Luke Fickell spent five years at Ohio State as a player, starting four of those years at nose tackle for the Buckeyes. He came back to the University as a graduate assistant in 1999 before landing a defensive line job with Akron for 2000 and 2001. He returned to Ohio State in 2002 and remained there through the 2016 season before leaving to take the head coaching job at Cincinnati.
Now, in year three of his tenure with the Bearcats, Fickell brings his team to his old stomping grounds this weekend to face the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes.
Much of the story this week is about Fickell coming back to a place that is very special for him, but his intentions are to keep the emotions at bay and focus on the task at hand.
“It’s an opportunity, not just that we’re playing Ohio State, but it’s an opportunity for us to play a top five team to measure our program,” Fickell said this week. “To measure us as individuals, and it measures us as an offense, defense, and as units against some of the best. And I think that that’s the way we’ve kind of looked at it.
“That’s the way we’ll talk about it today as a football team and a football program, and I think that’s the way I want those guys to focus on it. It’s nothing different than when you play against the very best, it doesn’t matter what the name is on their chest. It’s not a rivalry game, but it’s our opportunity to challenge ourselves and measure ourselves.”
While Fickell still kept up with his own media responsibilities, the players got the week off from talking to reporters.
It wasn’t that they wouldn’t be able to handle the questioning, it was more that he didn’t like the way things have gone the last time the Bearcats had a regular season game this big.
Last year, Cincinnati traveled to #11 UCF for the biggest game of the week. ESPN’s College Gameday was on hand. The hype was very real. Fickell’s team went in as a touchdown underdog but lost the game by 25 points.
That is why this week he just wants his team focused on their assignments, not the outside noise that can provide the kind of distractions that Fickell believes may have had an impact in the past.
“I think that when you focus on the process, I think that’s when you can’t get overwhelmed with the stages of things,” he said. “I don’t know that we did a great job — we talked about that first time we’ve ever been on [ESPN] Gameday and we go out and I don’t think we played very well.
“Now not that the kids were all worried about Gameday and watching Gameday, but I think that you’ve got to approach it in the right ways. And when the bigger the stage is the bigger the games, the more you’ve got to focus on the little things and the fundamentals and not worry about outcomes and what it will mean.”
The one thing Fickell isn’t doing is explaining his history with Ohio State to his team or implying that it would be some grand feat to beat the Buckeyes. He won’t be showing the near-win in 2002 because he doesn’t want his team seeing Ohio State as an unconquerable beast.
Instead, they will watch film. They will worry about themselves. The will prepare as if it was any other game, while also knowing the incredible opportunity placed in front of them.
“That’s one of those things why it has nothing to do with really who were playing,” he said. “Some people would say ‘you guys aren’t doing interviews this weekend.’ Well it has nothing to do with us playing Ohio State and being 100 miles down the road. This is a big stage and what I want to do is not what we did last year in some of those situations and maybe we got distracted in the UCF game and Gameday.
“So let’s just don’t worry about all those things. Let’s focus on ourselves. Let’s focus on the things we can do to put ourselves in those situations. I didn’t talk about who we’re playing. I talked about it as being that this is a great program, a great team, and this is a challenge to us. As opposed to it being an in-state, hundred miles away. Maybe a lot of our kids grew up as as Ohio State fans. Try to put all those things aside. Don’t make a bigger deal about it, but look at it as, ‘hey this is an opportunity.’
“Would it be as great of a game if they weren’t ranked? For some people it still would be, but the reality is, it’s a top five team and an opportunity for us to measure ourselves against the best.”