Before becoming the Cincinnati Bearcats head football coach less than three years ago, Fickell lived almost his entire life in Columbus, from his days as an athlete at DeSales and Ohio State — then spending most of his coaching career with the Buckeyes, including serving as interim head coach during the ill-fated 2011 season.
At first, Luke Fickell wanted to cancel Saturday’s game against Ohio State.
When he was hired as coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats in December 2016, Fickell knew that the Buckeyes were on the 2019 schedule.
“It looked like a long way away, but we knew it was on there,” he said in a recent phone interview.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Fickell, 46, lived almost his entire life in Columbus, was a three-time state champion wrestler and football star at DeSales, played for the Buckeyes and spent most of his coaching career at Ohio State. He served as coach during the ill-fated 2011 season before returning to an assistant’s role under Urban Meyer.
“When I first got the (UC) job, I remember talking to coach (Meyer), and we had said something about, ‘We ought to probably get out of this,’” Fickell said. “It's not always an easy thing for either side — not just that you're in-state, but even (regarding) relationships. That was a thought at one time.”
But neither he nor Meyer pushed to get out of the game, so it remained. No Ohio team has beaten the Buckeyes since 1921. But the Bearcats, coming off an 11-win season and opening-week victory over UCLA, have a legitimate chance.
Fickell isn’t dwelling on that, or much else about this game other than preparing his team as he would any other week. Asked Monday on a conference call how he felt now that game week is here, he replied: “Very unemotional. I can’t allow myself to get into any emotional type of things.”
That’s his head talking. Fickell’s heart is different. He still roots for the Buckeyes. Fickell appreciates all that his years at Ohio State did for him, even — or maybe especially — that difficult 2011 season as head coach. Jim Tressel had been forced to resign, and Fickell was asked to replace him.
“That wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time,” he said.
But ever the good soldier — and truthfully, how can an assistant refuse a chance to serve as Ohio State’s coach? — Fickell took over a team beset by turmoil and the suspensions and departures of key players. The Buckeyes lost their last four games to finish 6-7.
Fickell now believes that he wasn’t ready for the job. He said the experience taught him the importance of delegating and trusting in other people.
“I don’t think I did a very good job of leading and controlling and being consistent in how I lead,” Fickell said. “I let the emotional side of things probably get to me and drain me way too much. I don’t know if you can learn that without actually being in a situation like that.”
Despite initial misgivings, Meyer retained Fickell as defensive coordinator after being hired to replace him as head coach. It took several years for Fickell to get the itch to seek another head coaching job. He and his wife, Amy, have six kids now ranging from ages 4 to 17, including two sets of twins. Leaving friends and relatives would not be easy.
But by 2016, he was ready, and Cincinnati hired him after the disastrous tenure of Tommy Tuberville. It was a leap of faith for both Fickell and UC.
“I never even visited the place before we took the job,” he said.
His first season was predictably difficult. The Bearcats were 4-8. Fickell said they were fortunate to win that many games.
“I think the toughest thing that first year was getting guys to believe and trust in who I was as a person and what we were trying to do as a program,” he said.
Fickell’s hallmarks as a player and coach were his toughness, unselfishness and lack of ego. That began to permeate the program, and the Bearcats had a major turnaround last year. UC won 11 games, including a victory over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl.
Just don’t tell him that he is a successful coach. Fickell has always treated complacency as a mortal enemy. Even now, he questions how good he is as a head coach. He is still trying to find the sweet spot in forming relationships with his players without intruding too much.
“Those relationships are what I’ve always kind of thrived on,” Fickell said. “So that’s where being a (head) coach is still not comfortable for me, because there’s a little part of those relationships that I miss.”
He prided himself on that at Ohio State, and his players were outspoken in their loyalty to and affection for him.
“Early on, Luke was the reason I stayed at OSU," former Buckeyes linebacker Joshua Perry said. "Coach Meyer was really hard on me, but Coach Fick allowed me to see the bigger picture of how I was being motivated. Coach Fick is a tough coach. He’s demanding. But I truly felt, and still do feel, like he cares about my well-being as a person."
Now Fickell will return to Columbus for the game he tried to push out of his mind. He avoided talk about the matchup so much that he said he and Amy got into arguments this summer whenever she tried to discuss how many OSU-UC tickets they needed to get.
“I don’t want to make it about me,” he said. “I don’t want to make it about my history. I want to make it about these 18- to 22-year-olds in our program.”
But when pressed, he acknowledged how special it is. He copped to having awakened in the middle of the night after dreaming about this game.
“You get really mad at yourself for thinking about it, and then you move on,” he said. “That’s me.”
He knows what a victory would mean for Cincinnati and his players, almost three-quarters of whom are from Ohio.
As for what it means to him, he likened it to competing with a brother.
“There’s nobody I would be more fired up to play,” he said. “I look at it like that. But what I can’t do is allow my emotions to (take over). We have to focus on the things we need to do to be successful.”
Ohio State will always have a piece of his heart, but Cincinnati is now home. If UC continues to be successful, Fickell will be mentioned for bigger jobs. But he said that when he took the job, he wanted to be somewhere he could stay 10 years and raise his family.
Now that he is settled in at UC, “you realize how special it is and the things that we can do here, not just the program but in the community and for my family. We really hit the jackpot.”