Fickell Is Just What UC Needed

Prior to new head coach Luke Fickell’s arrival, UC football was in a real fix.

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A friend of mine has an old family saying about a guy who “fell down in the outhouse and came out wearin’ a new suit.”

Ladies and gents, meet University of Cincinnati football. Even if the Bearcats lose big at Michigan this week — and they might, based on last week’s season opener — they’ll survive with real hope budding again. I say “again” because last year the program’s fragile self-image — of finally being a real Division I NCAA outfit after literally 100 years of deep football obscurity — was shaken. 

The hope comes from new head coach Luke Fickell, who gets a pass for last week’s totally underwhelming 26-14 win against lowly Austin Peay. He gets it because: 1) he did win the darn game, horrible as it was to watch, 2) his inherited talent base has holes that can’t be filled this season and 3) since taking this job last December, he has proven in every way to be a far more appealing choice than UC might have expected to get.

Prior to Fickell’s arrival, UC football was in a real fix. 

It started last season with a big off-field downer, spurned in September in a highly publicized bid to join the “Power 5” Big 12 conference. The Big 12 decided not to add any schools, so UC was still stuck in the much less prestigious American Athletic Conference. Then the Bearcats couldn’t win even in the AAC, posting a 4-8 record that included an agonizing 13 straight quarters without a touchdown. And head coach Tommy Tuberville — formerly of some renown at Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas Tech — was branded as an empty sweatsuit, not only for losing but for failing to restock the decent program he took over in 2013. 

Tuberville hit bottom in early November, when he violated a cardinal rule for coaches, “Never Rip the Fans.” After a listless loss to Brigham Young, a fan hollered at Tuberville that he was “stealing from this university.” Tubs responded in front of multiple witnesses by shooting himself in each foot, first with a “Go to hell” and then with the old sure-to-backfire special, “Get a job.”

I sat in the Nippert Stadium stands for last season’s Memphis game, a couple weeks after the BYU loss. It was milepost four of a five-game losing streak to close the year, and the rancor against Tuberville was loud and raw, like nothing I’ve experienced in a life of visiting stadiums for both business and pleasure. The eventual 34-7 loss to Memphis sparked fears that UC’s program was truly off the rails, after roughly 20 years of finally being more than a football nonentity. (Seriously, UC’s ancient program was so starved for buzz over the course of 112 seasons — 1885 through 1996 — it’s amazing it even survived. The road to respectability began in 1997, when coach Rick Minter took the team to its first bowl game in 46 years, and though modern-era teams need only be decent to make bowls, still it’s impressive that the Cats went to 14 in the 20 seasons from 1997-2016.) 

But it was all so bad last year that some people in my world were bringing up the old “nuclear option” for UC football: Blow up the big-time pretensions, they said, and retreat to the Mid-American Conference. 

What a chilling prospect. Week after week after endless week of Akrons, Kents, Buffalos and Directional Michigans. When less than 10 years ago, under coach Brian Kelly, you were in back-to-back Orange and Sugar Bowls (2008-09 seasons)?

But UC found a way to ease Tuberville out, relieving huge fears he’d have to be retained because his contract wasn’t up. And just six days later, on Dec. 10, athletic director Mike Bohn announced the hiring of Fickell.

Ohio born and bred (Columbus area), Fickell played defensive line for Ohio State and later produced consistently top-drawer defenses as OSU’s coordinator, including for a national championship team under Urban Meyer in 2014. 

Fickell was part of another OSU national title winner in 2002, his first Buckeye coaching year, when mentor Jim Tressel hired him as special teams coordinator. And in 2011, at the age of only 38, he was called on to serve a difficult year as OSU head coach, named as a placeholder when Tressel was ousted due to a scandal over player perks. Fickell produced only a 6-7 record, but he earned marks for class and maturity. When Meyer was hired in 2012, Fickell returned to his post as defensive coordinator. 

And now, at age 44, Fickell is much more than just a guy with an excellent résumé. He hasn’t made one false move since taking over the UC program. Handsome, robust and personable, he has won respect at all levels, especially inside the fraternity of Ohio high school coaches, so crucial to the essential task of recruiting. That relationship was a huge minus for Tuberville. 

Quite simply, for us veteran observers of Cincinnati sports, Fickell just passes the smell test as a guy of great integrity and commitment. We can spot a phony in a New York minute, and Fickell is definitely not that. When facing some negative questions after the Austin Peay game, he was candid and unthreatened, two areas where many coaches fail.

Most coaches, for example, can get huffy if it’s implied they might not have all the bases totally covered at any given moment. Football coaches tend to be all about attempting an aura of infallibility. But when Fickell was asked whether he had talked to his placekicker, who had very distressingly missed two easy tries, he took it not as an inquisition, but simply as help for his to-do list. “No,” he replied with a smile. “I know that’s one thing I’ve got to get to.”

Regarding a flawed overall effort against an inferior foe, he said, “I tell (the players) all the time that the game is about chaos, and there was some chaos. And at times they kind of dropped their heads. A huge key is having the ability to pick your head back up, take care of business and learn something about yourself.”

On coming to UC, despite having the résumé to possibly land a Power 5 job not far down the road, he said:

“In my mind, this was the right opportunity. My passion had changed over the last year. I still love coaching defense, but I wanted the ability to have a greater effect on a bigger group of kids. I think great things can be done here, and I was excited even to have the chance to interview for this job.”

Some coaches would drip B.S. saying something like that. But Fickell came off as sincere.  

“He’s as personable and accessible as any UC coach I’ve ever covered,” says Bill Koch of GoBearcats.com, who has covered UC sports for major media for 29 years. “He’s done a great job of engaging the fan base, and the players have taken to his intensity and energy. At this point, he appears to be just what UC needed after the way last season ended.”


JACK BRENNAN’s column appears in this space biweekly. Contact him: [email protected]

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