumstances that come with being head coach at the University of Cincinnati. While that’s true of any job, it feels especially true in Clifton. This is not a Power 5 gig where everything is set up for you aside from winning games. This is also not your average Group of 5 job where the program is cemented in the basement and the only thing on the line is a coach’s resume. Now more than ever, it’s apparent that the Bearcats are in a perfect middle ground between the Big Boys of the Power 5 and the Kid’s Table of the Group of 5. There aren’t many schools in that Middle Ground — maybe a half dozen — but those jobs tend to be especially high stakes because the right head coach has the potential to elevate the program to Big Boy level (look at Houston the last couple years) or push it down to Kid’s Table level (look at UC the last couple years). For this reason, the job of coaches in the Middle Ground is extremely important. I think Tuberville, for all he did correctly, failed to realize this. Although the only thing on Fickell’s resume right now are words in a press conference, I think he gets it.
Here are some things that caught me off guard:
- Fickell knows UC needs all the help it can get, and that means getting former players back into the fold. Get Connor Barwin visiting practice. Get Derek Wolfe hanging out at Higher Ground in August. Get Travis Kelce bragging about his Bearcats on Twitter. One of UC’s biggest strengths over other Group of 5 schools is the pedigree of their alumni. The Bearcats don’t have a ton of former players in the NFL, but the ones that are there have been very successful. The program needs help building some momentum, and that means tapping into that NFL group that feels like it hasn’t been utilized enough. It also, hopefully, means getting former players who aren’t playing professionally back into a relationship with the program. After all, these guys understand more than anyone what’s it’s like to play in Clifton and what it’s like to win there. Get a former player or two on staff. Maybe find a way to get Isaiah Pead back into the fold now that his career has come to an unfortunate end. This is something Ohio State does well and UC could do much better at.
- Fickell knows that recruiting locally isn’t a wish, but a necessity. This sounds obvious, but there are coaches in UC’s past who didn’t see it. Cincinnati is a phenomenal recruiting ground, and everyone knows it. It’s also a highly competitive one. That doesn’t mean it’s something to shy away from. While every UC coach has emphasized the need to recruit locally, not all of them have actually gone out and done it. Fickell has literally spent his entire professional career recruiting Ohio, and I don’t see him giving up now. I don’t know how successful he’ll be landing marquee local recruits, but he’s probably gonna beat his head against a wall trying, and that’s all I can ask for. He didn’t say he’d like to to recruit Cincinnati, he said he must.
- Fickell knows UC is a good job, and he took it for that reason. I won’t go any further into this, but it feels good to have a coach gratefully climbing the ladder to Clifton rather than heading the opposite direction.
- Fickell knows he has to recruit local fans as well as players. This was the single coolest thing he said, because it made me think “Oh man, I think he gets us!” While UC has a perfectly solid fan base, especially when things are going well, programs in the Middle Ground tend to fluctuate heavily based on success. The Bearcats had a good fan base built up and it seems to have eroded a bit in recent years. To be clear, part of that blame is on fans who are too fair-weather. Fickell, God bless him, realizes that UC can do a lot better when it comes to building loyalty and he seems committed to helping. This commitment caught me off guard because of how unique it is to Cincinnati. At Ohio State, you’ll get 100,000 fans at each game no matter what you do. At Western Michigan, you’ll peak at 25,000 fans no matter what you do. At Cincinnati, coaches have a unique ability to control whether you’ll average a sleepy 30,000 or a raucous 40,000 for six games — plus a seventh when the conference championship comes to Clifton. Building a fan base will also pay dividends when it comes to raising some money for things like a video board and sound system, and it certainly won’t hurt recruiting locally.
Time will tell how he succeeds in Clifton, but I feel much better now knowing that — at the very least — he understands the battle ahead. He reiterated that he’s very prepared for this, and he clearly did his homework on the tasks that are unique to UC. He seems like a passionate and dedicated guy, and I can’t imagine he’ll back down from a challenge.
The 2017 season can’t get here soon enough.