Can you imagine growing up in Columbus, attending The Ohio State University, singing “Carmen Ohio” in The ‘Shoe as both a player and a coach for more than 20 years? Then, you find yourself on the opposing sideline as head coach of a different team, watching the other guys sing your own alma mater without you?
Yet, when asked on Monday’s American Athletic Conference teleconference how he felt about returning to Ohio State on Saturday, Luke Fickell said he’s “very unemotional.”
Sure you are, Luke, sure you are.
Fickell was hired as the Cincinnati Bearcats’ head football coach less than three years ago, but before that, he bled Scarlet and Gray through and through.
The Columbus native attended DeSales High School, where he was a two-time first team All-Ohio defensive tackle, as well as a three-time, undefeated state wrestling champion (in other words, don’t mess with the guy.)
Ahead of the 1992 season, John Cooper, Ohio State head football coach at the time, offered him a scholarship, which Fickell accepted. He played for the Buckeyes from 1992-96, redshirting his first year after breaking his leg in practice, and then starting the next four seasons at nose guard. He started 50 consecutive games between 1993 and 1996 — a school-record that Fickell held until Billy Price broke it in 2017.
Fickell finished his career at Ohio State with 212 total tackles, including 26 for-loss and six sacks. During those four years with Fickell as a starter, the Buckeyes went 41-8-1, with two Big Ten co-championships in 1993 and 1996. To end his final season, Ohio State defeated Arizona State in the Rose Bowl. Fickell made two tackles in that game, despite having a torn pectoral muscle.
After graduating from Ohio State in 1997 with a degree in exercise science, Fickell signed as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints. He spent a year on the injured reserve list after tearing the ACL in his knee and was later released by the team.
Soon after his short-lived NFL career ended, Cooper came knocking once again. Fickell was hired in 1999 as a graduate assistant at Ohio State by his college coach. He would stay with the Buckeyes for one season before accepting his first full-time coaching position in 2000 at the University of Akron. Fickell spent two years as the Zips’ defensive line coach under head coach Lee Owens.
In 2002, Fickell started a new coaching job at — you guessed it — Ohio State. Second-year head coach Jim Tressel brought him back to the program as special teams coordinator. Fickell led the Buckeyes’ special teams for two years before taking over as linebackers coach in 2004 and then adding co-defensive coordinator to his job duties in 2005. He held both of these titles until 2011, when he took over as interim head coach.
In 2005, the Fickell-led defense was fifth in the NCAA in total defense and first in rushing defense. In 2007 the Buckeyes were first in total defense, first in scoring defense and first in pass defense. In 2009 and 2010, the team was fifth and fourth, respectively, in total defense. From 2005-2011, Fickell’s units finished in the top 5 nationally in points per game allowed five times.
Fickell was named Assistant Coach of the Year in 2010 by the American Football Coaches Association. He was in good company, joining a list of other legendary Buckeyes coaches who share this award including Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, and Jim Tressel.
In May of 2011, Fickell was asked to step in as interim head coach for an Ohio State football team who had just lost their head coach and star quarterback due to NCAA violations. Say what you want about that underwhelming 6-7 season, but you have to admire Fickell’s willingness to take over during one of — if not the most — turbulent times in Ohio State football history.
On Nov. 28, 2011, Urban Meyer was hired as the program’s new coach. Many speculated that Meyer would clear house, get rid of Fickell, and fill the Woody Hayes with his own staff. But, yet again, Fickell’s alma mater wasn’t letting him get away. Meyer named Fickell his defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, saying, “He’s an Ohio guy, a Buckeye.”
The Buckeyes went 12-0 in 2012 and Fickell was promptly named one of the top recruiters in the country by both Rivals and ESPN.
It wasn’t until Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season, however, that Fickell’s defense under Meyer really started to breakthrough. The unit recorded the first shutout in a conference championship game in Power Five history with a 59-0 victory over Wisconsin while limiting Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon to 2.9 yards per carry and the Badgers as a whole to just 258 total yards.
In the College Football Playoff Sugar Bowl win over No. 1 Alabama, Fickell’s defense forced seven Alabama punts and had three interceptions in the last 18 minutes of the game. In the national championship game vs. Oregon, his guys held the Ducks to 100 yards below their offensive average and surrendered just 10 points off of four Ohio State turnovers.
Though the Buckeyes return to the CFB playoff in 2016 against Clemson didn’t go as well for the defense, they finished their regular season with a No. 4 total defense, No. 1 pass efficiency defense, and a No. 3 scoring defense with seven interceptions returned for touchdowns... miss you, Malik Hooker.
Fickell has molded some of Ohio State (and the NFL’s) greatest linebackers. This list includes first-round picks A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee, as well as NFL standout James Laurinaitis, Joshua Perry, Anthony Schlegel, Larry Grant, and Marcus Freeman, to name a few. By the way, Freeman is now UC’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
In all, Fickell has been part of 213 Buckeye victories (compared to just 43 losses and one tie), 11 bowl victories, and is a proud owner of 14 pairs of gold pants.
Now, the third-year Cincinnati head coach is preparing his team to play Ohio State. In just a few days, he’ll be walking into The ‘Shoe — a place that he called home for 20 years — as a visitor for the very first time. He says he won’t let his emotions take over, yet every Buckeye knows the feeling they get when “O come let’s sing Ohio’s praise” is sung around the entire stadium. He’s tough... but is he that tough?