Fay: Luke Fickell needs to be more than a great coach for University of Cincinnati football

Posted at 12:19 PM, Dec 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-10 12:51:01-05

CINCINNATI -- The University of Cincinnati went back to the old formula when it picked Luke Fickell as the new football coach.

The real turnaround of the program began when UC hired Mark Dantonio as head coach in 2004. Dantonio’s previous position? Ohio State defensive coordinator. That’s the job Fickell currently holds.

Is Fickell a good hire? Two things will determine that: Wins and losses.

But, in picking Fickell, UC also went against what didn’t work the last time -- that is, Fickell is everything Tommy Tuberville was not. He’s a Midwestern guy. He grew up in Columbus, played at Ohio State, coached at Akron and then Ohio State. He’s young (43). And he won’t see UC as his last job.

That’s OK with me. I loved the Tuberville hire because of the stability it gave the program. But hiring a coach who used UC as a steppingstone worked with Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. Those three coaches were responsible for the best era of UC football ever.

So why not try it again with Fickell?

Dantonio was the only one of the trio who came to UC directly from being an assistant. There’s always risk in that. A brief stint as a head coach is the one bad line on Fickell’s resume. He spent one year as the interim head coach at Ohio State. The Buckeyes went 6-7 that year. The next year under Urban Meyer, they went 12-0. To be fair, Fickell took over at a difficult time. Jim Tressel had been fired. The program was under the cloud of an NCAA investigation.

I’m sure Fickell learned from that experience. He also learned from coaching under Meyer. Meyer is, undisputedly, one of the two top coaches in the land.

Dantonio got the chances at UC to prove he was a great coach. That’s what UC is hoping for in Fickell -- that he’s a great head coach.

But for the sake of the UC program, Fickell has to be more than that in one regard.

Dantonio wasn’t a dynamic seller of the program. Sports talk shows didn’t line up to have him on. He was boring, to put it harshly. It seemed like his goal was to win 14-7 every week.

Fickell doesn’t have to be a colorful character. But I don’t think he can afford to just be a good coach. I think UC needs to be a dynamic offensive team like it was under Kelly.

And before Fickell coaches a game, he has to work at selling the program. The Tuberville Era set UC back. Losing is one thing. Losing badly and telling a fan to “go to hell” is another.

Having Kerry Coombs at his side, as Fickell reportedly will, as associate head coach will help. Coombs is the ultimate salesman. He’ll kiss babies, knock on doors and shout from the rooftops to sell UC football.

He’ll also recruit the heck out of Cincinnati. That’s something Tuberville did not do -- local coaches will tell you he didn’t even try.

But Fickell has to sell the program himself. He can’t rely on Coombs to do it for him.

But the fact that Coombs is coming with Fickell tell me he realizes that he has to sell as well as coach. If he does that and wins, it will be a good hire.

John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at