Wednesday, June 15, 2011

OHIO STATE HEAD COACHING GIG CERTAINLY NOT TOO BIG FOR FICKELL

Luke Fickell
(AP/Terry Gilliam)
COLUMBUS — In my opinion, there are three absolute certainties in sports today: Usain Bolt is going to run really fast, LeBron James is going to pack it in whenever the spotlight is brightest (and then cry about it afterward), and Luke Fickell is going to be a successful head football coach at The Ohio State University.

In the six seasons I've covered Ohio State football — all of which with Fickell serving as linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator — the native of Columbus has been the one assistant on the OSU staff who I would observe in practices, games and media sessions, and think to myself ... "this guy here is going to be a head coach one day."

Fickell has a command of his players that very few coaches possess. I know it's saying a lot, but the Buckeyes' new mentor almost has a Don Shula-like quality to his coaching and demeanor — tough, fair, consistent.

"No nonsense" is the definition Bobby Carpenter — a former Buckeye linebacker and first round NFL draft choice — used to describe his former position coach at Ohio State.

"Coach Fickell is a stern, no nonsense type of coach," Carpenter said. "That's the way he was as a player and the way he is as a person. He was a very difficult coach to play for as a position coach because he was very demanding, but I thought I improved dramatically under him."

Other former players share the same feelings as Carpenter.

"Coach Fickell was so instrumental in my development as a player and a person," Former Buckeye and current St. Louis Rams linebacker, James Laurinaitis said. "He is one of those guys that already has the respect of the team. He is very detail-oriented, is always extremely prepared and makes sure his players are as well. He treats everyone the same and demands your best each and every day. I have no doubt he will represent Ohio State football and the University with class and integrity."

"Luke Fickell is the perfect combination that makes a great coach," Former OSU and current Green Bay Packers linebacker, A.J. Hawk said. "He earns respect immediately with his knowledge of the game, the fact that he was a great player himself, his endless dedication, his personal interest in each of us and the fact that he wants to win more than anyone."

The funny thing about it is — even after players like Carpenter, Laurinaitis and Hawk piled on the praise for their former coach — there are still many across the country who think the job at Ohio State is too big for Fickell.

Obviously, those who feel that way have zero knowledge about the Buckeyes' new boss.

"If you know me, there is no retreat," Fickell said. "There's never been any challenges that I wouldn't accept, big or small. I've had this dream, this plan, and I'm excited for it."

As a player, Fickell started a school-record 50 consecutive games for the Buckeyes at nose guard from 1993-1996. He's Ohio State's version of Cal Ripken and Brett Favre — an Iron Man. In fact, just three days prior to the 1997 Rose Bowl, Fickell tore his left pectoral muscle and had to have his shoulder immobilized. This is an injury that many times can sideline the toughest of guys for an entire season.

Not Fickell, though.

He started the game against Arizona State — the last of his collegiate career — played nearly 70 snaps and helped guide the Buckeyes to a 20-17 Rose Bowl win, the first for the school in more than two decades.

Here's a man who literally left it all on the field.

"That's the kind of toughness, the physical and mental toughness that he had as a player, and that he's going to have as a coach," Super Bowl winning linebacker Mike Vrable said, about his former teammate at Ohio State.

And yet, the job is too big for him?

Fickell played four years as a starter at Ohio State, people. He was a graduate assistant under former head coach John Cooper in 1999, and served as an assistant for Jim Tressel the past 10 years — claiming seven Big Ten Championships, five BCS bowl wins (eight total appearances) and a national title.

As the linebackers coach from 2004-2010, Fickell helped 11 backers get drafted to the NFL (three first rounders) — more than any other position at Ohio State during that span.

Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment, though, came just last season as he was named the 2010 Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA).

"I mean, that's a big award," Vrable said. "When guys you coach against nominate you and select you for that type of award — it's not you guys (the media) voting — they're football coaches. They really understand who's doing a good job and who isn't doing a good job.

"I think that award showed a lot of people the type of job that he was doing and obviously the type of kids he gets to come to Ohio State and play football here. He's been pretty impressive."

One of the few knocks against Fickell's predecessor (Tressel) during his tenure at Ohio State was that he was a little too laid back at times, taking his foot off the gas pedal and not lighting a fire under his players in a lot of big-game situations.

Fickell is quite the opposite.

"There are a lot of similarities," Carpenter said, comparing Tressel and Fickell. "What they believe in, how they handle situations, what type of people they are. The difference is that Coach Tressel may be a little more cerebral. You can tell from the press conference the kind of intensity that Luke carries. Maybe that's because of his upbringing as a wrestler or a defensive lineman, you know, just a tough guy in general. Those are the qualities that he exudes, he displays them every day.

"Players tend to take on the characteristics of their head coach. I think that's what he wants to do and impress on this football team."

It's also what the Buckeyes need following the laundry list of NCAA violations, committed by players who exuded the characteristics of prima donnas and me-first type players. Not exactly a characteristic of Tressel, but one that could've been nipped in the bud if the former coach had been a little more intense in his approach.

"(Fickell's) a firm man, and players don't always want to hear that, some don't always understand that, especially in today's society where people want to do their own thing and never be criticized," Carpenter said. "He's going to go out and coach guys who come here to Ohio State and make sure that they become the best players that they can be ...

"I definitely think that he is qualified, and I know that this is a dream of his," Carpenter continued. "I am very excited for him. This is something that I've always foresaw, and I think he's going to do a great job."

So, is the job at Ohio State too big for Fickell?

Nope ... not at all!

I think he's just what the doctor ordered.