CINCINNATI – Twelve years ago, the University of Cincinnati hired Ohio State's defensive coordinator to rebuild the football program after it slipped to a losing record following three straight losses in low-tier bowls.
Mark Dantonio won two bowl games in three years, and when he left for Michigan State, UC was a program on the rise. Brian Kelly went 33-7 in three seasons and took UC to two straight New Year's Day bowls before leaving for the Golden Dome. After a losing season, Butch Jones had two 10-3s and won two bowls before catching Rocky Top fever.
Now UC is looking to repeat the success of the Dantonio-Kelly-Jones eras and it looks like Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is the guy they're counting on to do it.
Sources in Columbus tell me Fickell to UC us not a question if if but when @WCPO
— Ken Broo (@kenbroo) December 9, 2016
Fickell would be a fine catch for a UC program coming off a 4-8 season, and if he brings the King of Colerain, Kerry Coombs, with him as defensive coordinator, as the storyline goes, so much the better.
I think it'd be a home run, grand slam actually. @WCPO https://t.co/e0j2jybhnY
— Ken Broo (@kenbroo) December 8, 2016
UC Athletic Director Mike Bohn has been tight-lipped, but an announcement could come Saturday - even before trustees meet Sunday afternoon - presumably to rubber-stamp the deal.
#UC will have a Board of Trustees special meeting 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Big step in the hiring of new FB coach. @WCPO
— Keenan Singleton (@KJMSingleton) December 9, 2016
Besides, it makes perfect sense after Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck flatly rebuffed UC and wouldn't even discuss the job with Bohn, as the talk on the web goes. Fleck's little 13-0 MAC team beat two Big Ten schools, Northwestern and Illinois, and goes for the trifecta against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. No wonder he said he wouldn't listen to anyone but a Power Five conference school.
UC fans ought to appreciate that. It wasn't too long ago that the Bearcats were playing in the Orange and Sugar Bowls in back-to-back years. If not for the Nebraska kicker missing a short field goal that would have beaten Texas, a 12-0 but under-sized, slow-footed UC team would have played mighty Alabama for the 2010 national championship.
We shudder at the thought now, realizing what a blowout that would have been, but it sure beats getting blown out by San Diego State 42-7 in last year's Aloha Bowl, and it sure beats this season's debacle - on the field and off.
It's been a tough year for UC, what with the Big 12 rejecting expansion and sacking the Bearcats for a huge loss in pride and prestige. If UC were headed to the Big 12, Fleck might have hitchhiked or run down I-75 to see Bohn.
That was before UC's head coach, Tommy Tuberville, started his own quarterback controversy, lost the locker room in the process, and left with those famous parting words to fans:
The Fleck episode and other coaches hires this week tell three basic truths about UC football today:
1) The best candidates with any options will turn their backs on UC as long as it's stuck in the godforsaken American Athletic Conference;
2) For all of UC's terrific stadium improvements, you're not in the big time if you're not in the Power Five;
3) Returning to the glory of playing in back-to-back New Year's Day bowls is a tall order for any coach - at UC or most anywhere. Ask Kelly. He hasn't done it since he jumped ship for Notre Dame after the 2009 season.
Fickell, 43, at least has a pedigree from one of college football's best training grounds. The former Ohio State nose tackle has been on the Buckeyes staff for 15 years (DC for 10) and was interim head coach for the 2011 season after Jim Tressel quit under an NCAA investigation. Fickell's Buckeyes went 6-7 under trying circumstances, and he went back to overseeing the defense when Urban Meyer came to the rescue the next year.
We can presume that Fickell is hungry for an opportunity to make his mark on a program. At least we know he's not a once-successful head coach taking a last fling before retirement.
No offense to the good coaches at the Troy States of the world, but UC needs an immediate infusion of excitement – or, at least, hope – not the prospects of a long rebuilding process.
Between them, Fickell and Coombs, Ohio State's special teams/defensive backs coach and top Cincinnati area recruiter, would bring that. They can't bottle Ohio State's success, tradition and 105,000 fans in the stands, and not even Coombs, who built Colerain High into a national high school superpower, would find it so easy to recruit the best Cincinnati players to stay in Cincinnati.
I doubt if this year's top recruit at Colerain, Amir Riep, would have said no to Ohio State and yes to UC if Coombs had been recruiting him to play in Clifton Heights instead of Columbus.
The best Cincinnati players have never stayed in Cincinnati and maybe they never will. But if Coombs could convince the next level - the Gino Guidulgis, Antwan Peeks and Tony Pikes who helped UC get into bowls in the previous decade - he'd be making big strides. That also goes for reopening the northern Ohio pipeline that brought the likes of Travis Kelce, Derek Wolfe and Isaiah Pead. Fickell, a Columbus native, is said to be an outstanding recruiter and could help with that.
A Buckeye connection would help sell tickets and keep the alumni money coming in, too, and you can't overlook the importance of that. Especially with Tuberville's last words ringing in their ears.