Fay: Luke Fickell's a proven winner, but it's the losses that drive him the most

'Those are the things that motivate you'
Posted at 11:00 AM, Jan 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-08 20:17:43-05

CINCINNATI -- Luke Fickell has accomplished a lot in his life. He won three state wrestling championships in high school. He was a four-year starter at Ohio State at nose tackle. He's helped coach the Buckeyes to two national titles.

But when you mention that it is his few failures that seem to motivate him most, he pauses, closes his eyes and nods in agreement.

"It's a tough way to live sometimes," he said. "You're never satisfied. Those are the things that stand out to me in my brain. Those are the things that motivate you."

Fickell's failures are not colossal ones. The biggest came in 2011, when he went 6-7 in his one year as interim head coach at Ohio State. That year as head coach came in the wake of the great tattoo parlor scandal at OSU. You get a sense that it still stings.

Not that Fickell dwells on it.

"I'm not a guy who spends a lot of time reflecting," he said. "I moved forward and I continue to go. I think that's my nature. That's my makeup. Those things are what motivate me."

That's why I think Fickell is a good choice to lead the UC program. He's not going to be satisfied with a 9-4 season. But he says he's not going to bolt after a couple of good years either. He sees himself at UC for 10 or 12 years.

I would call Fickell affably driven. He's a nice guy, a family man (father of six, including two sets of twins), a man of faith. But his competitive drive is off the charts.

Of course, for Fickell ultimately to be considered a good hire, he's going to have to win. He's spent considerable time planning on how to build a program to do that.

Fickell went back to being an assistant at Ohio State after his year as interim head coach. He continued to learn the craft. He began to think about pursuing a head coaching job. Well, he was more than thinking about it. He was methodically getting ready for the opportunity.

"If you don't have a plan for something, it's really difficult to go in a place and execute," he said. "We're all going to work hard, I hope. You wouldn't be in this profession if you weren't a worker. But to work without a plan is kind of pointless and meaningless.

"The plan to get the job and then the plan to execute when you get there are the two things I spent time in the offseason really working on."

Fickell also wasn't going to take just any job. As the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, you're going to get calls about jobs.

"In the last four years, there's been opportunities," he said. "Not that I landed them. The reality was I really didn't want them. I'm not saying I didn't interview for them. I never wanted anything. This was the first time I ever actually wanted something and went after it."

UC athletic director Mike Bohn targeted Fickell early. Bohn liked Fickell's passion. But UC didn't just go on gut. The university followed the major trend in sports today and used analytics to evaluate candidates.

"Basically, you take in a lot of factors -- turnovers, fumbles, penalties, each of the decisions coaches make -- and put into a formula 100,000 simulations of game day," Bohn said. "You know who came out No. 1? Luke Fickell. No. 1 defensive coach in the country. That's impressive."

Bohn was impressed beyond the numbers as well.

"You're going to see his passion in a big way," Bohn said. "He wants to win games. He wants to graduate players. He wants to develop young men. That's important to him. He fits our program."

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 12: Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Luke Fickell looks on against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on November 12, 2011 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue defeated Ohio State 26-23 in overtime. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Fickell plan was set into motion with his hire on Dec. 10. But because he had committed to coach Ohio State in the national semifinals -- a class move by him --  Fickell didn't really start the job until Jan. 1.

So his first days have been more about improvisation than script. He's building a staff, recruiting, fulfilling media obligations and generally catching up.

"In football, we say everybody has a plan until you get hit in the mouth," Fickell said. "I have a short of amount of time to try to do a whole lot of things. It's part of the deal."

Fickell's plan got a boost last week when La Salle's Jarell White, one of the top local recruits, committed. Fickell can't talk about recruits. But he's been clear that re-establishing the local recruiting base is a priority.

"It's not the easiest thing," Fickle said. "We want to recruit the kids in town, but we want to recruit the right kids. The kids that are players, the kids that fit the system and the program. That just doesn't mean football. It's a big part of it. But it's character, work habits, work ethic that we can build within."

Fickell thinks he can get UC back to winning quickly, but …

"That's the plan," he said. "To be honest with you, I have not evaluated talent. I haven't watched the game tape from last year. Everybody's getting a fresh start. My opinions are going to be based on what I see, what they show to me.

"We didn't talk a whole lot about 'Hey, we're going to do this in the first year, we're going to do this in the second year.' It's a journey. We're going to start with the internal things, making sure we play it the way we want to play it. Fast, physical, tough and the results will come."

Fickell will finally address the team in full on Sunday.

"I'm not going to get up and it's going to be a 40-minute meeting: 'These are the core values,' '' he said. "No, it's going to be pretty straightforward, pretty direct. We're going to be about actions as opposed to words. We're not going to lay out what the culture of our program is going to be. We're going to develop what the culture of the program is. Do we have a plan? Yeah. It's our job to slowly build the minds of our players to what we want it to be."

Fickell comes off as such a nice guy, you wonder if he can be that in-your-face coach.

"There is a separate side," he said. "But you are who you are. I'm aggressive, passionate. That's who you are, how you coach. There's going to be an honest, open, direct deal. They're not going to wonder what I really think. I'm going to let them know. If it's really bad, I'm going to tell you. That doesn't mean I dislike you. I'm going to make sure we get the actions we want."

Because the times Fickell didn't get what he wanted were the moments that have driven him most in life.