How Luke Fickell stayed true to himself and nailed his second act: 'He’s one of the best I’ve been around'

CINCINNATI – After the final home game of Luke Fickell’s crash-course interim season at Ohio State in 2011, a Buckeye manager pulled Fickell’s black Chevy Suburban a few yards from the training room at Ohio Stadium. As the SUV idled in the stadium tunnel as night fell in Columbus, Fickell stared out at home field one final time as Ohio State’s interim coach.

Uncertainty filled the chilly air. The 20-14 home loss to Penn State left the Buckeyes 6-5, as Ohio State struggled in the wake of Jim Tressel’s dismissal. The season fizzled amid suspension and controversy, and Fickell, then 38, found himself pondering coaching at Ohio Stadium for the final time.

“I just kind of took a little time to [reflect],” Fickell said recently in his office at the University of Cincinnati. “Not knowing if you’ll ever have the opportunity to be back.”

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Less than a decade later, Luke Fickell is preparing for a high-visibility stretch that will crescendo with a return trip to Ohio Stadium as the visiting head coach. He’s the third-year head coach at Cincinnati, which he led to an 11-2 record last year, and he has emerged as one of the profession’s most promising young coaches.

Cincinnati hosts UCLA on Thursday night in a marquee game for the program. And in his homecoming at No. 5 Ohio State in Week 2, Fickell has a chance to show precisely how far he and the Bearcats have come, in part because of lessons learned from that interim season.

The ties to Ohio State run deeper than Fickell playing five years at the school and spending 16 seasons on staff. He also grew up in Columbus and his wife, Amy, actually lived in the stadium while a student there. (The honors dorm was located there her freshman year.)

“It’s like playing against your brother,” Fickell said, noting his emotions will be more intense than sentimental. “That’s a big-time deal. I’m a competitor, so there’s no one I’d want to beat up more than my brother. I mean, holy cow, there’s no one I’d want to play harder against.”

Fickell’s worries that dark night in 2011 were alleviated when Urban Meyer quickly retained him as defensive coordinator on his 2012 Ohio State staff. From there, Fickell didn’t rush back to become a head coach. He showed an uncommon patience until the right opportunity emerged.

“Incredibly, I learned to be myself and that great leaders truly value consistency, the ability to be consistent with your emotions and energy and messaging,” he said. “There’s things you can’t learn from reading a book.”

In writing a new coaching chapter, Luke Fickell stayed true to himself.

Cincinnati Bearcats coach Luke Fickell talks to an official during a game against Central Florida in 2018. (AP)
Cincinnati Bearcats coach Luke Fickell talks to an official during a game against Central Florida in 2018. (AP)

Blood sport and bounce houses

The Fickells hosted the family of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman for a pool party earlier this summer, a fitting gathering as each family has six children. The day included the typical jousting in the Fickell family pool, which led to Freeman challenging Fickell to a wrestling match. “He looked at me like, ‘I don’t want to do this to you,’” Freeman said.

Freeman, 33, played linebacker for Fickell, 46, at Ohio State and has kept in good enough shape that he said he can likely lift more weight than his old coach. But it didn’t matter, as Fickell’s legendary competitiveness includes a 106-0 high school wrestling record.

The result wasn’t all that surprising, with Freeman tapping out twice. “I have to live with that one for a while,” Freeman said.

In building a program to reflect his identity, it’s no surprise Fickell used competition as a fundamental tenet. Amy Fickell recalls Euchre games so heated they unnerved guests, and her husband wouldn’t dare let her win a morning jog. “He would tackle me,” she jokes, “before he would let me win.”

The six Fickell kids know the feeling. In his office this spring, Fickell was grumbling about the competitiveness in the little league pitching performance of one of his older twins. “If that was wrestling, you’d have a black eye, bloody nose and you’d be limping,” Fickell said, still clearly irked days later.

Freeman recalls racquetball games as an Ohio State graduate assistant where “there was blood.” Not surprisingly, the Fickell household is anti-participation trophy. “He’s one of the dads that won’t let the kids win,” Amy Fickell said.

Which is why it’s impressive how Fickell approached rebuilding the Bearcats. This offseason, Bearcat strength coach Brady Collins warned the team that they were in for a grueling morning workout. Instead, when they arrived at the facility and sprinted out to the field, a bounce house obstacle course awaited them. Along with the inflatable ladders and walls to scale, there was also a dunk tank and American Gladiator-style jousting.

The day of frivolity, while still competitive, offers a window into precisely how Luke Fickell has carved out his own coaching path. While he’s borrowed liberally from the two Buckeye coaches he spent the most time under in Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer – “in reality there’s a hell of a lot of each” – and other mentors like Mark Dantonio and John Cooper, Fickell has also molded the program around both reality and his personality.

Fickell took over a four-win team two seasons ago, and carried with him the lessons of a program’s energy slipping away during that interim season at Ohio State. The Buckeyes closed that year with four straight losses, and Fickell regrets not being an energy source during that stretch.

Fickell knew the Cincinnati roster needed rebuilding, so the vibe couldn’t be as rigid and business-like as Ohio State. “The fun was the winning [at Ohio State],” Fickell said. “Unfortunately, here, you're not always going to win, and if the fun only comes in winning, hmmmmm.” He smiles and laughs.

Simultaneously, Fickell built an identity of “tough and nasty” while celebrating the positives. “We need to manufacture more fun here because it's not Alabama, it's not Ohio State,” he said.

Somewhere between the bounce house and wrestling in the pool, Fickell found himself. “Copy and pasting a model doesn’t work,” said Collins, one of Fickell’s trusted lieutenants who came with him from Ohio State. “The coolest thing with Luke is that he’s his own guy now.”

How Fickell landed at Cincinnati

When the Cincinnati job came open at the end of the 2016 season, everything came together for Luke Fickell. Once Fickell indicated his interest to Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director put on a hard sell, telling Cincinnati athletic director Mike Bohn: “You can't hire a better person than Luke.”

Smith served as athletic director when Fickell endured the bumps of the interim season. But Smith saw so much more in a decade of working with Fickell.

“He’s the embodiment of everything that we want to develop in our student athletes across every single sport,” Smith said. “High values, good character, driven, has a purpose in life, family man, father, husband. If I could take every athlete and say ‘OK, I want to make you Luke,’ we'd be fine.”

Part of what’s hallmarked Luke Fickell’s career path has been his patience. He’s been the antithesis of a self-promoter, and turned down interviews over the years because they conflicted with Ohio State’s busy recruiting season. Meyer’s coaching tree has been fruitful, bearing Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans), Dan Mullen (Florida), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Tom Herman (Texas), Charlie Strong (South Florida) and Steve Addazio (Boston College). “I really believe he’s one of the best I’ve been around,” Meyer said of Fickell.

Any moves pondered by Luke and Amy Fickell have revolved around their family, as the adjustment to Cincinnati has involved intricate coordination of schools, carpools and sports schedules for their six kids. The Fickell children – Landon (17) and Luca (14), along with two sets of twins – Ashton and Aydon (12) and Laykon and Lucian (4) – have remained the family’s focal point in any football-related decision.

“His coaching ceiling is sky high, it’s whatever Luke wants to do,” Vrabel said. “But just because there’s a job open somewhere, doesn’t make it best for you or your family.”

That’s why Cincinnati has been a fit in so many different ways, and it’s difficult to imagine Fickell leaving for a low-ceiling Power Five job. Other than a brief stint with the New Orleans Saints as a player, Fickell has never lived outside Ohio. His kids have settled into Cincinnati’s prestigious Catholic schools. The city is big enough that the Fickells can blend in a bit, as their identities transcend their father’s job.

Recently, Bohn saw Smith at an event for athletic directors and thanked him for stumping so hard for Fickell. Nearly a decade removed from his interim stint at Ohio State, Fickell has applied the lessons learned in order to thrive as a head coach. “He’s the face of the university right now,” Bohn said. “And we’re proud to stand with him.”

Cincinnati Bearcats coach Luke Fickell hugs safety James Wiggins (32) after Wiggins intercepted a pass during the Military Bowl on Dec. 31, 2018. (Getty)
Cincinnati Bearcats coach Luke Fickell hugs safety James Wiggins (32) after Wiggins intercepted a pass during the Military Bowl on Dec. 31, 2018. (Getty)

Fickell’s approach: ‘Embrace reality’

When Luke Fickell arrived at Cincinnati, there were just 10 players from the state of Ohio on scholarship. The program had declined in wins from nine to seven to four in the previous three seasons. The school’s plan in bringing in a brand-name coach, Tommy Tuberville, to make the program more attractive to Power Five leagues backfired.

Upon arriving, Fickell quickly found an identity and comfort in his coaching strengths. He prioritized relationships with the current players, rebuilding the program from within and recruiting. He avoided the marketing, Kiwanis Club speeches and fundraising.

“We didn’t need him to run for mayor,” Bohn said. “You accomplish what you emphasize, and he emphasized connecting with players, recruits and high school coaches.”

Fickell restocked the Bearcats’ roster with Ohio players, including 15 of 23 in his first full class. “He loves being able to recruit Ohio and bring Ohio kids in there,” said Vrabel, the Titans coach and Fickell’s close friend. “I know that’s important to him.”

One of Fickell’s first decisions was his wisest, as he drove down to Louisville, Kentucky, to see quarterback commitment Desmond Ridder from St. Xavier High School. The new Cincinnati coaches were struck by his slight frame, as he was 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds at the time. Collins later nicknamed him the “Calvin Klein model” for his lithe physique.

Three years later, the Calvin Klein model has grown up and into a bedrock for the program. He’s up to 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, with the height increase giving Fickell some ideas to use at home. “We’ve hung him upside down [to help him grow],” he said with a laugh. “We’re going to do it with my kids, too.”

After throwing for 20 touchdowns and running for five more last year, Fickell was most pleased by Ridder’s mental development. In the spring, he could go back to the sideline and recite back verbatim, play-by-play, an entire drive on the headset to quarterback coach Gino Guidugli.

Vrabel said one of the lessons Fickell took away from his interim experience was making sure he consistently touched all three phases of the game. So Fickell is the first speaker at every special teams meeting, which underscores their importance. He also sits in on every quarterback meeting, a rarity for a coach with a defensive background.

“If we have success, there’s two people are that are going to get credit, the head coach and the quarterback,” he said. “If we have problems, there’s two people that are going to get blamed.”

Fickell projects a “big leap” for Ridder, but also knows the offensive identity will likely remain with its stable of tailbacks. Star junior tailback Michael Warren II scored 20 touchdowns last year and accounted for 1,561 yards. He wasn’t even considered the best back during camp last season, as Fickell said Gerrid Doaks, the team’s leading rusher in 2017, was “the best player on our team going into the fall [of 2018]” before a groin injury cost him the season.

Fickell’s optimism remains cautious, as he gave the team “Embrace Reality” shirts this offseason. The Bearcats’ 11 wins included a goal-line stand to hold off Ohio and an overtime win at SMU. Fickell celebrated them all as part of mandated fun, but there’s also the reality that if they get overconfident, the Bearcats could match their loss total from last season by sundown on Sept. 7. “Reality is, I don’t know if we’re an 11-win team,” Fickell said. “Don’t let all that stuff fool you. The whole thing is, how do we play above our God-given ability?”

As Cincinnati braces for its spotlight the season’s first two weeks, Luke Fickell arrives at his moment prepared, evolved and with a clear purpose.

“I think his emotions will be high, but you won’t be able to tell one bit by his demeanor,” Vrabel said of Fickell’s return home. “You won’t see an overly emotional person, as it’ll be about the players. He’ll want them to have a great experience.”

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