Ohio State’s Saturday matchup against Rutgers for the most part coincided with the top-10 matchup of Cincinnati and Notre Dame, which meant that, at a certain point, it was easy to flip to the latter game once things were well in-hand for the Buckeyes.
There was a cool moment during that game in which the NBC crew of announcers talked about the connection between Luke Fickell, head coach for Cincinnati, and Marcus Freeman, defensive coordinator for Notre Dame.
While the moment itself was incredibly heartwarming, I personally felt very old upon hearing this, because I remember Freeman as a player. After a career as a linebacker for Ohio State from 2004-08, Freeman spent a year on NFL practice squads before kicking off his coaching career with Ohio State as a graduate assistant in 2010.
Yes, it’s strange to see players becoming coaches. Freeman is a name some of us remember because he was a starter for much of his time, but folks outside of the Ohio State fan base likely wouldn’t remember him as a player.
In many ways, this scenario is different from the typical coaching lineage, because Fickell recruited Freeman as a player. Fickell himself, as we well know, played for Ohio State in the 1990s. Seeing the pair face off on opposite sidelines, especially with neither as a coach at their alma mater, was intriguing, and gave a reason (gasp) to have generally positive feelings toward one or both teams.
Coaching trees are a well-documented (and often archaic) phenomenon, but they get interesting when rooted in these different types of alumni connections.
For starters, there’s the awkward situation with Fickell. It was easy to have his back when he was interim head coach for Ohio State in 2011, but even the most positive of fans would have trouble spinning Fickell into a successful head coach in Columbus. Once he parted ways with the Ohio State program (after five more years as co-defensive coordinator), there were no hard feelings, and it seemed as though Ohio State fans en masse wished him the best in his new role as head coach at Cincinnati.
In other words, he is a distinguished alum of the Ohio State football program, and one who, like many of the Buckeyes’ first round draft picks, serves as a shining example of what can happen for recruits who come to play at Ohio State.
One other way that’s come to life is when considering that Fickell is not the only head coach to come out of the 1990s Ohio State defense. Mike Vrabel, Fickell’s teammate, had a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks in the 2010s, landing as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2018 — just his eighth season as a coach in any capacity.
Vrabel’s hiring also highlights the difference between having star players become coaches compared to more “average” players (because the reality is there’s nothing average about playing FBS football — something most of us couldn’t accomplish). Many of us remember watching Vrabel win Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots in the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, we have no memories of coaches like Ryan Day, who was a quarterback for New Hampshire, as players.
As exciting as it’s been to watch Vrabel, we’ve got to credit Fickell as well. He was very much thrown into the proverbial fire in 2011 as interim head coach at Ohio State — a role that he was not ready for at the time but which he has assuredly grown into. While it was easy to write him off as a poor coach, he’s shown what he can do with a full roster of his players and a chance to build out a program for more than a year.
Looking at the current personnel list for Ohio State, Brian Hartline, the wide receivers coach for Ohio State, is another staff member who’s been rising rapidly through the ranks. He was a solid receiver for the Buckeyes in the late 2000s, and had a respectable NFL career with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. Now in his fifth season as a coach with the program and already with a track record of success at recruiting and development, many see Hartline as one of the hottest names for upcoming collegiate coordinator (and even head coach) vacancies come the offseason.
While this phenomenon is not new — obviously, coaches had to come from somewhere — what’s interesting is how young many of these coaches are. We’ve seen the trend shifting away from coaches being in their 40s or later, especially at the NFL level, before getting their first head coaching assignment, so we’re in an interesting time where players we saw on the field just a few years ago are now on the sidelines once again in a different role.
This situation is also not isolated to football. Steve Nash, who retired from the NBA in 2015, and Jason Kidd, who retired in 2013, are both head coaches in the NBA, and are coaching against players they played with during their time in the league. At the collegiate level, Juwan Howard coached as an assistant in Miami immediately following his retirement as a player before heading to his alma mater in 2019.
Looking at the bigger picture, growing a robust rolodex of coaches — Fickell, Vrabel, Freeman and Hartline to name a few — is another tool in Ohio State’s recruiting basket (similar to how Joey Galloway, Chris Spielman, Kirk Herbstreit and, most recently, Joshua Perry are on the broadcast media side). Sure, many (most?) players who come to Ohio State are seeking a career in the NFL, but being able to offer alternative career paths is another feather in the program’s cap.