Who Will Determine Fickell's Future?
By Tony Gerdeman
For just the fourth time in sixty years Ohio State football has had a head coaching change. Let that fact amble around in your brain for a moment. Since Woody Hayes was hired in 1951, the position has only been passed on to four other people.
Clearly, when somebody is given the job of head football coach at Ohio State, they are meant to keep it for a very long time, but with the unorthodox way that Luke Fickell earned the job, and given his title as “interim head coach”, past intent of longevity may no longer be in play.
That doesn't mean Fickell won't be at Ohio State for a another decade or two. It just means he's got his work cut out for him.
People think that a school like Ohio State would never hire somebody who hasn't had head coaching experience. Oklahoma did with Bob Stoops. Florida did with Will Muschamp. Nebraska did with Bo Pelini. Wisconsin did with Bret Bielema. Besides, Fickell will have an entire year of head coaching under his belt when the ultimate decision comes.
Given that he gets a season-long audition, Luke Fickell doesn't have tob "win the job", he's already “won” it. Now it's simply his job to lose.
The University would love for Fickell to be able to keep the Buckeyes near the same level of play that Jim Tressel has had them for the last decade. If he can manage to do that in what most consider a “lost season”, why wouldn't that be enough to earn him the job on a full-time basis?
There are reasons.
For one, the powers that be within the University, both the athletic director and trustees, may not like the fact that they would have almost no say in who takes over this program. Yes, they tabbed Fickell as the interim head coach, but he was the most likely candidate, and they did it with Jim Tressel's influence and blessing.
As a group of movers and shakers, they may not like the fact that the guy they wanted removed has essentially named his own successor. Calling this an uphill battle for Luke Fickell is a spectacular understatement.
For two, the overall talent is clearly still here to win every game the Buckeyes play, but that seems almost impossible given the suspensions of key players and the likely loss of focus.
Yes, he gets to audition, but he obviously doesn't have the best environment in which to perform. Will he be graded on a curve? Doubtful. Ohio State doesn't really grade their coaching hires on a curve. Buckeye coaches have to set the curve, not be boosted by it, but this is clearly not your normal situation.
So how much success would be necessary for Fickell to keep the job?
Even when everybody knew he was going to be the head coach for the first five games, people assumed the Buckeyes' record would be somewhere around 3-2, with losses coming at Miami and at home to Michigan State. Given how many players will be missing from those first five games, unless he is personally responsible for the losses, how much can Fickell really be blamed for losing with a depleted roster?
The bulk of his performance review, if those doing the reviewing have any intention of giving Fickell a legitimate shot, will likely revolve around his success from games six and on.
Game six, of course, is in primetime in Lincoln, Nebraska. Since the schedule was announced, I have said that this is an unwinnable game, and that's when Jim Tressel was supposed to be coaching in it.
In the worst-case scenario, the Buckeyes are looking at 3-3 after six games, but is that really all that far off from where you would expect this team to be had Tressel not resigned? A loss at Miami and Nebraska isn't all that unheard of, you know.
The Buckeyes then travel to Illinois before getting the week off prior to hosting Wisconsin. A loss at Illinois would be tough to swallow, but it wouldn't be the first time the Illini made Ohio State choke.
A win over Wisconsin would certainly create a lot of goodwill amongst the decision-makers, assuming they haven't already made their decisions about Fickell's fate, which may be a very foolish assumption by this point in the season.
Indiana comes to town after Wisconsin, and that shouldn't be a problem. A trip to West Lafayette the following week, however, still makes some Buckeye fans flinch.
It's tough to say how much of Fickell's future is dependent upon his team's performance in the final two games of the season—at home against Penn State and on the road at Michigan, but losing both would certainly weigh heavily.
We don't yet know this to be the case, but there may be no postseason for the Buckeyes this year. If that is true, the last impression of this Buckeye team could come against Michigan. Everybody should be keyed in for that game, which is a plus, but if they aren't, Fickell's future answers itself pretty easily.
Let's not forget that he may have to prove he's worthy of being Ohio State's coach on the shoulder of a freshman quarterback. Could there be anything more disconcerting for a coach? You get one shot, and you're forced to let a rookie pull the trigger for you.
Looking at the schedule, eight wins this season should be considered a success, but will it be enough of a success? As a point of reference, of the last four coaches at Ohio State, only Earle Bruce won more than seven games in his first season.
Anything over eight wins would be fantastic for Fickell's future. He has to win some games that he's not supposed to win, and in doing so he'll prove that he's as good as Ohio State had always expected him to be.
But it will take more than a certain win total for Fickell to keep what is already his. He can help his cause with double-digit wins, but above all else it will take an open mind from those who make these decisions in order for him to stick around.
Results, of course, have a way of opening even the most closed of minds. Short of eleven or twelve wins, however, the win total by itself won't be enough to break through and win certain folks over.
There will need to be an air of control, calm and confidence around the program under Fickell's guidance. If the Buckeyes are winning in spite all the turmoil surrounding the program, that's great for the program, but not good for Fickell. He is going to be held to a higher standard than any coach in the country this year, and likely any coach at Ohio State ever before him.
What would have been an understandable and acceptable year of 8-4 under Jim Tressel could likely spell the end for Fickell.
In a bit of irony, he might want to silently pull for some harsher NCAA penalties than others in the program are expecting in hopes of driving off the one or two candidates the powers that be might have in mind.
In the end, Luke Fickell may be the perfect coach for this job, but proving it will be harder for him than for any of the other candidates out there.
No other coaching candidates will have to deal with as much as Fickell will this season. It won't even be close, but he does have one advantage over everybody else - he's already got the job.
Coaches preach about dealing with adversity. This season Luke Fickell will get to be a first hand case study for his players. If he comes through as a shining example of success in the face of adversity, how can anybody take from him what is already rightfully his?
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