KOCH: Fickell's Wrestling Career Still Drives Him Today
June 9, 2017

KochBy Bill Koch

CINCINNATI - Russ Hellickson, the wrestling coach at Ohio State from 1986 to 2006, is confident that if University of Cincinnati football coach Luke Fickell had chosen to pursue wrestling in college instead of football, he would have won multiple national championships.

"Coming out of high school, there perhaps has never been a heavyweight like him," Hellickson said. "He was going to be a great heavyweight wrestler if he stuck with it." 

Wrestling was Fickell's first love. It defined him as an athlete and to a great extent as a person. From his sophomore year through his senior year at Columbus DeSales High School, from 1990 to 1992, he posted a 106-0 record and won three state titles. As a football player, he was named the Associated Press Division III Defensive Lineman of the Year in 1991 and signed to play at Ohio State.

But he wasn't ready to give up wrestling. He was so dedicated to it and loved it so much that for a while he convinced himself he could do both in college. John Cooper, the Buckeyes' football coach at the time, was on board with it and Hellickson, who knew all about Fickell's high school success, was thrilled to have him.

"He still had the wrestling in his blood," Hellickson said. "I was happy that the football coaches allowed it to happen. It didn't run in the direction that I wanted it to, but it certainly was a great experience that I had him for a time. He was a great guy to have around, a positive for every guy around him."

Fickell redshirted in football during his true freshman year at Ohio State. When the football season ended, he worked out with the wrestling team, but did not compete in any matches.

The following year, Fickell emerged as the Buckeyes' starter at nose tackle, a position he would hold for four years, but he still planned to wrestle. The Buckeyes returned from their victory over BYU in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Jan. 4. Fickell returned to his workouts with the wrestling team the next week, but this time it was different. This time, he planned to wrestle in a match.

"I'd get up in the morning and run and work out with the wrestling team at like 6," Fickell said, "then go to class and then go back to wrestling workouts at noon because that's when they would practice and then go to football lifting at 4:30 or 5. I went from 262 pounds to 245 or 248 pounds."

After two and a half weeks, he decided that he was ready to wrestle in a match against Penn State's Kerry McCoy, who would go on to win two national championships and compete in two Olympic games, finishing fifth in the 2000 games in Sydney. At the time, McCoy was ranked No. 1 in the country among heavyweights, but that didn't faze the confident Fickell.

"As much experience as he had as a wrestler, he was such a gung-ho competitor that he wanted to come out for wrestling and right away get into a match," Hellickson said. "I wanted him to wait. He always expected to win and I think he felt he could go out there and do it, but he hadn't had enough time getting ready after football."

Despite his misgivings, Hellickson knew Fickell was the best heavyweight he had. So after Fickell won a wrestle-off with his OSU teammate, he earned the right to face McCoy at OSU's St. John Arena on Jan. 30, 1994 - the day of Super Bowl XXVIII between the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills.

"I don't think he believed that McCoy was as good as he was," Hellickson said. "He was bigger than McCoy. We had no idea how great (McCoy) was going to be."

At first, Fickell held his own.

"But after about two and half minutes," Fickell said, "I don't think I could move. I couldn't tell you much about the match because literally two and a half minutes into the match I couldn't barely even lift my arms. I was fried. Did I give him a good match? No. I don't think so. But for two and a half minutes? Maybe.

"You talk about the training and the lactic acid, the things that happen wrestling-wise as opposed to football, it's not even close, not even close," Fickell continued. "I thought I was in good enough shape. I thought I could handle it. But between adrenalin, which is the number one thing that drains you, to just muscle fatigue, I couldn't have beat my damn brother after the first period. It was 2-1 or 4-1 after the first period, something like that, and after that it was goodness sakes, how in the hell am I going to be able to get through the next four minutes?"

"He was trying to figure out a way to pay the fiddler," Hellickson said, "but there was no oxygen in the tank. But that's part of the wrestling game. That wasn't a measure of his wrestling ability at that moment. It was a measure of his conditioning at that moment."

The final score was 12-2. Fickell didn't say anything to McCoy after the match and doesn't recall McCoy saying anything to him. It was the first match Fickell had lost since his freshman year in high school when he lost four, and he didn't know how to handle it.

"I was crushed," Fickell said. "You have an expectation. That's what gives you an opportunity to be really good. I didn't expect to lose. I didn't at all. In hindsight I still would have wrestled the guy, but I would gone about it a hell of a lot differently. Being who I was, a guy who wrestled like a little guy, it was always going, going, going. I wasn't ready for that. I should have wrestled like a damn heavyweight and stalled it out and made it 2-1 and saved your energy and figured out things out a little bit more."

Fickell was supposed to join his friends at a Super Bowl party that night. Instead, he stayed in his room. He began to question the wisdom of trying to play both football and wrestle at such a high level.

A few days later, he told Hellickson he was giving up wrestling to concentrate on football. Hellickson understood. He knew the financial prospects were much better in football than in wrestling. But he also knew how great Fickell could have been if he had focused on wrestling above else.

To this day, he's convinced that Fickell would have beaten McCoy - now the head wrestling coach at Maryland - if he had more time to get into proper wrestling shape.

"I think within a month or two he would have very easily beaten McCoy," Hellickson said.

Fickell doesn't regret his decision to wrestle McCoy, and he certainly doesn't regret his decision to focus on football. But he doesn't like the fact that his record as a college wrestler is 0-1 any more than he has gotten over those four losses during his freshman year at DeSales. He still remembers the names of every wrestler that beat him that year.

"Between that loss (to McCoy) and my losses my freshman year (in high school), those are probably the two things that drive me the most even now at 43, in everything I do," Fickell said.

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.