CINCINNATI — Only now can Luke Fickell take a deep breath.
Since his hiring in December as the University of Cincinnati football coach and his arrival in January after Ohio State’s Fiesta Bowl loss, Fickell has gone full throttle without a break.
“It’s an incredibly exciting, incredibly stressful, but incredibly enjoyable process,” the longtime Buckeyes assistant coach said in an interview last week near the end of UC’s spring practices.
Six years after his only other head coaching stint, Fickell feels much more equipped to be successful this time. Then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone flourishing in the circumstances Fickell faced when asked in 2011 to succeed Jim Tressel during OSU’s tattoo and memorabilia scandal.
A 6-7 season soured him to the degree that he doubted whether he ever wanted to be a head coach again.
Twice since then, he was a candidate for the University of Pittsburgh job. Neither time, he said, was his heart in it.
Only in the last couple of years did his desire to run his own program rekindle.
“Mark Dantonio said something two years ago that triggered something,” Fickell said, referring to the Michigan State and former UC coach. “In order to move up, you have to give up. To move up, you have to do some things you don’t always love to do.”
As a three-time state champion wrestler at DeSales and an OSU football player and coach, Fickell sought and thrived under discomfort. But he did have a settled life in Columbus. Fickell and his wife, Amy, have six children, including two sets of young twins. Leaving would not be easy.
He knew that those in the coaching community might assume Fickell intended to be an OSU lifer. So he told Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer of his desire to become a head coach, and met with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. In his off time, Fickell wrote a blueprint of his coaching philosophy.
Then he waited for the right opportunity. Cincinnati fit the bill, both as a program and community. The Bearcats’ last decade has been their glory years. Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones put UC’s program on the national map, highlighted by a 12-0 regular season in 2009 under Kelly, which culminated in a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
But Cincinnati went 3-9 in 2016 and parted ways with Tommy Tuberville. Fickell was direct with UC officials when they arrived at his Dublin home for an interview.
“When they walked through the door, I told them this was incredibly important to me and my family, and we wanted this job and there’s nothing holding me back,” Fickell said.
Fickell, who has a six-year contract, inherited a team shaken by last season.
“There were key pieces of this team who were going to leave if coach Tub stayed,” cornerback and Reynoldsburg native Grant Coleman said. “To resurrect the program, we needed someone to come in fresh with a winning mentality and high energy. From the moment we walk in the door, music is blaring and everything is just going high tempo, high speed. We feed off that. It’s coming together. We have a long way to go, but I’m definitely excited about the direction.”
Fickell, 43, replicated some of the methods with which Meyer started his Ohio State tenure. Players couldn’t wear UC apparel at first. They had tough workouts. Everything was a competition. But Fickell told his players that this was not punishment. He did not fault them for the 2016 debacle.
“I walked into a hungry group that was starving for leadership and for tough love — guidance and discipline,” Fickell said.
Fickell said he doesn’t know how UC will do in 2017. He is still learning about his players, and the American Athletic Conference is new to him. But he came to build a sustainable program, not seek a quick fix. Fickell is regarded as a master recruiter, and he said UC “won’t back away from anybody” in recruiting a 50-mile radius around Cincinnati.
“To me, you can take this thing as high as we want it,” he said of UC’s ceiling. “We’re in a football-rich area, whether we say Cincinnati or the state of Ohio.”
The Fickells settled on a house last Monday and moved in the next day, though it’s still filled with boxes. It will take time for UC and Cincinnati to truly feel like home. But it’s getting closer every day for a man secure in believing he has the right job at the right time.