Being the head coach of Ohio State football has long been Luke Fickell’s dream job.
But when he took over as interim head coach on May 30 following Jim Tressel’s resignation, it was in the midst of the program’s worst nightmare.
Tressel’s coaching tenure came to an end as a result of the largest scandal in the history of Ohio State football. Many of Ohio State’s key players from the 2010 season—including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams, and defensive tackle Solomon Thomas—received five-game suspensions from the NCAA for accepting improper benefits.
Tressel failed to self-report these violations to the NCAA. As a result, the university announced on March 8 that Tressel would be suspended for the first two games of the 2011 season. Nine days later, his suspension was increased to five games.
On March 30, Fickell was named assistant head coach, and was to fill in for Tressel for those five games. Two months later, Tressel was forced to resign, and Fickell was named interim head coach for the full 2011 season.
Fickell has been a member of the Ohio State coaching staff since 2002, when he became Ohio State’s special teams coordinator. He spent two seasons in that capacity, then became linebackers coach in 2004, a position he kept until this season, although he took on the additional role of co-defensive coordinator in 2005.
With the turbulent state of the program following Tressel’s resignation, the smart choice was to go with someone with experience within Ohio State. Fickell, also a four-year starter at nose tackle for the Buckeyes from 1993 to 1996, was a very logical choice.
The first half of the season was very rough for the Buckeyes. Through six games, the Buckeyes’ record stood at three wins and three losses, with tough defeats on the road at Miami, at home to Michigan State, and again on the road to Nebraska.
Thus far, the second half of the season has been drastically different. Ohio State’s first three wins came against weak opponents in Akron, Toledo, and Colorado, but the Buckeyes got their first big win of the season on October 15, a 17-7 victory on the road at Illinois. The Buckeyes truly showed that they had turned the corner on October 29 with a 33-29 victory over Wisconsin, their marquee opponent for the season.
The Buckeyes’ record now stands at 5-3, and the outlook is promising. All four of their remaining opponents—Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, and Michigan—are very beatable, and if Ohio State can win out, they still have a chance of winning the Big Ten Legends division and playing in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes need Penn State to lose another game in addition to their head-to-head matchup for that to happen, but with Penn State also having Nebraska and Wisconsin on their schedule, it is very possible that they could lose all three of their remaining games.
Expectations are high every year for Ohio State football, one of the most storied programs in all of college sports. That being said, all reasonable expectations had to be decreased this year, considering that Tressel and Pryor both left the program, and many other key players were suspended early in the season.
Considering the circumstances, the Buckeyes should not have been expected to get through their schedule with less than three losses. If the Buckeyes can win out and get to the Big Ten championship game, they will absolutely exceed expectations.
Fickell’s play-calling was overly conservative over the first half of the season, but against Wisconsin, he finally looked comfortable being aggressive. Ohio State’s first touchdown of the game would not have happened had he played it conservatively; the Buckeyes faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, where he decided to go for it, and the play resulted in a touchdown. Then, trailing by three points with under a minute to go and the ball on Wisconsin’s 40-yard line, Fickell could have instructed his offense to go for short gains to set up a game-tying field goal attempt. Instead, he allowed quarterback Braxton Miller to go out and make a play, and Miller’s pass ended up in Devin Smith’s hands in the end zone for a touchdown.
As the team has come together and improved on a weekly basis, Fickell’s coaching has improved. More importantly, the Buckeyes are finally turning the corner, deflecting attention away from the turmoil that has dominated the headlines, and getting the focus back on winning.
Having accomplished this, what they now need most is stability, and they have found it with Fickell as head coach. If the Buckeyes were to replace him with a new head coach, the program would become unstable once again.
Tressel’s shadow is a large one to overcome: in ten seasons as Ohio State head coach, he led his teams to a combined record of 106 wins and 22 losses, with the Buckeyes making appearances in eight Bowl Championship Series games, and winning the national championship after the 2002 season. Fickell may not be a big-name head coach yet, but if the Buckeyes keep winning, he will eventually emerge from Tressel’s shadow.
That being said, Fickell learned how to coach under Tressel, and he has strong ties to Ohio State football. With potentially tough NCAA sanctions still to fall upon the program, the Buckeyes must have a head coach who is loyal and committed to Ohio State football. Fickell was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, spent five seasons with the program as a player, spent a year as a graduate assistant in 1999, and has been coaching with the Buckeyes since 2002.
Ohio State football has always been a part of Luke Fickell’s life, and his long-term commitment to the program is certain, even if times get tough. The Ohio State athletic department should take the team’s steady improvement, need for stability, and Fickell’s loyalty all into consideration, and begin negotiating a contract to officially name him the full-time head coach.
Until the interim label is removed from Fickell’s title, speculation of whether other big-name coaches are interested in coming to Ohio State will continue to surface. The Buckeyes should eliminate the distractions as soon as possible, and after the big season-turning victory over the vaunted Wisconsin Badgers, reward Fickell for the admirable job he is doing this season. The last thing that the Buckeyes need now is anything to distract them from focusing on winning football games.