Re-engergized under Luke Fickell, Cincinnati Bearcats football looks to build momentum with fans

CINCINNATI -- The University of Cincinnati’s football team hasn’t played a game under new coach Luke Fickell, but fans’ excitement has manifested in 1,110 new season ticket holders.

While it’s a promising start, Athletic Director Mike Bohn said it’s just the beginning of potential growth.

“When you start looking at our actual numbers, our fan base is obviously intrigued and excited by Luke Fickell. And it’s August, so we have a whole other month to continue to build our season ticket numbers. We’re trending up. Are we up dramatically? No. But I think that would be an expectation that probably isn’t fair,” Bohn said.

Fickell, 43, is just eight months into the job. The former Ohio State defensive coordinator was hired Dec. 10 after a long career primarily with the Buckeyes, including one year as head coach after Jim Tressel’s 2011 resignation. 

The UC football team practiced at The Pit at Elder High School in April as part of its outreach to fans and the community. (Tony Tribble/WCPO Contributor)

Fickell’s presence on UC’s campus has invigorated program that ultimately languished under former coach Tommy Tuberville. The Bearcats went 9-4 in each of Tuberville’s first two years. They posted a 7-6 record in 2015 and finished 4-8 and bowl-less in 2016.

Fickell said the biggest challenge thus far has been creating the program mentality, whether that’s 18- to 22-year-old players or new coaches. Instilling a cohesiveness in that group has been a priority, and it’s something the team has begun to develop in the preseason.

Senior running back Mike Boone said he has already noticed “a very big difference” in team-related endeavors compared to last year. Boone was careful not to criticize the former staff but spoke glowingly of the way Fickell has energized the Bearcats.

“From the time we get here to the time we leave, Coach Fick harps on effort and attitude. The way he came in, we immediately bought in to what he was telling us. He changed the program immediately,” Boone said.

Fickell’s strides started in earnest during his first three months on the job. His family didn’t move to Cincinnati immediately so he spent most nights learning about Cincinnati -- a place he rarely recruited in his prior tenure -- and drumming up buzz about the program.

He spoke to youth football teams and sat with UC students at home basketball games. He shared his vision of Bearcats football at fundraisers and sports stags. When he wasn’t addressing groups in Cincinnati, he was working his way up to Dayton.

“The greatest thing I could do was get out, be visible, talk about who we are and how we want to do it, and really put ourselves out in the community,” Fickell said. “I had a lot of learning to do about the community as well. I’ve been in the state of Ohio my whole life pretty much but Cincinnati’s not one area that I know a ton about.”

Fans have been receptive, Fickell said, but the real proof will be the attendance when the Bearcats face adversity. The first test comes soon; Game One is Aug. 31 against Austin Peay at Nippert Stadium.

“Everybody loves a winner -- and that’s our objective -- but we’ve still got to make sure we do things the right way,” Fickell said.

Media members’ reservations about the Bearcats were evident in the American Athletic Conference’s preseason poll, where UC was picked fourth out of six teams in the East Division. Boone said he wasn’t worried about the prognostication, calling it “more motivation for us.”

Fickell’s brand of aggressive defense and a fast-paced offense will be on display soon, but he has a chance to strengthen UC’s brand equity through recruiting, engagement and leadership over time. All 19 of the Bearcats’ sports programs, for example, will be involved in Fickell’s nonprofit organization, 2nd and 7 Foundation, which promotes literacy. 

With a potential program growth ahead, the uptick on season ticket sales in early August is a small part of a much bigger picture. While Bohn said it’s premature to measure progress at this juncture, he couldn’t be more pleased with Fickell’s strides thus far.

“If you had to give a grade, it would be an ‘incomplete’ because it’s so early,” Bohn said. “But yet (Fickell’s) energy, passion, integrity and all-in approach…is impressive. And I believe people in this community are taking note of that. We like that.” 

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