Fickell may deserve more credit for his season at OSU’s helm

Rob Oller
Ohio State head football coach Luke Fickell with his team as time winds down in the second half of their NCAA football game at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami, September 17, 2011. (Dispatch photo by Neal C. Lauron)

You get to change one moment in Ohio State football history. Reverse the 1969 loss to Michigan? Turn Woody’s punch into a hug?

It’s fun to wonder how things would differ by switching certain outcomes. Shawn Springs does not slip. Maybe the Buckeyes defeat the Wolverines in 1996?

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It works both ways. Ohio State fans shout hallelujah that Terry Porter threw the late flag, that Jim Tressell ordained Holy Buckeye and that, nine seasons later, Purdue blocked an extra point attempt against OSU. I mean if that had … wait, what?

As surely as Ohio State is happy to profit off THE most common word in the English language, a lot of its fans are happy the Boilermakers blocked that kick in 2011. Because if Drew Basil’s PAT had split the uprights, then Urban Meyer might still be coaching at … Penn State?

False assumptions play tricks with timelines, but since this is an exercise in make-believe, go with me on this. The Penn State job opened in 2011 after the Nov. 9 firing of Joe Paterno. Meyer spent the 2011 season working for ESPN as a college football studio analyst, then became Ohio State’s coach in late November when Gene Smith hired him to replace Luke Fickell.

Fickell had been put in a difficult situation, taking over in the summer of 2011 when Tressel was forced to resign after an NCAA investigation. The Buckeyes played the season without quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who was caught up in the memorabilia for services scandal known as Tattoogate, and limped along for nearly half the season without a handful of other starters and key role players, including tailback Daniel Herron and receiver DeVier Posey; all were caught up either in Tattoogate or a separate rules violation involving a booster and questionable pay for summer work.

With Pryor out, Fickell turned to quarterback Joe Bauserman, then to freshman Braxton Miller when Bauserman failed to produce. The result was a mixed bag but ultimately led to a 6-7 record, including losses to Michigan and to Florida in the Gator Bowl.

Smith hiring Meyer was a no-brainer. Some speculated the job had been offered months in advance. Smith and Meyer deny any such deal was in place before November. Taking them at their word, an intriguing “what-if” scenario presents itself. What if Purdue had not blocked the PAT, which would have resulted in an Ohio State win instead of a 26-23 loss in overtime?

The Buckeyes would have improved to 7-3, having won four in a row, and remained in the hunt for a Big Ten championship. Consider Smith’s dilemma if Ohio State had run the table from that point and finished 10-3 with a bowl win? How do you not hire Fickell permanently, even with Meyer available?

Of course it never reached that point. The loss to Purdue prompted a crash that saw Ohio State lose its last four games, sealing Fickell’s fate. Meyer came aboard, and Fickell remained as defensive co-coordinator. The Buckeyes went 12-0 in 2012 and won a national championship in 2014 before Fickell left for Cincinnati after the 2016 season.

Coaches seldom play the “if only” game. Fickell is no exception. If he deep-sighs over how things might have been different if the Buckeyes had received a more favorable bounce or two, he certainly is not going to advertise it.

Players have no such issues replaying the past. Zach Boren, a junior running back on the 2011 team, recalled watching Michigan State defeat Wisconsin the week before the Badgers played the Buckeyes.

“I’m thinking, ‘If we win out, we win the Big Ten,’” Boren said. “It made that Wisconsin game that much bigger.”

The Buckeyes shocked Wisconsin 33-29 when Miller threw a touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds left. Ohio State defeated Indiana the next week before Purdue ruined things in West Lafayette.

“The blocked PAT at Purdue, that’s not Ohio State football,” Boren said. “But everything that isn’t Ohio State football happened that year.”

Andrew Sweat, a senior captain in 2011, testified how difficult the season was, largely because of the disruption caused by the NCAA investigation and coaching change.

“What people don’t understand is that four to six players end up not on the team, but another dozen were constantly being interviewed by the NCAA, which made it hard to focus on football,” Sweat said.

Sweat, Boren and former defensive co-coordinator Jim Heacock agree the season would have been even more of a disaster without Fickell at the helm.

“Luke did a great job holding that thing together,” Heacock said.

“Luke Fickell is a great coach,” Sweat said.

“I love coach Fick,” Boren said. “He did not get enough credit for how he handled 2011. The only reason we go 12-0 in 2012 is because of 2011. Because of what we faced, we grew as men.”

Men coached by Meyer. But what if?


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