For the better part of two seasons, Luke Fickell’s been under siege from opposing quarterbacks and fans alike – and pizza deliverymen. Asked Thursday evening about fearing for his job, the Ohio State defensive coordinator gave a rambling, two-minute response.
Yes or no was not part of the equation.
“Statistics, at the end of the year, you really look back at them, do you want to dive into statistics?” Fickell said. “Well, where were you in scoring defense? What is the most important? You can always find something that you can get better at. You gotta find something that you can hang your hat on.
“But the reality is, as you go on battling, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But what are you going to do, live your life worried about everything? How would that be? How much excitement? What would that do for you? You know what, you’re confident in what you do and you believe in, what you do. If that's what the plan is, that’s what the plan is. I want what’s best for this place.
“Coach Meyer knows that, and we talked about that from Day 1. If something is better for this place, then so be it, because I want what is best for my alma mater, my university. Obviously we have enough confidence in what it is that we do. We don’t just look at one single stat. I know you keep dwelling upon it and everybody dwells upon it, but the reality is this is a team game. People ask all kinds of questions. Why is this the best sport known to man? Because it’s a team sport. It’s more like life. If something happens to one of your buddies and he doesn’t pick you up, do you defriend him for the rest of his life? Things like that. That’s what you learn from this.
“The examples we set for our guys are the same examples we all live our life by. You can’t worry. Because there was a bombing in the World Trade Center a few years ago, do you never want to fly again? What are you going to do? I know it’s comparing it to different things, but the reality is you have confidence in what you do and believe in what you do and whatever happens, happens.”
The disjointed retort was part of Fickell’s first public remarks since the Orange Bowl, the capper in a dismal three-game defensive stretch to end the season. The Buckeyes allowed nearly 540 yards and 38 points to Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson. Devin Gardner, Connor Cook and Tajh Boyd reaped the rewards.
Fans’ outlook on Fickell has gone through a winding evolution from his playing career, when he was a beloved four-year starter from DeSales, to a coaching career with mixed results. The Columbus native has spent all but four years of his life in the city and every year since 1993, save for 1997, ’98, 2000 and ’01, at Ohio State.
But it’s a results-oriented business, and Fickell’s defenses have been subpar. More than 1,700 yards and 115 points given up in three games doesn’t instill confidence.
“This isn’t exact science,” Fickell said. “You’re dealing with 18-22-year-olds. Somebody can stand and have the greatest opinion and stand up and do a lecture and tell you what the greatest defense, and this is how you do it.
“You know, hey, Michigan State was No. 1 in defense this year, so you should play their defense. Or, hold on, Alabama was No. 1 in defense the year before, so you should play their defense. The reality is it’s what those guys understand. What you believe in and what you can get through to them, and what their talents have, too. That’s the trick of being a coach, you gotta be able to adapt and adjust.”
One of 2014’s offseason themes has been altering and correcting. The coaching staff welcomed two new additions in secondary coach Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson. Ash in particular is vital in the defensive makeover. The Buckeyes ranked 112th nationally in pass defense last season.
“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you,” Fickell said. “I know that we haven’t had the real stresses and the reality of a season. But we battled through a lot of things in about the last month or so. It’s been a great growing experience for me.
“I’ve always had a little bit of a comfort level since I’ve been here with the people that I’ve known. That’s one of those things that Coach Meyer likes to challenge you to do is get out of your comfort zone. Having some new guys has made me do that. It’s made me broaden things that we do.”
Implementing a more aggressive scheme and press coverage is likely part of that growth. The path to championships and the epicenter of college football is on the defensive side of the ball, hurry-up offenses be damned. It puts even more pressure on a defense that’s been spread thin at linebacker for three years.
“[Fickell’s] concerned, but we’re going to take that as a challenge to stick together," senior linebacker Curtis Grant said. “We’ll work on the stuff that we need to work on to get better.”
Said Fickell: “We have to understand that we’re going to challenge things. If a guy catches one, he catches one. But the idea of bending but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that Coach Meyer likes. Those are some of the things that, as you get into the third year of it, you figure out each other. And hopefully we’ll do a better job of it.”
With the sport’s apex a goal, there’s no other choice.