INDIANAPOLIS — Luke Fickell arrived at Wisconsin from Cincinnati the end of last year intent on taking the Badgers back to the glories of yesteryear, and then some, but he hasn’t forgotten whence he originally came, not by a long shot.
John Cooper, Jim Heacock, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer: Those were coaches who helped shape his approach to the job during his couple decades at Ohio State, first as a player in the mid-1990s, to an assistant, even to his seven-month stint as interim head coach in 2011.
“Borrowed, stole, became a part of, they are all those things,” Fickell said of what he tried to take from those relationships. “Those situations, those opportunities all shaped me.
“I was very fortunate to be at one place for a very long time, but to really be with three Hall of Fame coaches — from Coach Cooper, who I played for, to Coach Tressel to Coach Meyer — three Hall of Fame coaches who have done it in many different ways.”
Three more diverse approaches to the job and art of being a coach would be tough to duplicate.
“That’s probably the main thing that I learned, that there are many different ways to do this, there are many different ways to win and grow a program,” Fickell said. “But it’s gotta be you.
“It’s gotta be authentic. It’s gotta be consistent and all those things.”
The key from his time at Ohio State was he had his ears and eyes always open.
“Taking things from each and everyone of those guys I was fortunate to spend some time with … that’s a lot of experience,” Fickell said. “But the eight or nine months where I had the opportunity to do things on my own (as the interim head coach) really showed me how important the true leadership behind all that we do is.
“And the failures that I had, especially in those eight or nine months, probably as much as all those other times with those other guys, really helped me be who I am.”
When Fickell was named head coach at Ohio State, due to the timing – Memorial Day, 2011 – and the way Tressel was ushered out, Fickell was afforded the opportunity to hire one assistant, and that was to replace himself.
“I made a mistake, didn’t I?” Fickell said, laughing.
What he did was make future coaching history because he hired he hired his great friend and former Ohio State teammate Mike Vrabel. Vrabel went on to be retained by Meyer, just as Fickell was, then Vrabel moved on to the NFL Houston Texans in January 2014, and since 2018 has been head coach of the Tennessee Titans, being named the NFL coach of the year for the 2021 season.
Wooo, that was a breathtaking paragraph, but it shows how fast life can move for a coach. For two coaches, really. But did Fickell see what was coming for Vrabel?
“I never would doubt that guy,” Fickell said. “Whatever he’s going to do he’s going to do it 120 mph with 100% of everything.”
Vrabel wanted to help his good friend at that moment.
“He did. He wanted a reason to retire, too,” Fickell said, referring to Vrabel’s illustrious NFL career with New England and finally with Kansas City. “But he always knew he was going to be a coach, and he always knew that there was going to have to be some segue into doing what he was gonna do. He was never gonna [just] walk away.
“So it was a win in everybody’s book. And it was something for me that, I know it wasn’t a great time (the Buckeyes went 6-7 that season, including the loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl, the only losing record in the last 34 seasons), and some people can evaluate whether it was successful or not … but some of the successes I did have [that season] and the ability to continue to stay upright have a lot to do with the people I was around, and he was a big part of that.
“I’ve always been indebted to him for that, that experience he did for me and our alma mater, but it’s amazing how it’s grown.”
When Fickell became a head coach for the second time, he hit the ground running at Cincinnati, built a consistent big-time winner, and that effort helped vault the Bearcats into the new-look Big 12 starting next year.
“There’s a lot of things that we did that we are really proud of,” Fickell said. “And not just the winning, but the development of a culture, the development of guys who have the opportunity not just to play at the next level but go on and do something different with their life.
“That’s what’s so special and that’s what’s so hard to leave, to be quite honest with you.”
“I always say you’ve got to leave a place better than when you got it. That’s the whole key when you try to evaluate someone’s leadership: How was it when they got it?
“So, to me, I’m not sure if it’s quite what it was two years ago when we had nine guys drafted, but I think that time, and the things that we did, and the relationships we built is what I love about the game.”
He’s at Wisconsin now, and there’s no doubt he’s Luke Fickell, a man with a plan, not a clone of someone else. He’s taking the Badgers into the world of the spread offense without forgetting that power football has its place, too. He will do so with confidence, certainly in his approach.
“It’s the ability to be consistent,” Fickell said. “The ability to believe in what you’re doing, and be authentic in everything that you do.”