CINCINNATI - Luke Fickell says, yeah, he expects to be nervous when he charges onto the field with his University of Cincinnati football team Thursday night in his first game as Bearcats head coach.
But not in the way you think.
"Yeah, oh yeah. To me, if you aren't having some type of nerves or anxiety, there is something wrong with you, ” Fickell said in a one-on-one interview with WCPO Anchor Tanya O’Rourke. “I'm not nervous about what the score will be or what’s going to happen, but how will our kids react? How are we going to respond?
"When you are dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, there's always some type of anxiety in the back of your mind exactly how it's going to go. But moreso nervousness because I hate to fail. My versions of failing are maybe different than other people’s, but to not give our kids an incredible opportunity to be successful is something that always drives and motivates me.”
Notice that Fickell’s comments weren’t about winning, though that seems assured against an Austin Peay team that didn’t win a single game last year. Notice that he sounded more like a dad than a coach.
Maybe that comes from being a 44-year-old husband to Amy and father of six kids, from his devotion to family, strong Catholic faith and deep roots in Ohio. Really deep roots. Here’s a guy who has never lived anywhere but Ohio - never left Ohio for college, never left Ohio for work. Except for playing and coaching, he might have never stepped foot out of the Buckeye State, period.
To hear Fickell for the first time, you might think he grew up on the west side of Cincinnati. He’s like a stereotypical Elder grad with a tether on his back that stretches only to Downtown, with a fondness for Graeter’s and Cincinnati chili.
The fact is, Fickell grew up in Columbus, played football at Ohio State, coached a two-year apprenticeship in Akron and returned to Ohio State, where he climbed the coaching ladder to become defensive coordinator, associate head coach and head coach for one dark season after Jim Tressel lost his job in a scandal.
To listen to Fickell, you can’t help but think: Here’s a new head coach with the know-how, determination and dedication to winning that comes from coaching 15 seasons at Ohio State, where they won two national championships and played in 13 bowl games while he was on staff – and playing starting nose tackle there for four other bowl seasons.
UC’s opener not only marks the beginning of new hope for Bearcat fans after two frustrating seasons under the since deposed Tommy Tuberville, it’s a new start for Fickell in his first real head coaching job – the first time he’s left his comfort zone at Ohio State and really had a program to call his own.
One thing is sure: Luke Fickell is not fickle about what’s important to him. Here’s a chance to get to know Fickell, through nine questions from O’Rourke:
1. What should we know about Luke Fickell?
LF: "That's probably the first time I've ever been asked that question. I don’t know. Obviously, I'm a father, I'm a husband and I'm a football coach.
O’Rourke: "In that order?"
LF: "You try to stay in that order. Sometimes it gets out a whack a little bit … I think you know when you get into this business, you know it's exhausting. It's like parenting. It never stops. So we have 18-22 year olds and we have 105 of them … It becomes a part of our life. It becomes a part of your family’s life. And that’s the only way you can really be successful in this - I don’t just mean successful on the field but successful as a husband, successful as a father – is if your whole family is all in and fully engaged in the things you love to do and they’re part of it.”
O’Rourke: “You are building your own little football squad at home. Six kids!"
LF: "Yeah, five boys and one girl.” (That includes two sets of twin boys).
O’Rourke: "She must be the princess.”
LF: “She's the saving grace, we like to say. It wasn't exactly the plan, but we have great faith and we try to rationalize it sometimes and say, ‘Well, it was God's plan’ … It works. It's crazy. But I wouldn't have it any other way."
2. Was your Catholic faith a factor in choosing where you wanted to be a head coach?
LF: “I’m not sure it was one of those things where you say, ‘I’ve got to go to a place that has a high Catholic influence or community,' but my family, like I said, is the number one most important thing to me. And for my family to go to a place where they felt like they could thrive and truly set roots and say, 'We can live here for 10, 12, 15 years' or whatever … to be in a community like this where there are a lot of options for schools, youth sports. There were a lot of factors, and obviously faith was a big part of that thought.”
3. You’re an Ohio State guy through and through, so was it hard to walk away from there?
LF: “No. It's hard with the memories and the things you have, and the relationships you built there. But I knew it was time. It was the right time. And I don't mean time to walk away, but time to start a new adventure, time to start a new journey, and that's what excited me the most.
“Those kids there that I coached are the same kind of kids that are right here. To be able to have that opportunity to reach so many more kids ... [plus] the coaches and the families and the culture - all the things you can do building your own program, your own community, so to speak - that's what excited me. And to see that and see that my family was excited about it as well gave me the urge - I say the guts - to go out and do it.”
4. Did you learn much about being a head coach in that one season (2011) at Ohio State? How did you walk away different from that?
LF: “Imagine you’re trying to do something in your profession that maybe you’re not completely ready for (Fickell was 38 at the time).
“It probably was like getting 10 years of experience wrapped up in eight months. And I mean from coaching, from how to handle different things - controversy, you name it. I think that was so invaluable. Not only did it help me learn a lot about being a head coach, but I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about things I would never do again … I got an opportunity to realize there were things I wouldn’t do over.”
5. This is not Ohio State. Ohio State is steeped in tradition. UC is a wonderful place. It has its traditions. But what are you hoping to build here?
LF: “The first thing is not to compare. We want to study from the best, be like the best. But the reality to these (UC players) is there is no difference. That to me is the most important thing – that first and foremost we make sure these kids realize is there is no difference.
“I want our kids and our community to have those same expectations. They’ve had it here before where they’ve had incredible success (Orange Bowl in 2009, Sugar Bowl in 2010). It’s amazing to see how much more excitement and how much more the community gets involved. Now, the ability to sustain that – how you create that and keep that, to me, is what’s most difficult. A lot of those (previous coaches) who had that opportunity left shortly after, and it’s hard to maintain something when you’re new.
“It’s important that our kids realize we’re going to expect the same amount of effort, we’re going to give you the same amount of things … and we want to change the mentality of what you’re doing. When that happens, we’ll get the rest to follow.
O’Rourke: “What do you want fans to do when they come to Nippert Stadium?”
LF: “I want them to love and enjoy the atmosphere. I want them to get behind their hometown team. And that’s where it starts.
"People don't realize how motivating that is to 18- to 22-year-olds and (he chuckles) to 40-something-year-olds ... I know we all get in our own little bubbles and we do it for the love of the game, but we all need motivation. And for those guys to feel like the community is behind them just gives them that much more push and that gives us an opportunity to create the atmosphere and build our program."
6. This program has had some incredible coaches (Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones). It has also been a steppingstone for coaches to move on … It seems wrong to ask you this before you’ve coached one down, but how long do you think we can keep you here?
LF: “We have to be successful before we can worry about that. I think what the university has done and what the athletic department has done ... they’ve put the resources into doing it. I know people think, ‘Well, they don’t have 100,000 seats,’ but that’s not what you’re looking for. It’s to have the resources behind you to give your kids the opportunity to be successful. If you have that, that’s the most important thing.
“To be honest, I was at one place for 21 years - 15 as a coach – and never did it cross my mind that I need to go, I want to go, because the money wasn’t that important, the title wasn’t that important. It was more about what I was doing – the impact you had on 18- to 22-year-olds, how your family felt … To chase money, to chase other types of things, that's not something that’s overly important to me. But with that said, the university and the athletic department has done a lot here to give us the opportunity not only to create excellence but to sustain excellence."
7. How is your family acclimating to Cincinnati?
LF: “The kids got into school in mid-April so they got to know people before the summer. The twins don’t need to get acclimated, they got each other so you’ve got your best friend with you all the time. Landon (the oldest) was starting high school and the kids come from lots of different schools so everybody’s new. And then there’s our daughter who is very outgoing. I’d say the people having the toughest time are me and my wife. But we’re busy enough that you are going to meet people. The community has accepted us well.”
O’Rourke: "Your son plays football at Moeller. Are you going to be able to go the games? Coaching him? How does that work?"
LF: “The best thing that happens for him is he never has to worry about Dad coaching him. It’s something you get used to as a coach. From the time he started playing football in the fourth grade I’ve never coached him. Now, I’ve had the good fortune back in Columbus that my brother-in-law was his coach, so it was a little bit easier. But it’s a great time to move on. I know he’s got great coaches. I know he’s in a great program.
“I don't get to see a whole lot of games. I don't get to see a whole lot of things, but from fourth grade I would send somebody over to film so I could at least help out, watch, give them some pointers when they wanted them. But it’s an exciting time for me, too, because I become who I am through playing high school football. I’m excited for him to get this opportunity.”
O’Rourke: What do you do when you have family time? You’re been getting immersed, haven’t you?
LF: “We have. My sister-in-law is down here. We actually didn’t realize that [our kids] are going to the same school that she went to, that my brother and her got married in the same church that we go to (St. Gertrude).
“With six kids and a large family, you find a lot of things that the family can do together whether it's the Catholic festivals, Kings Island … the things our community has to provide give us a lot of options.”
8. It takes a lot of sacrifice to be a head coach, especially when you have family, so you've got to have a pretty good partner, right?
LF: "You can't be really good at what you do and have a really good home as well if you aren't all in and everyone’s not fully invested in what it is. It’s a great thing. We knew that when we got married. We sat and talked about it. We actually made some pacts and I said, 'I promise you I’m not going to run ourselves and our family around the country chasing titles and money and different things.'
“My wife’s father was a dairy farmer. He worked 365 days a year. It didn’t matter if it was Christmas. And I said, '[Coaching] is kind of the same way.' The reality is, anything you care about that much is worth working for. It becomes a way of life and your family understands it.
“They know it’s not about quantity of time, it’s about quality of time. As I mature - and I'm not mature yet - probably the thing I’m trying to learn to do is when I go home to be home and to leave some of these things here. Because [his wife and kids] don’t deserve the things that went on all day for me or what I’m worried about from 18- to 22 year-olds, they deserve a dad and a husband.”
9. What will define success for you in this first season?
LF: "That's hard. That’s one of those things I kinda keep to myself.
“You like to say it’s about the product we put on the field and I don’t mean just wins and losses, but truly seeing a team play together.
“I don't care if it's the first year or the 10th year, I'm never going to be satisfied or feel good about it if we’re not playing for championships.”