KOCH: Fickell's Family & Passion For Coaching Drives Him
Jan. 10, 2017

By Bill Koch

CINCINNATI - The University of Cincinnati football program has won at least nine games six times in the last nine seasons. 

Two years ago, the school completed an $86-million expansion and renovation of Nippert Stadium after building a practice facility in 2010 that included an indoor bubble. And by most accounts, the Bearcats missed making the jump to a Power Five conference last fall only because the Big 12 decided not to expand after it seemed all but certain that it would.

But all that progress, as impressive as it may be, was not what motivated Luke Fickell to give up his job as Ohio State's defensive coordinator, alter a career path that many believed had made him a Buckeye lifer, and pursue the head coaching job at UC. He was introduced as the Bearcats' 39th head coach on Dec. 10 of last year.

"My number one thing as I talked with my wife was if we ever go to be a head coach I want it to be a place where we feel we can take our family and raise them there for 10 years," Fickell said. "Are you gonna go someplace and say, hey, in two or three years, we've got to win and we've got to go because that's what you do at some other schools and some other leagues? We didn't want to do that. My family's too important to me. My kids are too important.

"Now if things happen, things happen, but that wasn't what our plan was. People always say, don't go someplace where you can't win. Well, if you're a great coach and you believe in what you do, you've got to think you can win anywhere, right? I've got confidence in what I do. I've got confidence in how I'm going to recruit. I've got confidence in how I'm going to develop players."

UC's recent history might have been a plus for the 43-year-old Fickell, but knowing that he had the passion to become a head coach was far more important to him. 



"That was really the big step for me," Fickell said. "I've always said I want to be a head coach, but the reality is, are you prepared? And if you're not passionate about it, then why do you do it? I did it five years ago or six years ago. And then for awhile I didn't really have the passion to do that."

As Fickell talked, he sounded very much like Mark Dantonio, the head coach at UC from 2004 to 2006, and now the head coach at Michigan State. Fickell has the same direct approach and projects the same genuineness.

Fickell, as much an Ohio product as Ivory soap, coached at Ohio State with Dantonio for only two seasons in 2002 and 2003, but they formed a strong bond and remain close today. It was Dantonio who advised Fickell about the UC job and helped him to get involved in the Bearcats' search.

"He always loved this place," Fickell said. "He really did. He loved it for his family. He loved the kids while he was here. He loved the community here. He loved the schools here. He had nothing but great things to say about it. He's one of the guys I'm probably closest with in the field."

Dantonio took the same path to his first head coaching job. He was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State when then-UC athletic director Bob Goin hired him to replace Rick Minter. Dantonio presided over the program during the Bearcats' final year in Conference USA, then led the transition to the Big East in 2005. Both Dantonio and Fickell are coaching disciples of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. 

"He had probably as much to do with helping me out as anybody," Fickell said of Dantonio, "just helping me get my foot in the door to have an opportunity. All I wanted was an opportunity and how do you get those opportunities? Well, the reality is you've got to have some people help you. Who called, who talked to the AD for 45 minutes at midnight and then called me and said they're going to call you? Mark Dantonio. And we talked about these are the things you've got to do to get this job."

Technically, this is not Fickell's first head coaching job. He was the head coach at Ohio State in 2011 when he was asked to run the program after Tressel resigned during an NCAA investigation of the program prompted by the tattoo parlor scandal. His job essentially was to cut the Buckeyes' losses and keep the program together during a very stressful time.

Fickell was the ideal choice to take on what essentially was a thankless assignment. Having been born and raised in Columbus, he has Ohio State football in his blood. He played for the Buckeyes from 1992 to 1996, becoming a fixture at nose guard. He began his coaching career in 1999 as an OSU graduate assistant and was hired in 2000 to become the Buckeyes' defensive line coach. He willingly answered the call from his beloved alma mater, but he says now that it was a trying year.

He didn't get the chance to build a program, establish a culture, or preside over his own staff, all the things he's looking forward to doing at UC. The Buckeyes went 6-7 that season, losing their last four games, including a 24-17 loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl.

"I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it because we weren't successful," Fickell said. "I didn't enjoy it because of the cloud that was over it. You have a press conference and you're going to be the head coach and it's just so negative. And I hate negativity.

"The NCAA was there the entire time investigating and digging into things, which they had to do to find out where all the different things came from, so it was an everyday thing to go and be representing Ohio State and sitting there in the NCAA meetings where your former boss and a great mentor and friend of yours is sitting out there in the middle and it's like you're on the other side of him."

At the time, Fickell hoped he would eventually get the chance to be the Buckeyes' head coach under better circumstances. Instead, athletic director Gene Smith turned to Urban Meyer. Fickell went back to being a coordinator and came to be regarded as one of the best in the country. 

"It wasn't hard for me to take that next step back a little bit because I'm not an ego guy," Fickell said. "It's not like well, I'm a head coach now, I've got to go become a head coach (someplace else). I loved the place, I loved the kids and it was great for my family. And I'm going to put my family above everything."

Fickell was so highly regarded at Ohio State that the school took out a full-page ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer last week to thank him for his work there. His hiring by the Bearcats has been praised nationally. Now it's time for him to put a quality product on the field as he attempts to win over a fan base that was badly alienated during Tommy Tuberville's final year.

But that could work to his advantage. Tuberville was so unpopular during the waning weeks of his stay at UC, that fans will likely be eager to embrace Fickell.

He begins his UC tenure equipped with the work ethic and self-discipline he learned from winning three Ohio state wrestling titles at Columbus DeSales High School and that served him so well at Ohio State.

He never lost a match during those three years. According to a 2011 story by the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Pat Galbincea, Fickell went 36-0 as a sophomore at 189 pounds. As a junior wrestling as a heavyweight, he was 31-0 with 29 pins and pinned four of his five opponents in the state meet. He was 39-0 as a senior and was so intimidating that some wrestlers forfeited rather than face him.

"To me, it's the number one thing that I ever did," Fickell said. "It made you who you are and how you go about things, how you compete, how you look at things, the confidence you build. The greatest thing that wrestling gave me is confidence, to be able to go out there one on one. Obviously, I was successful at it in my eyes, and I don't mean successful just on the mat, like you won a state title. No, I was successful at it because it helped develop me as a person. It helped me get confidence in what I do, understand discipline, understand work ethic, understand that there's no substitution for those kinds of things."

Fickell uses the words `honest, open, aggressive, and straightforward' to describe his coaching style.

"I'm an emotional guy," he said. "I wear it on my sleeve. I'm not gonna be Jim Tressel, but I'm not gonna be Urban Meyer. You can't be consistent being somebody you're not. You can't continue to lead not being who you are, so I'm gonna be Luke Fickell."

Fickell is keenly aware that he begins his head coaching career as a defensive coach in an era dominated by high-powered offenses. Fans want to win, but they also want to be entertained. He gets it. 

So does UC Director of Athletics Mike Bohn, who wanted assurances from Fickell during the interview process that he would run a wide-open offense. That would be a major departure from his friend, Dantonio, who favored a conservative, run-oriented approach during his time at UC.

"Obviously everybody wants an offensive guy," Fickell said. "I know that was probably what was in their minds. You had to have a plan that says how do you combat that.

"Yes, I understand offense. That was a big focus for me. I know you want to hear about what are you gonna do offensively. But it should be what are you going to do culturally, how are you going to develop a culture? How are you going to recruit as opposed to whether it's a spread offense? That's not what wins games."

Known as an accomplished recruiter at Ohio State, Fickell has been hard at work recruiting since he arrived full-time at UC following Ohio State's loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff on New Year's Eve. He plans to make Cincinnati and Ohio primary targets, confident that his strong Ohio ties and familiarity with the competition in his home state will help him "because it's all about relationships."

Fickell has been so busy splitting time between finishing his work at Ohio State and getting started at UC that he hasn't had time to thoroughly evaluate the players already in the program. But he has promised all of them a fresh start.

"Like I tell them, you get an opportunity to press reset," Fickell said. "You get an opportunity to make a first impression. I haven't turned on a whole lot of tapes. I haven't asked for a whole lot of insight on what this kid's about or how good is this kid? Let me make my own judgment. You have to go prove yourself again. I think that will generate more competition for the things we want to create."

This is a reset for Fickell too. The passion is there. His moment has arrived. And this time he'll be coaching on his own terms without a dark cloud hovering over him.

Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years - 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer - before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January, 2015.