The Coaching Search: Luke Fickell

Written June 15th, 2011 by Eric

Following the excellent work by guest poster Ty Kelly, we here at the BBC wanted to kick off a new feature looking at the coaching candidates that may be getting a look-see by the University in the coming year.  Of course, we’re not going to limit ourselves just to the reasonable candidates, we’ll be taking a look at every name that comes down the pipe.  This will give us an opportunity to explore all the different angles that OSU might be looking at with the candidates.

It’s important, though, that we start this feature with our personal favorite for the position.  I think you already have a pretty good guess who that is.

Luke Fickell, the guy with the inside track.

Luke Fickell was named Interim Head Coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes on May 30th, 2011.  This was the brightest silver lining to the darkest cloud imaginable.  That happened to be the same day that Jim Tressel formally resigned from the same position.

Years before this situation arose, many Buckeye fans had speculated about how the program would move forward from the Tressel era.  Clearly continuing the on and off field success would be important.  The name that continually came up in regards to a replacement (then believed to be stepping in once Tressel retired) was Fickell himself.

Much of the discussion regarding Fickell was firmly in the realm of wild speculation, though there were a number of factors that supported the belief.  One of the biggest had to do with the success of the players who played for him.  Names like AJ Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, James Larenitis, Marcus Freeman, and Anthony Schlegel roll across Buckeye fans’ tongues with ease.  All of them were possible due to Fickell’s skill.

In 2005, Fickell was promoted to co-defensive coordinator of the Buckeyes.  Many people believe that this is the point that the OSU defense turned a corner and became a much more aggressive unit overall.  In the two years prior to Fickell’s promotion, the Ohio State defense gave up 229 points (2003: 11-2 season) and 219 points (2004: 8-4 season).  After Fickell’s promotion, the Buckeyes never gave up more than 186 points (last season).  In fact, the 163 given up by the Bucks in 2009 was the lowest since 1998 (144).

The defensive statistics since the Woody Hayes era are quite interesting and educational.  There’s a lot of fact behind the idea that Fickell has made significant improvements in the play of the Buckeyes.  Consider the averages of total points scored against the Buckeye defense in each of the following eras:

Time Period
Points Allowed Average (season)
1979-1987 (Bruce)
194
1988-2000 (Cooper)
209.46
2001-2010 (Tressel)
192
2001-2004 (Tressel pre-Fickell DC)
218.75
2005-2010 (Fickell)
174.17
1979-2004 (Pre-Fickell)
205.54
1979-2011 (Overall)
199.66

A couple of interesting things jump out.

  1. Jim Tressel’s defenses were the worst among the three Ohio State coaches until Fickell moved up the ranks.  Only then did Tressel’s become the best.*
  2. Earle Bruce’s numbers are artificially low, having played around one or two fewer games on average than Tressel.
  3. If you calculate averages for each set of 6 years since the start of Earle Bruce’s career, no set of years is better than the one’s Luke Fickell spent as Coordinator (2005-2010, 174.17).  The only 6 year set that comes close is 1993-1998 at 178.17 – Fickell saw the field in the first four.

Fickell the Buckeye

Fickell does not have the Head Coaching resume possessed by a number of other coaches we will feature on this list.  Fickell has never held a head coaching position during his career, something that may reflect negatively on him in trying to make the position permanent.

On the plus side, he does have one season to demonstrate he can do the job and has clearly indicated that doing it the right way will be more important than anything else.  I think he’s on the right track to negating his lack of experience in the job.

Playing Career:
Nose Guard, Defensive Line, Ohio State Buckeyes (1992RS, 1993-1996).

Pedegree:

  • Graduate Assistant: Ohio State 1999-2000
  • Defensive Line Coach: Akron 2000-2001
  • Special Teams Coach: Ohio State 2002-2003
  • Linebackers: Ohio State 2004
  • Linebackers/Co-Defensive Coordinator: Ohio State 2010

Awards and Honors:
2010 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year Award
Fickell is the first OSU coach to win this award, and the fifth Ohio State Head Coach to have been honored by the AFCA. Previous AFCA award winners include Carroll Widdoes, Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, and Jim Tressel. It is certainly no small honor to be included in that company.

Reasons Ohio State could hire Fickell:

  • Fickell is a born and bred Buckeye.  He “gets” the things that are important to the fanbase and the school – especially the Michigan rivalry.
  • He has learned under two previous Ohio State head coaches, and has excellent ties to the school.
  • The athletic department already knows him very well, so there are fewer unknowns about his personality and ability.
  • Many of the players were personally recruited by Fickell, and all of the players know him on some level, making for a less severe transitional period.
  • His press conference on Monday was a work of art.  While clearly uncomfortable with the role, Fickell demonstrated that he had a plan for the future, and had only the players’ and team’s best interests in mind.
  • He also demonstrated a tenacity and toughness that will clearly help make him a very effective coach.

Reasons Ohio State wont hire Fickell:

  • Fickell is too closely tied to two coaches who have left the university on very negative terms: John Cooper and Jim Tressel.
  • The NCAA may view Fickell (and the rest of the current staff) as culpable in the events surrounding Jim Tressel’s resignation, which could adversely affect the university.
  • While Fickell is a fantastic defensive coach, he has no obvious coaching experience with the offensive side of the ball.  A solid offensive season can eliminate those fears.

*That’s not exactly fair to Tressel. Tressel’s pre-Fickell numbers are over only 4 seasons, including his two worst (2001, 2004). Though, it also includes one of Tressel’s better defenses, 2002 which gave up only 183 total points all season (14 games).

12 Comments

  1. sportsMonkeyNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Nice post, Eric.

    I know you mentioned it as an aside… but I’d like to see the points-per-game average, rather than the season average. Both Bruce and Cooper played two fewer games per year than Tressel.

    Another apples-to-oranges concern with using raw point totals is potential era-bias. How to compare a 1981 defense that only faced slow, rush-oriented, low scoring offenses; vs a 2008 defense that faced fast high scoring spread offenses. Also, changes in kickoff placement rules, pass interference rules, etc. affect point totals since those were changed several times over past 30 years to increase scoring.

    I wonder if there’s a way to compare the scoring defense rankings between the coaches and eras. Something like what CFB stats does but going back to 1979. That way each team is ranked in the context of its competition for that era.

    [Reply]

    EricNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Sure, I can crank those numbers out fairly quickly. I’ll get back to you on that.

    Agreed on the potential era bias. Most likely that would end up advantage Fickell, though, as he’s had to put up with tougher offenses than the past.

    I’ll drop another comment with the per-game averages shortly.

    [Reply]

    EricNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2011 at 11:43 am

    As promised: All stats based on Per Game Defensive Averages

    Best single season defense: 1979 (10.5 ppg)
    Worst single season defense: 1988 (25.73)
    Earle Bruce career per game average: 16.17
    John Cooper career per game average: 17.23
    Jim Tressel career per game average: 15
    JT career per game average pre-Fickell: 17.16
    JT career per game average post-Fickell: 13.57

    The major difference is that Jim Tressel’s defense before Fickell is slightly better than John Coopers. But it is still obvious and incredible the difference Fickell has made in the defense.

    [Reply]

    sportsMonkeyNo Gravatar
    June 16th, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Thanks, Eric! That is very insightful.

    One interesting aspect that I noticed was that the 1979 “best single season” team would have been largely Woody’s. Without that, Bruce’s numbers would have averaged higher.

    Fodder for another post (maybe at MotSaG… hmmmm). JT used Fickell as special teams coordinator for his first couple of years. While we talk of JT being “punt” crazy, it was actually Fickell that turned the special teams around and reinvented the OSU special teams focus. The great punters, FG kickers (“Nuuuuugeee”), & special teams returners (“ginn down the sideline… forget about it!”) were Fickell coached.

    [Reply]

  2. TylerNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    great article, Eric — the stats are very interesting, too.

    I also like Coach Fickell’s first press conference. I liked his “take it 1 day at a time” approach he’s stressing to the players.

    It’s hard to predict if he’ll get a fair shake at the job…hope he does.
    In an unrelated note, our favorite Michigan coach, RichRod is going to be in the CBS studios this season, but I think after another mediocre season by Clemson — 7-5 ish, Dabo Sweeney will be gone, and RichRod will be the head coach at Clemson in 2012.

    [Reply]

    EricNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    Thanks Tyler! Big tip of the hat to you, as your article will be the major foundation to this entire series.

    RichRod to Clemson? If that happens, we’re going to take you to Vegas, cause that would be incredible.

    We’d also have to get Fickell to schedule a repeated home-and-home with Clemson so we can take advantage of it. =)

    [Reply]

    MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    June 16th, 2011 at 1:07 am

    Don’t Buckeyes have a history of punching folks from Clemson? Don’t see why we should break that tradition just because RRod is there… heck, I think he’d make an ideal candidate.

    [Reply]

    TylerNo Gravatar
    June 16th, 2011 at 1:19 am

    I concur…but man, I’m gonna miss seeing him on that Michigan sideline — about to burst a blood vessel.
    God bless you, RRod

    [Reply]

    TylerNo Gravatar
    June 16th, 2011 at 1:20 am

    …you’re welcome —- always ready for Vegas

    [Reply]

  3. ChrisNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    While I too would like to see Fickell remain as HC at the end of the season, I think you are lending a little too much credibility to his presence on the staff. Jim Heacock has a lot to do with the defensive stats being ratcheted up a notch. 2005 was the same year Heacock took over that co-defensive coordinator post as well. I think much of the transformation came from the move by Mark Snyder too Marshall as head coach. Folks who followed the team closely in 2004 knew about Snyder’s inability to be a coordinator and (amazingly enough) Snyder was offered the HC position with his alma mater at the end of the 2004 campaign. Where Fickell will be an asset is his knowledge of the situation he is in. It is all or nothing for Luke this year. If he doesn’t succeed to the level that OSU officials expect him to then he will not be retained as head coach, assuming a better candidate is available. I am not totally discounting your theory. Heacock and Fickell make a great combo, and I hope it continues into 2011!

    [Reply]

    EricNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    While I agree with you, I’ll also point out that Dantonio was was considered a particularly good defensive coach, though the stats demonstrate otherwise. (Remember, Snyder was only solo DC for 1 year, 2004. Dantonio was the DC for the other three).

    I’ll agree that I’m not giving Heacock enough credit here, but there’s a reason why Fickell was given the positions he was, and a reason why he was promoted. It seems pretty clear that it’s a safe assumption to attribute the success of the defense primarily to Fickell’s ministrations.

    [Reply]

    sportsMonkeyNo Gravatar
    June 16th, 2011 at 11:27 am

    I agree that we shouldn’t overlook Heacock. He’s the man, that’s for sure, and OSU needs him. He’s a fantastic DC. The only reason OSU managed to stay competitive over this whole “Bollman O-Line of Fail” era is directly attributable to the D and special teams.

    It should be noted, however, that before this scandal erupted, JT and the AD staff had already signaled that Fickell was the next in line. So even though he technically reports to Heacock, he has more seniority in JT’s program (was the Special Teams Coordinator before switching to defense). And when Tressel benched himself, it was Fickell who was given the reins. Clearly the entire coaching staff and athletic department sees something about him…

    [Reply]

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