Luke Fickell’s history-making season earns him Sporting News Coach of the Year award

Perhaps in a nostalgic mood as he and his teammates awaited verification of the most improbable college football achievement in a decade, perhaps just to kill a bit of free time – “I don’t know why,” he admitted – Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko was compelled to dig through YouTube in the hours following his team’s decisive victory over the Houston Cougars in the American Athletic Conference championship game. He was looking for something in particular, which spoke to the distance covered by the Bearcats since Luke Fickell was hired to be their head coach.

Dublanko found the introductory press conference speech Fickell had given five years earlier, when he was presented to the Cincinnati community. A freshman in the fall of 2016, Dublanko redshirted that season, which ended with the Bearcats at 4-8 and then-coach Tommy Tuberville being heckled following a late loss that he was “stealing money.”

Fickell said mostly what you’d expect that day. “I’m not going to promise you wins and championships, but I am going to promise we will put a product on the field you will be proud to call your own,” he said. “Our team will play with great passion, great intensity, great toughness and an incredible amount of class.”

Listening to this all again “brought back some memories”, Dublanko said, of his introduction to Fickell: the team meeting over the internet where they first gathered, the instruction to show up for a 6 a.m. workout to get started and the order that no one was to arrive wearing team-issued gear. “Nothing Cincinnati.” And after sweating all over the clothes they chose to wear, there would be no laundry service provided.

Fickell wasn’t going to wash away the past for the players. They would need to be active participants.

On that first day, Fickell became the 2021 Sporting News Coach of the Year in college football.

OK, not really. He earned the award specifically for his performance this season, which saw the Bearcats earn their highest-ever AP poll ranking at No. 2, complete their second undefeated regular season in a row and become the first team from outside the Power 5 conferences to be invited to the College Football Playoff.

No one day is wholly responsible for a coach’s success, but Cincinnati football needed to move as quickly as possible into a new era after Tuberville permitted a steady decline in the program’s nouveau prestige, including three consecutive bowl losses by a combined score of 114-41 and only the second losing season in 11 years.

Fickell brought a calm to the program so necessary in the wake of the Tuberville disaster. That did not fade as success arrived in his second season or when national attention arrived during the COVID-impacted 2020 season. There is more “regular guy” in him than with some of your more bombastic, self-important football coaches.

“It’s not like where you fear talking to the guy,” Dublanko said. “He wants you to do well and really loves the guys on the team. Having a coach like that, that’s really for you and involved with the coaching process – I’m on defense and I’m the middle linebacker and he used to coach linebackers, so he’s VERY involved.”

Tony Pike quarterbacked UC to a 12-0 regular season and Big East championship in 2009, just eight years before the Tuberville implosion. He now works in the Cincinnati media, with a radio program on ESPN 1530 and as a contributor to shows on Bally Sports Ohio. Pike grew up as one of the few people in the stands at late-90s Bearcats games and was among the most important figures in its ermergence as a regional power. He has been delighted to see how Fickell has restored what could so easily have been lost.

“I don’t know how you can watch Luke Fickell or spend any time around him or watch videos of the locker room and not want to run through a wall for him,” Pike told Sporting News. “Brian Kelly was a great coach; he was just different than that. Always kind of reserved, very fiery on the sidelines – you see him lighting into different players – Luke Fickell is fiery, but there is a love and there is a compassion for those players he has.

“Truly, he has created a family environment. I know so many coaches have talked about that … He goes to bat for everyone on that roster. And the fact that, quite frankly, so many top-tier jobs have come open and his name is always attached and he’s still the head coach at Cincinnati – Cincinnati is very lucky to have Luke Fickell.”

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To be honest, anyone is lucky to have Luke Fickell as a head coach.

When he’d been a player at Ohio State, making 50 consecutive starts between 1993 and 1996, including on an 11-1 team that won the Rose Bowl and finished with the No. 2 ranking, he thought he would apply to medical school when his playing career was finished.

“I was laying in bed – I can’t remember where we were – Wisconsin, wherever we were at camp when I blew my knee out in the NFL, with the New Orleans Saints,” Fickell said. “I started, for the first time, to really think about what life after football was going to be.

“All of a sudden, I started to recognize, like, ‘Holy cow. What do you really want to do? Are you going to give this game up? Are you going to give up competition and all of that?’ That’s when it all flipped. That’s when I decided, when it’s all said and done, I didn’t want to stop playing the game. And if you can’t play, the next-best thing is to coach. I really made a 180 in where I saw myself going.”

Fickell spent 1997 on injured reserve, then returned to Ohio State as a graduate assistant. He only had to spend two years elsewhere before he got the chance to return to the Buckeyes as a fulltime assistant, coaching the special teams in the 2002 national championship year. His rapid rise led to him serving as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 2005-10.

When things got ugly for the Buckeyes in 2011 – not on the field, but in the tattoo parlors – and head coach Jim Tressel resigned as the program faced NCAA sanctions, it was Fickell who was put in charge of the program on an interim basis. It was not a happy time.

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Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor withdrew from Ohio State and was lost to the team for the year. The Buckeyes compiled a 6-6 regular season that included one-score losses to rivals Penn State and Michigan. They were chosen to play in the Gator Bowl and lost that one by a single touchdown.

Here’s what kind of season it was for the man in charge:

“I did not have a passion to be a head coach for the next four years, at least,” Fickell told SN. “And it wasn’t that you doubt yourself. Now, I look back, that was so unique and so different.

“Being a head coach, in my eyes the ones that have done it so well, I’m not saying they’ve all won national championships, but they’ve built, they’ve grown, they’ve developed things. I knew that year, you don’t have a chance to build, grow and develop anything of your own. But you’ve got to do what you can do. And I learned an incredible amount about being you, being yourself, maybe what it should look like and what it was going to take.

“I didn’t enjoy much of anything about it. I was pulled from the relationship with the guys and what you love and enjoy to do with the guys on a daily basis, whether it’s meeting with them, helping them, teaching them defense.

“I just said afterward, ‘Whether I’m good at this or not, I don’t know, because I don’t think it’s a fair shot, but I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoyed coaching defense and the kids and the linebackers a hell of a lot more. I said, ‘Look, I don’t have to be a head coach.’ ”

Because he was a true Buckeye, because he was an obviously gifted football coach, and because he was an excellent recruiter respected throughout his native Ohio, Fickell was retained by Urban Meyer when he took over the program. That allowed Fickell to be part of a second national championship, when his defense controlled the celebrated Oregon zone read offense in the first CFP title game.

When Fickell was ready again to be considered for head coaching jobs, that interim year was an obstacle to overcome as a candidate and with fan bases who knew little else of him.

“He’s talked about he learned a lot of lessons in how to be No. 1, because he was a lieutenant for so long. And you learn how to be a great lieutenant, but you never actually get to be the general,” said Chad Brendel, who covers the Bearcats for the 247 Sports site BearcatJournal.com. “He’s a very smart guy, a very thoughtful guy, so he had the ability to look back and go: OK, this is where I probably messed up this. Or: This is where I didn’t get the most out of what I could have.

“You had a bunch of guys who had to sit out at the beginning of the season, everybody was upset because they felt like it was BS, how Coach Tressel went down … So I don’t think there was ever any calm that entire year.”

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When Fickell arrived in advance of the 2017 season, the momentum that had been generated for Cincinnati football the decade before had dissipated. Once so non-descript as a program that a successful coach, Tim Murphy, left to coach at Harvard, such a non-entity in their city that home crowds filled less than a quarter of a stadium that didn’t hold 40,000 spectators, the Bearcats had soared to consecutive Big East championships in 2008 and 2009 under Brian Kelly and two more under Butch Jones in 2011 and 2012.

With Tuberville in charge, though, Jones’ leftover players produced an AAC title in 2014 and then the losing began. The one thing that didn’t fade, fortunately, was the community’s newfound passion for being good at football.

“You look at what Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly had to do here, they had to basically be both coaches and salesmen,” Pike said. “Because of the groundwork that was laid, Luke Fickell didn’t really have to do the selling part in the community. I think that made him more comfortable.

“I appreciate that, from a former player’s standpoint, that your head coach is worried and only focused on the team and making the program better. Since day one of Luke Fickell taking over that’s what he’s been about, and you’ve certainly seen the success that came with it.”

In the process of introducing himself to Cincinnati at that first press conference, Fickell made one clear distinction between himself and most football coaches – most coaches in any sport – by telling everyone the Bearcats would not have goals, because he believes them to be too broad, too distant. He prefers to concentrate on “objectives”, items that can be measured on a daily basis.

So when I stumbled into asking what his goal was for this group of Bearcats, with 30 senior players, All-America candidates at each corner and a four-year starting quarterback coming off an AAC title and a one-point loss in the Peach Bowl, he simply said he wanted the team to “play for a championship.” The league championship? The national championship?

“You can kind of shape that in any way, shape or form,” Fickell told Sporting News. “No matter what you do, the only way you have to have a chance to get yourself in the conversation or even have a chance to get into the playoff is you have to win the championship. And in order to win the championship, you have to get in the championship.

“If we play for a championship, then we can win a championship. And if we win a championship, then we have a chance to move forward, go on or whatever else that brings us. Last year, we won a championship, you go into this year and I said: There’s no difference, guys. If you don’t play for a championship, we have no chance to do anything beyond that.”

Cincinnati entered the season with quarterback Desmond Ridder as the reigning AAC player of the year, and he won that trophy again this season. They had All-America cornerback Sauce Gardner on one side, and he repeated that honor as well as being named the AAC defensive player of the year. The corner on the opposite side, foundational recruit Coby Bryant, was named the 2021 Jim Thorpe Award winner for best defensive back. Jerome Ford, a transfer from Alabama, rushed for 1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns. There was an abundance of talent.

To reach the College Football Playoff when no other Group of 5 conference member ever had been ranked higher than No. 8 required Cincinnati to win every game it played in the 2021 regular season. That included a road game against Big Ten member Indiana, which began the season ranked in the top 25 but faded to a 2-10 finish, and a victory over Notre Dame, which had won 26 consecutive home games. And then there was the matter of not just winning but “impressing” through an eight-game conference season and title game.

“I think that definitely weighed on their shoulders. They didn’t have to be perfect. They had to be better than perfect,” Brendel said. “And that’s completely unfair to put on the shoulders of a group of 18- to 22-year-olds. That’s not how perfect works.”

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There may be no greater illustration of Fickell’s fitness for this award, whose past recipients include such legends as Ara Parseghian, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Nick Saban, than a month-long stretch of four AAC games that began with a trip to Navy and ended with one to South Florida. Three of the games were on the road. None was against an opponent that finished with a winning record. Each of those teams was driven to become the team that knocked the Bearcats off their perch.

Cincinnati was ranked No. 2 in the AP poll when it arrived in Annapolis on Oct. 23. Inside the game’s first dozen minutes, Navy surprised the opposition with an onside kick UC was fortuate to recover. It was obvious the Bearcats would have to be ready for more than just the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense.

Navy occasionally set itself in a dual-option alignment rather than its standard formation. They split receivers wide and sent them in motion. “It was kind of crazy,” Dublanko said.

That became a recurring theme as the Bearcats trudged through the dreariest stretch of their schedule. Only Tulsa, which had challenged Ohio State through three quarters, appeared to pose any threat on paper, but the Golden Hurricane, Tulane’s Green Wave and the USF Bulls all unveiled an abundance of new looks or schemes or plays they’d not shown on film.

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“I want to say that we had an idea, but I don’t think I actually recognized it until we played Navy,” Fickell told SN. “Even in pregame, hearing them talk about, ‘This is the highest-ranked team to come in here since South Carolina came in at No. 2 in 1985, and Navy beat them’ – All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, OK.’

“That little stretch right there, I don’t want to say that put us on our heels, but that’s where we struggled a little bit. There was a lot of different stuff. I think it maybe affected us different ways.”

The coaching staff did not hide this from the players. Fickell did not try to conjure a pretense, as so many coaches have in the past, of hidden strength among those four opponents. He explained the Bearcats’ talent and early success was going to lead to the opposition going to exceptional lengths in search of any possible advantage, and the Bearcats would need to cope and respond.

“He just kind of told us we are really talented and these teams recognize that; they know they can’t beat us straight-up, it’s a testament to us and a little bit of a show of respect,” Dublanko told SN. “But we’ll get some stuff.

“There was a span of maybe like three or four games there were things were doing stuff they hadn’t shown on film, and so it just kind of took maturity and respect for the coaches and the players — and great communication on the sideline — to make those in-game adjustments to what we were seeing. It was definitely a tough little stretch there.”

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I was curious how Fickell learned that Cincinnati would, indeed, make history as the first team from outside the Power 5 conferences to be invited to the playoff. Did he have to wait for the announcement on ESPN’s selection show? Did someone tell him ahead of time?

It didn’t seem like a tricky question, but Fickell’s answer reflected the improbability of this achievement. So much had to go perfectly for the Bearcats to be invited as one of the four teams – perfectly for UC, imperfectly for others – that he never quite trusted that Cincinnati would be on that bracket until he saw it on national TV.

Not only did the Bearcats have to finish undefeated, they had to do it significantly, as when they blew out 8-2 SMU in the final regular-season game, 48-14, or when they smoked 11-1 Houston in the AAC title game, 35-20. And they needed one-loss Oklahoma State not to earn the Big 12 championship and put pressure on the committee to choose a Power 5 champion. And they needed Notre Dame to continue winning and adding heft to their most impressive victory. About the only help they didn’t receive was Alabama picking up a second loss, though the Crimson Tide needed a last-minute drive of more than 90 yards and four overtimes to defeat rival Auburn.

Given the results of Championship Saturday, Fickell was receiving assurances from people close to him that the Bearcats would make the playoff.

“Now, I believe nobody. Through some of the stuff I’ve seen the last year, year and a half, whether it was coaching searches, all this other stuff, different things. I don’t know who told them that or who said that or if it was the bowl people standing at the game – I don’t believe it. But it was one of those things where: OK, you say we’re in, I think we might be in. But I’m that guy that wouldn’t tell anybody that, wouldn’t say that because maybe they could change their mind. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Cincinnati had a senior banquet to coincide with the announcement, and so it became a banquet unlike any Bearcats ever had experienced.

“I was standing on the other side as everybody at the banquet was watching the screens,” Fickell said. “I was kind of positioned where I couldn’t see the TV – and kind of on purpose, just in case, I didn’t want anybody to see a really bad reaction.

“It was in some ways a relief, but it was also a joy that I’m so happy for our guys, our seniors in particular, are going to get this opportunity.

“When it actually came up on the screen, I smiled and truly, deep down, believed it.”

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