Fay: Luke Fickell scored a win in his first game, but there are bigger challenges ahead

CINCINNATI -- The first UC football game I covered as the beat writer was Sept. 4, 1993. The Bearcats played Austin Peay that night -- the same opponent they played Thursday night in the first game of Luke Fickell Era. 

That was the only commonality. 

Those Bearcats played in a Nippert Stadium that was showing its age. It held 30,000 and less than half that number actually showed. The campus was devoid of tailgaters. 

These Bearcats played in a Nippert Stadium that's fresh off $86 million in renovations. It holds 40,000. It wasn't sold out, but the student section was packed. The campus was alive with pockets of tailgaters. 

But the biggest difference between then and now?

Expectations. 

There were none in '93. There are plenty now. 

UC beat Austin Peay 42-10 in '93. Thursday night, UC got by Peay 26-14.

"The most important thing was getting that win," Fickell said. "It was a while coming. Seven and a half, eight months of grading through things. We emphasized the journey we've been on."

Fickell obviously faces a tough task. 

"I told them up in the locker room it's not easy winning," Fickell said. "I don't care what level. I don't care who you're playing." 

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The striking thing Thursday was Austin Peay was able to run the ball much better than UC. The Govs ran for 224 yards to UC's 97. That isn't suppose to happen when you're playing an Ohio Valley Conference team that was 0-11 last year home, and it's downright scary with Michigan next on the schedule. 

Fickell was glad for the test before going to Ann Arbor.

"To have the adversity, when we go back and evaluate this night, the ability to have some adversity," he said. "To see what we're made of, we're really going to grow from (that)." 

I think a lot of casual followers of UC football expect Fickell to come in and get things back to the salad days of Brian Kelly immediately. 

In other words, things have changed drastically since 1993. The Bearcats were coming off 10 straight losing seasons. They hadn't been to a bowl in 43 years. The coach, Tim Murphy, came into the season 9-29-1. 

Murphy put together his only winning season, going 8-3 and bolting for that football powerhouse, Harvard, after the season. 

Let's just say that Fickell can't go 9-29-1 and keep his job. 

He replaces Tommy Tuberville, who went 29-22 in his four years and had two 9-4 seasons that ended with bowl games. That would have gotten you a lifetime contract in the '90s.

Again, Fickell faces a tough job living up to new expectations.

Fickell has done everything right since taking over. He's sold the program. He's re-established the local recruiting base. He says all the right things. He seems to have everyone around the program feeling good about the future.

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All that said, he's got to win. He'll be given a good, long chance, but it's going to be tough to win this year. UC finished 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference last year. They're picked fourth in the East Division this year. 

Tuberville was fired because of his recruiting shortcomings as much as his win-loss record. 

Fickell and Tuberville, for that matter, are judged by a different standard than Murphy or Rick Minter, who followed him. The current crop of UC fans remember what Kelly did. He went 34-6 and took the Bearcats to Orange and Sugar Bowls in back-to-back years.

Kelly had the benefit of being in the Big East. The AAC is not a Power 5 conference. That makes it just short of impossible for Fickell to get UC to a major bowl. 

But Fickell thinks Thursday was good first step. 

"At times, they kind of dropped their heads," he said. "But to pick our heads back up and take care of business. We got the win. We learned a lot about ourselves tonight. I think that's going to give us the chance for our greatest growth between Game 1 and 2."

So temper those expectations a bit, Bearcat fans. Give Fickell a chance.

And don't tune into the Michigan game if you're faint of heart. 

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