Luke Fickell moving Ohio State forward

  • Gene Wojciechowski [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | July 29, 2011

CHICAGO -- On a late Friday night nearly two weeks after he had been named Ohio State's emergency head coach, Luke Fickell decided it was time. Time to cut the football umbilical cord between him and the man and mentor he replaced.

Luke Fickell
Jerry Lai/US PresswireLuke Fickell doesn't know what comes after this season. He's concentrating on this season.

So at 11 p.m. in the all-but-deserted Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Fickell reluctantly entered his new office. He slid manila folders under the legs of the heavy desk and bull-rushed it across the floor. He rearranged the chairs, moving them to the other side of the room. He angled the remaining furniture just so.

"It was something I had to do," Fickell says.

In that moment of late-night interior decorating, Jim Tressel's office became Fickell's. The awkward transition was complete.

"I have the utmost respect for Coach Tressel," says Fickell, who was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, played for Ohio State and later spent nine years on Tressel's staff as an assistant. "I can honestly say he made me better in every aspect of my life."

But this is Fickell's program now because Tressel failed to practice what he often preached. Tressel's swift and spectacular free fall leaves Ohio State with a 37-year-old, first-time head coach who always thought he'd be an Olympic wrestler, a doctor or optometrist, not the caretaker of Buckeye Nation.

Fickell wasn't hired because he's a captivating public speaker. (He isn't.) He wasn't hired because he's Jim Tressel Jr. (He can't be.) He wasn't hired because he's the hottest commodity in the coaching business. (He's not.)

He was hired because Ohio State needed a tourniquet, not a sweater vest. It needed someone willing to take a scarlet-and-gray leap of faith -- and take it not knowing whether he's a one-and-done head coach or a success-story-in-waiting.

"We know he's legit," Buckeyes senior center Mike Brewster says. "We want to prove to people we're still Ohio State -- no matter what happened."

Fickell is as polished as a dirt floor. If the disgraced Tressel was The Senator, Fickell is the county clerk. He isn't a finished product but a work in progress. And that's OK.

Tressel was polished, and look where it got him. He thought he was bigger than the program he oversaw, bigger than the administrators he reported to, bigger than the university whose "Carmen Ohio" he sang at the end of every home game. It was a classic case of absolute power absolutely corrupting.

And now he's gone, a victim of self-inflicted stupidity. In his place is Fickell, the loyal Ohio State soldier who has been handed a dry mop and been asked to sop up the mess left by Tressel.

For all intents and purposes, he is an interim head coach. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, himself a former interim designee, gave Fickell a one-year contract and nothing more.

"He needs to focus on the day-to-day, focus on the goals that we set for the program," Smith says. "Do all the things he needs to do as a head coach to be successful and let the chips fall where they may."

Fickell didn't ask for a multiyear deal. He didn't ask for anything except a fair chance. He was given an administrative assistant but felt funny asking her to type up his correspondence. After all, he's always done that himself.

"No, no," his secretary said, "I can do that."

This is the son of a former railroad worker who took pride in his job of nearly 20 years but found no joy in it. Pat Fickell always told his boy, "Do something you love."

Coaching became a happy accident after a torn ACL ended Fickell's NFL career. A grad assistant job turned into a full-time assistant. He ground away, selling his alma mater to any recruit who would listen.

Fickell wanted to become a head coach, but at Ohio State? Impossible. But then came Tressel's bungled cover-up followed by his forced resignation.

The night before Smith named a replacement, Fickell let his mind wander. What if? What if he got the job?

Jim Tressel and Luke Fickell
AP Photo/Terry GilliamFickell said he couldn't sleep the night before he found out he was replacing Jim Tressel.

He couldn't sleep that night. He stayed up until 4 a.m. and was in his office by 5:30. At 8 a.m. he and Smith met. Fickell arrived at the meeting as an assistant coach, but he left as the Buckeyes' head coach.

There was no celebration -- and there won't be. That's not Fickell's style. Anyway, the promotion came as a result of his friend's demise. It wasn't a time for confetti.

"Will he ever coach again?" Fickell says of Tressel. "I don't know. I don't know. If he wants to, somebody would be crazy not to have him."

Fickell wishes Tressel the best. But his work schedule doesn't allow him the luxury of being sentimental. Ohio State's season opener against Akron is a little more than a month away.

Right now, nobody in the entire universe says "Moving forward" more than Fickell. He says it so much that Toyota might sue for copyright infringement. But he doesn't have a choice. He needs his team to concentrate on the future rather than the messy Tressel past.

"From personal experience, I feel for Luke," says Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was a sudden replacement when Wildcats coach Randy Walker died of a heart attack. "But you can't control circumstances. I'm not happy about the way it had to happen, but I'm ecstatic for him that he got his dream job."

Ohio State is still Ohio State. Or as Penn State's Joe Paterno says, "It isn't as if Jim's leaving the place in shambles."

The Buckeyes need a quarterback to replace Terrelle Pryor, but for the most part, the roster is deep enough to make a run at the Big Ten's Leaders Division and, depending on NCAA sanctions, possibly play in the league championship and a BCS bowl game.

"I know we're going to be OK," Brewster says. "To be honest, I'm not worried about this season."

Brewster wore his glittering 2010 conference championship ring to the conference's media days event, even though Ohio State has been forced to vacate its 12-1 record of a year ago. Maybe it was Brewster's way of reminding everyone that the Buckeyes aren't going anywhere.

Fickell would like to stay, too. He has between now and Nov. 26 -- the regular-season-ending cage match against Michigan at the Big House -- to see where those chips fall.

It would be nice if the local guy makes good. After all, it'd be a shame to have to move the furniture again.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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