Have you ever gone away from home for a bit — be it for college, summer camp or the like — and returned home to meet up with your longstanding crush… and her new boyfriend? If that extremely 1980s teen movie scenario has every played out in your life, you’ll have an idea of how Luke Fickell feels on Saturday.
Fickell is 46 years old, and he’s spent most of those years behaving like a man who wants to be the head coach of Ohio State. He’s not only a Columbus native, he’s a former Ohio State team captain who started a program record 50 games at nose guard. And he’s not only a Columbus native and a former Buckeye nose guard, he’s a former Ohio State graduate assistant, position coach and coordinator. He even spent the 2011 season playing the good soldier, serving as the Buckeyes’ interim head coach for a disaster of a season. He was Urban Meyer’s first hire when he got the job in the winter of 2011.
In fact, Fickell has spent all but five years of his adult life wearing scarlet and gray: his 1997 stint as a player for the New Orleans Saints, his two seasons (2000-01) as Akron’s defensive line coach and the past three as Cincinnati’s head coach.
He was born in the Woody Hayes era, fell in love with the Buckeyes under Earle Bruce, played and coached for John Cooper, and coached under Jim Tressel and Urban. If there’s an Ohio State equivalent to That Team Up North’s Michigan Man mantra — Buckeye Bro? — Fickell is its physical embodiment.
Ohio State is a program that likes to hire its native sons to lead the program and, with Meyer seemingly still in his coaching prime of his early 50s, Fickell seemingly took the right step when he left Ohio State to become Cincinnati’s head coach after the 2016 season. He’d turn that program around, proving he had The Goods to be a big-time head coach, and bide his time until Urban walked away, then he’d come strutting in like Simba in The Lion King to assume the throne of his own Pride Rock.
Fickell appeared well on his way to accomplishing that feat. He took over a Cincinnati team that was 4-8 and 1-7 in conference play, and by Year 2 he had the Bearcats and 11-2 and inside the AP Top 25.
But then Ryan Day showed up and ruined everything.
Day had no connection to Ohio State or the state of Ohio when Urban hired him on Chip Kelly’s recommendation ahead of the 2017 season, and in just two seasons he so impressed Ohio State AD Gene Smith that he signed off on Urban walking away and handing the keys to Day without conducting a coaching search and despite having zero experience as a full-time head coach.
The last time Ohio State hired a head coach with no prior head coaching experience? Someone named Paul Bixler back in 1946. He finished tied for sixth in the Big Ten and was gone by 1947. Heck, the last three coaches to lead Ohio State to a national championship — Urban, Jim Tressel, Woody Hayes — had prior head coaching experience at a college in Ohio, just like Fickell, and the first coach to lead the Buckeyes to the promised land, Paul Brown, coached Massillon Washington High School in Ohio before taking over at Ohio State.
Think back to the seasons of 2013 and ’14. Fickell was Meyer’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, helping the Buckeyes go 26-3 with a perfect 16-0 record in regular-season Big Ten games and a national title in 2014. Meanwhile, in 2013-14 Day coordinated two Boston College offenses that finished 39th and 61st nationally in yards per play.
Who would have ever guessed it would be the BC offensive coordinator that would ascend to arguably the best coaching job in all of college football just four seasons later?
Heading into Saturday’s game in the Horseshoe, Fickell has downplayed his connection to his opponent and his exclusion from the succession process.
“I’m glad it went the way it did so that there never was a thought, there was an opportunity, there never was a moment to distract me,” Fickell told the Toledo Blade. “There never was hope and nothing to have to worry about.”
At first glance that quote could be read as Fickell saying, I don’t care about being the Ohio State head coach. But read between the lines and he’s really saying, If I wasn’t going to be the next Ohio State coach, at least it happened quick and I didn’t have the chance to get my hopes up.
Saturday will be Fickell’s 147th game day at Ohio Stadium — and that’s not counting any games he may have attended as a fan — and just his second as an opponent.
If Fickell does carry any hurt feelings with him onto the Ohio Stadium — for his part, he says he won’t; “I’m very unemotional,” he told the Blade — he’ll lead a team that likely feels the exact same way. Cincinnati’s roster lists 73 native Ohioans, and presumably all 73 grew up dreaming of playing in the Horseshoe, but wearing scarlet and gray. (Lots of guys who grew up outside Ohio probably did, too.) Three of Fickell’s current players signed with Ohio State out of high school.
Real life is not an 80s movie. No matter what happens on Saturday, there will not be a dramatic crescendo where Brutus Buckeye breaks up with Ryan Day at midfield and hands Fickell a contract. Day is 40 years old and, unless the right NFL opportunity comes calling, Ryan Day will probably be Ohio State’s head coach for the foreseeable future. Fickell’s return to Columbus could be another bullet in his résumé, a reminder to Ohio State that the best guy to lead the Buckeyes is on the visitor’s sideline. Or, it could be Fickell’s four-hour farewell to his original lifelong dream and the beginning of a new one, whatever that may be.