August 16, 2014

Ohio State Coach Luke Fickell Watches the Inevitable Become Reality

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” – Common misquote of Grantland Rice

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” – Red Sanders, often attributed to Vince Lombardi

“Just win, baby!” – Al Davis

What matters more than anything in sports? Integrity? Principles? Playing the game the “right” way? Or is it simply winning?

I suppose it depends on who you ask. When it comes to the Ohio State Buckeyes, winning tends to be the only standard. Oh, make no mistake, for years OSU has tried to get away with the ruse that they do things the right way, that there’s some kind of standard of excellence that applies to a more broad stroke than simply winning.

But when it all comes down to it, Ohio State simply stands for one thing and one thing only in terms of their beloved football team: Winning. And if corners are cut in the name of winning, well, Ohio State hasn’t shied away from their share of shortcuts.

Something funny happened, though, in the last year as Ohio State was cruising along their road of victory and greatness. Someone decided to look under the hood.For years Ohio State asked their fans and the media alike to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Ignorance is bliss, they say, and oh how blissful our ignorance really was.

We all celebrated that 2002 National Championship. For many under the age of 40, that Ohio State Championship was our lone taste of glory. But beyond that National Championship, fans enjoyed a historic run of success in the decade with Jim Tressel at the helm.

Prior to The Senator’s arrival on campus, few knew what to expect of the man. Fewer still would have guessed that he would bring a 9-1 8-1 record against the most hated rivals up north. Or how about those seven six Big Ten Titles, with six five of them coming consecutively. And don’t forget the eight seven BCS Bowl Appearances, with a record of 5-3 4-3 in those big games.

Yet one unbelievably stupid mistake by an otherwise great leader brought it all crashing down. When Jim Tressel was forced to resign over Memorial Weekend, we all had to brace ourselves to some degree for this upcoming season. There was both a fatality and finality to the measure of success that fans of the Scarlet and Gray had grown accustomed to. Things were definitely going to be different.

In a perfect world, when a program like Ohio State changes leadership, there’s a succession plan in place. Or at least a formal nationwide search is conducted to find the best man for the job. Unfortunately, Ohio State handled their scandal so poorly that they gave themselves no such luxury.

When the scandal first broke, Ohio State had two choices. They could either cut ties with Tressel immediately, or else brace themselves and prepare to go through the storm with their captain still in place. Somehow, Ohio State tried to find a 3rd option in between the two logical choices.

They initially tried Option B. They suspended the coach, but made it clear he was going to be their guy going forward. Tressel was still recruiting, and everyone moved forward with the assumption that Jim Tressel would be their coach. OSU President Gordon Gee even made his embarrassing remark that he wouldn’t fire Tressel, and that he just hoped Tressel wouldn’t fire him.

Then a few months later, Gee fired Tressel. It sent an uncomfortable message to recruits, to current players, to the media, and to the fans. Everyone braced themselves for more violations to be unearthed. They had to be coming, or else the move to fire Tressel at that awkward time made no sense.

All we got, though, was a dud of an expose written by Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann, an article that accused Tressel of being an evil man who prayed to God in the morning and then went out and…fixed raffles. Dohrmann’s article was the impetus for the NCAA to levy a grand total of zero new allegations against the University.

So it was, then, that Luke Fickell was unfairly asked to step in and do a job that we was not ready for under circumstances that would be difficult for even the most experienced coach to go through. Ohio State announced that at the end of the season there would be a thorough coaching search. They failed to even schedule a press conference to show their confidence in their new coach. They waited over a week to do that. They made him “interim” coach, then put a loaded pistol to the back of his skull and demanded he go out there and win.

Then they ran off the team’s best player and the best offensive weapon in Terrelle Pryor. They gave Fickell a choice. On one hand he could have Joe Bauserman, a 25 year old senior who knows the system and knows how to limit turnovers and costly mistakes, but ultimately struggles throwing the ball. Or on the other hand, he could have Braxton Miller, an 18 year old true freshman who has more skills, but probably isn’t ready for this stage yet.

It’s hard to envy Fickell’s predicament. With that pistol still pointed squarely at his head, how is he to decide between the QB who can’t win because he lacks the skills or the QB who can’t win because he can’t limit his mistakes and turnovers? Fickell needs to win, and win now, but he doesn’t have the tools to succeed.

The easy answer, of course, is to play Braxton Miller. Every down, every snap, let the freshman play. Let him make his mistakes, let him take his lumps, but most importantly, let him learn how to win. Sure, the Buckeyes will lose more games along the way. At the very least, Wisconsin and Nebraska look like games that will give the Buckeyes serious trouble.

By the end of the season, though, the hope is that the Buckeyes will have a true freshman QB with experience, with confidence, and with the knowledge of how to play and win at Ohio State. It would be the ideal situation as the Buckeyes look to regroup and head into next season with a QB who knows how to succeed.

As all the frustration, all the despair, all the confusion, and all the animosity of the offseason from hell came to a head last Saturday in Miami, Luke Fickell looked like a coach who wasn’t ready for this responsibility. The players gave good effort, but it finally became painfully evident that losing a coach, the star QB, the top WR, the top RB, the best offensive lineman, and all the other surrounding noise and distraction was just going to be too much for this team to overcome.

The decision not to use his time outs at the end of the game was probably an unforgivable sin, as it seemed to show that he had given up on his team. Yet the decision fans seemed to be most angry about was his refusal to give Braxton Miller more playing time. Fickell said after the game that the decision of which QB to play and when was left up to offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. However, as head coach, the final decision is Fickell’s and Fickell’s alone. An experienced coach would have realized this and been unafraid to insert his authority.

That’s really the crux of this sad situation. Luke Fickell is a great man. He is such a loyal representative of the Scarlet and Gray. When he was put in this wholly unfair situation, he never complained or made excuses. He simply said “next man up”, implying that the motto applied to himself as well.

Unfortunately, Ohio State is not a place to learn how to coach on the fly. I like Fickell an awful lot and it makes me terribly sad to see him have to go through this. I don’t know what he will do about the QB situation going forward, but almost everyone knows the right thing to do is to play Braxton Miller and get him ready for next year.

Next year. That’s a funny thing for Luke Fickell to consider. The coach is now stuck in a situation where protocol demands that he prepare the star QB for next year. Next year, when someone else is coaching the team, ready to take over with a QB who has been groomed for success by the loyal coach asked to guide the ship in transition for the next captain.

Fickell deserves better. He deserves more patience from the Ohio State athletic department. He deserves more patience from the fans. He deserves a fair chance to prove that he can learn and just like his QB, make mistakes this year in order to be better next year.

But Ohio State isn’t about what you deserve. Right or wrong, Ohio State is about winning. We saw last Saturday that Luke Fickell is not the right coach to win at Ohio State now. I fully expect someone else to be coaching this team next year. If I were a Las Vegas handicapper, I’d peg Urban Meyer as the heavy favorite.

No matter who the next coach is, though, life will go on at Ohio State. A new coach, new systems, new traditions, new successes and failures. And left behind will be a forgotten year. A lost season in which one of the most loyal Buckeyes of all was put in the most unfortunate situation.

This job was supposed to be the dream job for Fickell. Everyone suspected Coach Tressel had at minimum five more seasons left, perhaps more. Fickell was waiting for the perfect head coaching job at a medium sized school where he could learn and be ready to be a serious candidate for the big job. I’m sure Fickell always envisioned himself someday being the coach of The Ohio State University. I just bet he never imagined it would be quite like this.

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Image Credit: AP Photo/Terry Gilliam

  • mgbode

    sorry for hijacking, but I am more worried about the future of the Big10 than the present of OSU at the moment.

    ok, let’s break down the current picture since it is ever-changing

    ACC – added Syracuse, Pitt. likely adding UConn, Rutgers. exit fee increased to $20mil. all members should be pretty happy about media markets, academics, and Syracuse and Pitt could improve their football w/ move to conference as well. so, noone is likely leaving.

    ===================================

    SEC – added A&M. likely adding WVU (makes too much sense), Mizzou (ditto). The real question is who do they go after for team #16?

    1. They could give Kentucky a real Bball threat and open up a new market with Kansas (plus add some historical signficance).

    2. They could really shake things up and steal TCU. Add the Dallas market while A&M helps them with the Houston market. And, really try to make a dent in UTx’s clamp on the viewers in the state. Houston could be another option, but a lesser one.

    3. Louisville is an option, but they don’t give much other than having the facilities and a bball program rival of Kentucky. Doubtful.

    4. UCF, USF, FIU – doubt any of those SEC region teams want another Florida team to steal recruits in the area. Plus, no cachet. Plus, no new markets. Of those 3, USF makes the most sense.

    5. Tulsa – Solid football program, new market, steal some thunder from the teams going to the Pac# and help keep open the Northern Texas recruiting pipeline. Not as good as options 1 and 2, but I’d still list them.

    ===================================

    Big10 – Ugh. So, Maryland, Syracuse, and Rutgers are out of the picture (Maryland was pie-in-the-sky, but still). Even fall-back Pitt is gone.

    What does that leave?

    1. Notre Dame – they are likely seeing that they will need to join a conference at this point to be competitive. Hate the historical bickering between the conference and ND, but, at some point, it becomes too logical to not just add them in (and have them accept). I thought for sure they would go to the ACC (and they still could instead of Rutgers, which leaves us in worse shape).

    2. Navy – I’m clinging to this one (probably irrationally). Opens up Maryland recruiting and the region as well. I’ve listed the other reasons a million times. Quite frankly, it would be cool.

    3. Temple / Villanova – Penn State already has the Philly market though. This would add in more NJ recruits (instead of Rutgers). But, doesn’t really do much.

    4. Kansas – w/o Mizzou as a rival and a gateway, I don’t see it. They add Bball presence but not much in Fball or in market. They meet academic standards, which is a necessity. They are one of the fallbacks.

    5. Iowa State – ouch. this would be a failure by the conference. Love their wrestling program, but really this would give us nothing that the conference doesn’t already have today.

    6. Miami (OH) – we are not adding another Ohio school. The Buckeyes won’t allow it and it doesn’t make much sense from a media market standpoint either. However, if we did extend a bid to an Ohio school, then it would be Miami. They have the academics (#90 by US News – would have pressure to improve that), FBall history (cradle of coaches), and would capture the Cinci market (not like Ohio State doesn’t).

    apologies to Toledo fans on that one (also note: Michigan and Ohio State would be fighting Toledo as they both rely on that region).

    7. Army – less likely than Navy, but considering the middling other options, I guess we could combo grab those teams and it would make for a great historical addition. really make the Big10 a throwback conference as well.

    Best options of these: ND, Navy, Kansas, and … well, umm… tiebreaker goes to Army out of respect.

    Worst option (ND stays Independent, ACC gets Rutgers, SEC takes Kansas): Navy, Army, Miami(OH), Villanova

  • stin4u

    In the interest of full disclosure I am a ND fan. I agree with your assessment here Andrew. I follow OSU as a function of living in Ohio and most of my friends are OSU fans. Fickell was deemed the coach in waiting and was then obviously thrust to the fire quickly because of Tressel and the administration folks.

    I know it is unacceptable to have a “down year” for buckeye fans but if anyone has earned a break it’s Fickell. He wouldn’t have been in the position he was in under the vest if he wasn’t a capable guy. He does deserve better, he does deserve some time, and he does deserve a break but he won’t get it. I really couldn’t understand how the expectations for this team were still sky high after all the scandal of this past six months and I guess that is why I don’t understand the people calling for his head after one loss.

  • BuckeyeDawg

    Yeah, how much do you want to bet that Fickell wishes he would have said “Thinks, but no thanks” when approached about the job.

    OSU will still be OK long term, but Fickell really took one for the team (alma mater) here. At the end of the season, when the question becomes “Who would we rather have: Luke Fickell, Urban Meyer, or another big name, experienced D-I coach, who do you think wins?

    And as far as the Big 10 is concerned, I think they need to get pro-active and get talking to 4 other teams…like, yesterday. Notre Dame, Mizzou, Kansas, and Iowa State make the most sense…although ND and Mizzou are the only two that bring any kind of football cred. Maybe you try to get WV, Rutgers, or Louisville if the others down work out…

  • crobarred

    Nice post Andrew. I disagree with your Urban Meyer speculation. While OSU is a premier coaching spot I don’t see Urban Meyer going there. Why would he want to leave his plush studio job to go to a university that is under the thumb of the NCAA currently?

  • Jack

    OSU is also about being good at what you do.

    He is not.

    You don’t “learn” to not cower away from responsibility–you’re either that type or you’re not.

    Looks like Fick isn’t. Can’t garner the respect necessary to execute at this level when you do things like that.

  • Lyon

    How does he not overrule Bollman? His job is on the line & someone else keeps trotting out a player who is not helping at all, make an executive decision and put the kid in that gives you the best chance of winning now, and the future.

    I liked Fickell coming into the year, but after last game, there is no future for him.

  • christopher

    okay so i might be completely off my rocker here but is see this from a totally different side of the mirror…

    Fickell took this position as his one year audition to earn a head coaching spot at ANOTHER school. There is absolutley no way i can believe he accepted the tOSU spot thinking he was coming back next year.

    Could you imagine the conversation in a recruits home of Fickell explaining how he was turned down for an HC spot at Akron but is totally in control of “re-building” the Buckeyes?

    and even if Fickell runs the table and wins a non-sanctioned National Championship he is still headed to a smaller program because of the University being able to say “look at what we did last year with Fickell at the helm, now we’d like you to meet Coach Meyer.”

    Fickell knows deep down this is his chance to make a name to get into a smaller program and build up to being a heach coach…and what’s wrong with that? nothing i can think of.

    the fan base is totally giving this year to the Buckeyes, no questions asked. Play hard in the Big Ten, BEAT MICHIGAN and play the freshman to work out his kinks. Fickell does that and he helps his cause into the head coaching gig at an Akron, Baldwin Wallace, type school while at the same time appeasing the buckeye fans leaving the door open for him to come back after he learns how to coach a program, not a season.

  • LittleWahoo

    This goes out to all you super-sized-teacher-put-me-in-charge-when-she-leaves-the-room Tressel haters. You let the media force public sentiment against a top 5 coach. Tressel was witch hunted down by you anal freaks calling him a cheater. Now look at our program! You cannot tell me Tressel’s crime fits his punishment. I wouldn’t want to play for a hall monitor rat (to the projectors). Now all that was great about Ohio sports is back to the Cooper days.

  • Shamrock

    Collage football is spiraling down the toilet bowl. It’s all about $$$ and cheating. The NCAA is slowly going towards a handful of major conferences while refusing to institute a national championship tournament.

    As for Ohio State you reap what you sew. I feel a little bad for Fickell but he took the job.

  • JK

    LittleWahoo – Agree.

  • rt

    I am not get on the Urban meyer band wagon Luke Fickell should be given a Another year to show himself. He walked into a firestorm and honestly give him cudos for that. He has been there for over 10 years paid his dues. Give him one more year to show himself the school owes him that.

  • RickB56

    You are correct Shamrock…Its all about the money now..and thats just the way society is.

    Get a BCS bowl..and your school splits 25 million with the other school. Money….Money..and more money.

    I’m sorry Luke Fickell ended up the way he did. Maybe he should have passed on the deal. But, he needed a stage to try and shine.
    and this was his way of trying it.

    3 weeks before the season begins…he gets appointed “interim” head coach. Now that ESPN states that Meyer will accept the job at OSU, you have to wonder whats going through Luke’s mind.