KOCH: Fickell Leaving Nothing To Chance In First Spring At UC
April 5, 2017

By Bill Koch

CINCINNATI – Six plays before the end of Tuesday’s practice at the Sheakley Athletics Center, a skirmish broke out among the University of Cincinnati’s offensive and defensive players.

First-year head coach Luke Fickell blew his whistle and stopped practice for the day. He gathered the team around him at midfield and used the incident as a teachable moment.

“I told them if we don’t learn to control our emotions and how we play the game, if we can’t learn to rely on our brothers and someone to calm us down, then we’re not going to be successful,” Fickell said. “Tough guys aren’t guys that throw punches and do stuff. Tough guys can get lined up every single down and continue to battle whether they’re getting beat or not getting beat. They continue to fight through it and not allow your emotions to overtake you.”

What he didn’t tell his players was that he scripted the whole thing.

As Fickell, 43, nears the end of his first spring practice season at UC, he’s leaving nothing to chance as he prepares not only for the day-to-day work that needs to be done to prepare his team for the 2017 season but also for the long-term success of the program.

Fickell is an unusual first-year head coach because he was the interim head coach for one year at Ohio State after Jim Tressel was fired in 2011, leading the Buckeyes to a 6-7 record. But that wasn’t Fickell’s program. He was a caretaker. He knew it. The players knew it and Ohio State’s demanding fans knew it.

Now he’s running his own program, doing things his way, putting into practice the approach he’s been patiently formulating for years. His experience at Ohio State has given him a solid base, but he admits he still has a lot to learn.



“Sometimes people say, it’s great, now you get to do it yourself,” Fickell said, “but there’s a lot of the things that come into the mix getting it done the way you want to get it done. It’s definitely a joy. There’s definitely a different kind of excitement to it, but there’s also a lot of things that you’re looking at longevity-wise and what you need to do to build that keep you awake at night too.

“For me, it’s trying to figure out what the routine is right now. Not that I’m ever going to get really comfortable because I want to continue to grow. But it’s getting into that routine of what you’re doing on an everyday basis, to be consistent and to look forward to the big picture in the program. I’m still trying to get my feet wet. You’re trying to make sure you cross all your T’s and dot all your I’s and you’ve got a true plan for the future.”

Fickell has been around the game at its highest level for 15 years as an OSU assistant and interim head coach – and before that as an OSU player - so it’s not like he hasn’t learned a thing or two along the way. His year running the show at Ohio State was invaluable preparation for the job he has now.

“You know the things that are coming around the corner,” Fickell said. “You know what a season brings. You know what all those other things entail and when situations pop up, like what happened to our guys out here today, to be in that situation before, you’ve got a vision for what needs to be done and how to handle it.”

Fickell does his best to make sure there are no surprises as his day unfolds, but when there are he wants to be prepared. In the case of the scuffle at the end of practice, he was more than prepared because he knew it was coming.  Or at least he hoped it would.

“When I wake up in the morning, there’s not a whole lot through the entire day that’s not intentional and planned out,” Fickell said. “Even in situations like this, trying to create emotions, trying to create some of those things and then to be able to make a point about it. I think that goes a lot further than the last six or seven plays that we would have had.”

How does a coach create a situation that will likely lead to pushing and shoving at the end of practice? Experience helps.

“You let some things go a little bit,” he said. “You set up a drill today that was a little bit different that was going to cause some of that, where you tell the offense to go quick on tempo, but you don’t really tell the defense, and you know it’s going to cause some emotions and then you see it starting to happen and you let it go.”

During Fickell’s season as OSU’s interim head coach, he learned two valuable lessons: to consistently be himself in his leadership style and to delegate so that he has more energy to devote to his players.

“I can’t be Jim Tressel,” Fickell said. “I can’t be Urban Meyer. I’ve got to be Luke Fickell. In my short time there I tried to be Jim Tressel because I thought that was what’s best, just in that situation and how we needed to handle things. And I realized that you can’t be consistent doing that.

“During the eight months I spent at Ohio State doing it I made a lot of mistakes,” he continued. “And probably over the last five or six years I envisioned myself (as a head coach) and spent some time actually putting a plan together. Having those eight months to actually do it and not doing a great job and being nervous and uncomfortable in all those things really helped me.”

You’d never know this is Fickell’s first true head coaching job by watching him at practice. He is completely in control. That’s partly because he’s been preparing for so long for this opportunity. And partly because he’s so driven.

Oddly enough, for a guy who says he hates negative energy, he’s driven more by a fear of failure than anything else. Always has been.

“You hope that you can be motivated by success and the great things,” he said, “but to never be satisfied is one of those things, even as a little kid from the wrestling side of what I’ve done, it drives me incredibly,” he said. “I only really fear one thing – letting people down. That’s my family, my teammates and my team. That’s something that has always motivated me. 

“I tell the guys all the time there’s got to be something that drives you. Some people are driven by money. Some people are driven by title. Some people are driven by success. I’m driven by the fear of failure.”

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.