We're the Boss: Luke Fickell and Chris Ash are Both Here to Help

By Ramzy Nasrallah on March 12, 2014 at 11:15a
Ay-oh! Oh-ay!
48 Comments

Urban Meyer is Ohio State's 24th head coach. The guy before him is still there.

Luke Fickell was its 23rd coach by necessity. The school broke the glass over the In-Case-of-Emergency handle no program ever wants to pull and 13 mostly-forgettable Saturdays later Fick was the Buckeyes' former intern head coach.

He won six times as the boss, which means he was as good as or better than seven of the bosses who came before him. Once Ohio State landed Meyer, Fickell went back to the role he held under Jim Tressel: Co-Defensive Coordinator.

Co. Two letters to signify the defense has two bosses. Fickell did not have to share the head coaching responsibilities in 2011. In 2004 he alone was in charge of linebackers. Prior to that he ruled over special teams by himself. The only thing Luke has been forced to share at Ohio State is the defense. 

His first Co was Jim Heacock, the last remaining holdover from the John Cooper era, and that's kinda the elephant in the room when discussing Fickell's ability to lead a defense. It's not so much because of what happened then as it is what's happened since.

COOL SHADE OF THE HEACOCK TREE
Season Scoring D TOtal D DC
2004 24 38 Mark Snyder
2005 8 5 Heacock/Fickell
2006 2 13 Heacock/Fickell
2007 1 1 Heacock/Fickell
2008 7 8 Heacock/Fickell
2009 5 5 Heacock/Fickell
2010 3 3 Heacock/Fickell
2011 27 19 Heacock/Haynes
2012 31 34 Fickell/Withers
2013 28 46 Fickell/Withers

What happened then stands as one of the greatest defensive stretches in Buckeye football history. That Heacock/Fickell tandem was born out of Mark Snyder's brief and ill-fated takeover for Mark Dantonio, who left Columbus to take over Cincinnati. (Snyder currently runs Texas A&M's 109th-ranked "defense" which is all the evidence you need that meritocracy isn't always the key to the coaching profession).

There was only room for improvement coming out of the transition of 2004, and the Heacock/Fickell hydra delivered a legacy. Their six seasons running the defense are on par with any six in Ohio State's history. There's equity in turning in that kind of a performance, which is why Fickell's name was called when the university broke that glass.

So Fickell put on the bigger headset as the program burned for most of 2011. The defense under Heacock and Paul Haynes took a step back; understandable considering its counterbalance was the worst Ohio State offense of the color TV era. That lost season of 2011 wasn't on account of defensive lapses so that unit got a pass. Fickell took back the Co under Meyer, this time sharing it with Everett Withers.

Withers was a head coach in-waiting from the moment he was brought on campus. Assistant Head Coach is a title like no other in college football; it's the only one that screams at prospective employers that this guy is steward-ready and waiting impatiently. His run under Meyer served its purpose, but his job responsibilities - that other title he held with the Co in it - was not the primary reason he came to Columbus.

Statistics are unkind to Withers' defensive coaching tenure: His 2007 Gophers were 119th in total and 109th in scoring which is about as bad of a combination as you'll ever see (they were 76th in total defense before his arrival). UNC was 35th in total defense the year before he arrived then went 66th, 6th and 30th with him there. You don't know what to make of it and neither does anyone else, but great head coaches aren't necessarily top-flight coordinators. James Madison will know what it has soon enough.

Ohio State has NOW had more defensive coordinators since Tatgate than during the entire Tressel era.

So Fickell is now paired with his third collaborator at Ohio State in Chris Ash. That Co must be necessary. If it wasn't it wouldn't be there. Fickell could have easily been handed the defensive operations to handle himself, answering only to Meyer (and also the fans - it's Ohio State; we all know who's really in charge).

Org charts are generally full of shit, and football staffs are no different. There's no equitable split in authority or responsibilities when a coordinator position is shared, let alone between a newcomer and an alumnus who has lived in town almost his entire life. The incumbent must either cede authority or have it taken from him. 

So Ash will run the secondary, which this past season was statistically the weakest non-Bollman unit of the current century. Ash has more experience with back-seven details and accordingly he gets the most glaring opportunity for improvement. This is a results-oriented business, wrapped in a soap opera all intertwined with a homegrown hero's legacy. Ash the Newcomer receives the tallest task.

The Buckeyes don't break in new coordinators very often. Ohio State has had more defensive coordinators since Tatgate than during the entire Tressel era. This is possibly the most delicate, non-Tatgate/nuclear coaching staff predicament at Ohio State since Mike Jacobs ran Cooper's offense toward the end of his tenure.

hook'em
Meyer's Gator defenses were in good hands with Strong.

It's not because of Fickell or Ash or the developing dynamic between them, either. It's because of their boss and what happened the last time he didn't have the right coordinators in place. If Heacock is the elephant in the room then Charlie Strong is a mastadon sitting on its back.

Meyer's Florida tenure veered off course once he lost Strong and Dan Mullen. You can cling to salacious rumors, chest pains, the lack of proton pump inhibitors in his medicine cabinet or any other variable attached to Meyer's decline in Gainesville, but the Gators went south only after Meyer lost his trusted coordinators. That other stuff is just a distraction.

That's the only program he's led longer than two years, which is about the time success begins to peel away at your staff in the form of career advancements. Withers technically took a promotion, if you consider James Madison poaching an assistant head coach from Ohio State and paying him less money to be a step up.

The Buckeye defense has not been right since Meyer arrived, and now Fickell is the last remaining holdover from the Tressel Era, mirroring Heacock's transition from the Cooper. Ohio State will have its traditional, pain-in-the-ass, nationally-revered Silver Bullets or there will be more promotions that take failed coordinators elsewhere. Those are the two outcomes. There isn't a third.

The quandary is what becomes of Fickell if the defense returns to its Heacock-era form, as there is some belief Ash will get credit for elevating the unit back to its rightful place among college football's elite. It's a leap that makes all of its impact on message boards and, for you adorable octogenarians, the Letters to the Editor section of the Dispatch. 

Sure, Withers could easily serve as the boogeyman in absentia. His name was on those units too, and if Fick was the problem - or even also the problem - he might have found himself promoted somewhere else as well. He remains on campus, but he also remains a CoHe owns the linebackers, which have their own set of problems. It's not as if Ash got all of the areas primed to improve as a function of not having anymore room to deteriorate.

Meyer's Gators went south only after he lost his trusted coordinators.

Unless those safeties or linebackers remain personae non grata, Ash and Fickell will share in the success for having dug their unit out from relative oblivion. The one non-performance wildcard might be if Fickell continues to publicly show emotional cracks from enduring too many unsolicited performance reviews from America's 15th largest city and its pizza delivery fleet.

Another historic run could very well repeat itself on his watch, with him as a Co again, just as it did following Snyder's promotion to Marshall. And as was the case with Heacock, his success with Ash would be shared. Meyer can't win with offense alone, so success on that side of the ball isn't optional.

Fortunately for Ohio State, the guy who ran the team prior to Meyer is still there. Turning a disappointing defense into the team's elite unit is not a new challenge. He's done it before.

48 Comments

Comments

bucknut94's picture

For me it is a wait and see. I am a social scientist so I need to see measureable evidence of improvement. Looking at the new assistants gives me some renewed confidence the defense especially defensive backs will get better.

+2 HS
ChazBuckeye's picture

Great article, aside from the bold face statistics there on the right hand side mid page.  They were glaring so like the north star on a clear night...made me want to throw up my breakfast. Other than that, fantastic!  I hope you're right that Co Coordinating connection is correct.  It sure would be nice to see at least a 5  and   5 in those stat columns.  

Oh wouldn't that be nice!

 

Some people think we’re the hunted.I don’t feel that way at all.We’re the hunter.Everybody wants an angry football team.Everybody wants a team on edge and a hungry team.If you’re a hunter,that usually equates to being hungry.

+2 HS
Oyster's picture

Those pesky facts get in the way of your feelings, don't they?

buckeyedexter's picture

I wish we could get away from this Co-crap.

+7 HS
BucksfanXC's picture

Angela. Angela was the boss.

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

+3 HS
acBuckeye's picture

Actually, she's the boss:

 

+20 HS
BuckeyeJ's picture

She is still the "it" 

Hovenaut's picture

Wow.

I never paid any attention to Samantha Micelli, but Alyssa Milano is getting better with age.

"Success...it's what you do with what you got" - Woody Hayes

+2 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

Just like some fine wine

+1 HS
Oyster's picture

This thread stayed on topic much longer than I thought it would.

FYI, if you have not seen Embrace of the Vampire, put it on your bucket list, now.

+4 HS
One Bad Buckeye's picture

Did someone say Alyssa Milano?  When I was a young man I was all like:

 

"I'm One Bad Buckeye, and I approve this message."

+6 HS
Patriot4098's picture

How could this possibly be DV'd?!

"Evil shenanigans!"     - Mac

BierStube's picture

 

Meanwhile ... at Michigan ... they are still trying to figure out how to tailgate

 

I will take our problems over theirs!

"No matter where you go, there you are." B. Banzai

+18 HS
Hovenaut's picture

Looks at though Coach Hoke didn't arrive yet.

"Success...it's what you do with what you got" - Woody Hayes

+3 HS
BierStube's picture

Sadly, this was all that was left after Hoke added a few notches to his belt

"No matter where you go, there you are." B. Banzai

+2 HS
buckeyedude's picture

Michigan's tailgate sux. That is all.

 

 

kmp10's picture

Is Urban standing on a box in the photo of him with Charlie Strong? How tall (or short) is Strong???

Eastside Buckeye's picture

Urban is pretty tall if you haven't met him in person up close, I'd be willing to say he is between 6'1" to 6'3"

"Life is a course and imma shoot for par." - Dewayne Carter

Bags5150's picture

Met him at the OHSFCA coaches clinic.  I'm 6'1 and he's a bit taller than I am.  He's much bigger in person than you'd expect.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth~Mike Tyson

niblick's picture

Ohio State has had more defensive coordinators since Tatgate than during the entire Tressel era. 

 

that absolutely makes me want to puke

+2 HS
whobdis's picture

Meh..JT just wasn't one to make changes in the staff unless someone left for another position. Bollman was OC for the entire tenure. I'm fine with Urban making changes when he (and everyone  else) see's they are needed. I remember listening to Urban talk about Luke after their first meeting and how he decided to 'sleep' on the hiring of Luke as DC. It wasn't the slam dunk some think IMO. I think we will see improvement in the D but I expect Ash will get most of the credit..just the way it is.

+2 HS
jhipbuck's picture

Ash was hired to run the defense, he will call all plays from the booth.  Even though Co-Defensive Coordinator is the title Ash is the defensive coordinator.  It was the same thing when Heacock was here — Heacock ran the show even though Co-Defensive Coordinator was the title.

To sum it up:
Heacock/Fickell — Heacock ran the show
Fickell/Withers — Fickell ran the show
Ash/Fickell — Ash will run the show
 

-3 HS
BuckeyeDale's picture

I don't think we'll ever get the whole story, just as we'll never know what adding Withers & Coombs, with different philosophies and terminology did to our back seven.  But I think we can all deduce Coach Meyer didn't think it was all LF, because he's still there, with the same job titles.  Let's hope for the best, and when it happens again, be happy with what we've got... 

 
BuckeyeDale
GO BUCKS!!

+1 HS
Ashtabula's picture

I agree with your first two tandem assumptions, but do you have any knowledge to back up that Ash will be running the show?

+5 HS
jhipbuck's picture

I know that Ash has come and quickly changed the defense around, things are simpler with an emphasis on reacting quickly (not thinking so much).  Additionally, Ash will call all defensive plays, he's one of the best in the country.  Luke is a great Buckeye, a good position coach, and an excellent recruiter and for that you will not hear anything negative about him from the coaching staff — but don't let that fool you, Ash is running the show.

-1 HS
Horvath22's picture

Right on the money, Jship.

-1 HS
Bamabucknut's picture

I sure hope you are right.

Why decisions about not performers cannot be made mystifies me.

-1 HS
OSUpawn's picture

If Ash is "running the show".  Then why is he making less money then Fickell? 

I believe the SEC players put their pants on one leg at a time like we do.

+2 HS
45has2's picture

Funny how everyone ignores the defacto demotion of Kerry Coombs. He retains the same title but not the same responsibilities. The kicker bully was responsible for half of the piss poor secondary last season and Withers the other half. So Meyer brings in a what? A DB specialist. Yeah, fire Fickell.

 

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

BuckeyeWags's picture

We can only hop that it is  Ash  running things.

Canukbuck's picture

So, based on what some of you are saying about Ash calling the plays on defense, will that now place the blame for any lack of progress on defense squarely on Ash's shoulders ??  Since everyone was so quick to crucify Luke, despite him sharing the DC title with Withers, this can be the only conclusion, right ???

I firmly believe that there was not a happy relationship between Withers and Fickell, which translated into the game planning and onto the field.  Add to that Kerry Coombs limited skills as the corner's coach (which is why he's been relegated to running special teams this year) and you had a recipe for problems.  Let's throw in some untimely injuries to key personnel .....

I think both Fickell and Ash will be a little more in sync with regards to scheme and as a result, you'll see a significant improvement on defense.  But, if that should happen, it will be the result of BOTH Fickell and Ash working together, unlike the unit did the past two seasons, so both should be given the proverbial pat on the back .....

 

 

+3 HS
jhipbuck's picture

Yes, next season any lack of progress will and should be put on Ash's shoulder — regardless of any injuries.  The last two seasons it was Luke's show, next season its Ash.  I'm not sure about your "in sync" theory — the last two years it was Luke's defense and he was calling the plays.

Canukbuck's picture

Well, I see it a bit differently ..... Both Ash and Fickell will be sitting down prior to speaking with their assistants on defense and run the systems by Meyer (you can bank on it).  I think Ash will have more to say about the back end of the defense, while Luke will be responsible for anything close to the LOS.  This will not be a case of Ash bringing in a new system, but rather Luke and Ash mutually committing to a defensive scheme that the defensive staff and personnel can execute at a higher speed than the past couple of seasons. 

Don't believe for a minute that Withers didn't have input into the secondary system played these past two years.  Luke would always be comfortable with handling the front 7, but the secondary is not his area of expertise, so I have no doubt that Withers leaving was not an unhappy issue for Meyer.  Moving Coomb's responsibilities towards the Special Teams should also give you an idea of why Meyer didn't move Luke out of his position. 

Bottom line - defense improves, then credit should go to the entire defensive staff, including both Coordinators.

 

 

BuckeyeWags's picture

That is why the prefix "co" is so lamentable. It will give all the Fickell apologists wiggle room again to attempt to keep him. I guess we can go for three demotions in a row. What new titles can you guys come up with...or just another pay cut?

-2 HS
Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

No apologist. Look at the graph...he gets the bad AND the good.

And ultimately, the guy at the top gets some responsibility. If that was a dysfunctional defensive staff, he hired them.

At the end of the season, Meyer, Ash, and Fickell all deserve credit if this defense turns it around.

+3 HS
IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

Navy throws like 5 times a game so we won't see in the opener if the secondary is improved. OSU will be geared 100% to stop the triple option. But you can guarantee VaTech will throw it and if they torch us (especially on third down) we will know if things are going to improve or get worse. I don't expect a perfect shutdown of the Hokie air attack but I DO hope with every ounce of my being that the Buckeyes can hold VaTech under 21 points, 200 yards passing and get a few INTs and several three-and-outs. That to me would be a good indication things are going to turn around.  We get those gaudy numbers like in the Sparty and Clemson games? I don't even want to think about how angry I'm going to be.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

+1 HS
IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

Double post again :(

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

ShirtPants's picture

That picture of Luke is creepy.....nothing against him, just observing!

luckynutz's picture

There was a disconnect between the defensive staff. Everything that these guys have been saying hints at that. Every interview comes down to each one uttering the same phrase...we are working a getting on the same page. Being one unit with one voice. There wasn't that sort of unity this past season. It was obvious from the amount of lapses in coverage. Safeties missing their zones. Corners passing receivers off to the next guy...only to have the next covering the same zone as a backer. Even the fact that corners and safeties met in separate rooms to break down film and implement gameplan. How can you expect a corner and safety to trust each other when they aren't looking at film together? They could see two totally different things...and if they aren't next to each other to compare notes, how can they gel as a unit?

One things for certain...ash will have them all in one room. Watching the same film. And breaking down the entire unit together. Not just safeties learning their part and going off of that. It will be safeties talking to corners and understanding their job is regards to the others job. And fickell and ash will be sitting down together and hashing out the gameplan together. On game day, doesnt matter who calls plays. They should be on the same page long before the first play call is sent down. Thats at least what they are all saying as of now. I think the disconnect should be long gone...meyer has set down his vision for this d. And fickell and ash will both be on the hook to see it fulfilled.

+1 HS
jhipbuck's picture

Calling the defensive plays is a huge deal — it matters who calls the plays.  Ash will call the plays from the booth.

+1 HS
luckynutz's picture

If thats the case then so be it. I've never understood the logic of a coordinator calling plays from the field to begin with. At least not coverages...offenses have so many wrinkles now, it would be downright impossible to decipher without eyes in the sky. To see the sets, diagnose formations and call it accordingly. Fick is a front seven guy...played there and has coached it. Coverage is a far different beast than fronts and blitzes. Only thing I've noticed is the way they all talk. Everything is about one unit, one voice. And I think its fair to take some of the responsibility off of fickell to allow him more time to develop his position group. His group is crucial to the success of the defense as a whole. Lot of young guys with potential coming in.

buckeyedude's picture

Yeah, baby! Yeah!

 

 

 

 

+2 HS
buckskin's picture

The last couple of years Ohio State has not had a team defense.  There was an no unity from the backers to the secondary; everybody seemed to be on their own page.  The line was good, but behind them was the majority of the problem and this lack of teamwork comes from the staff.  Tress knew that staff stability and cohesiveness were critical for a successful team D, hopefully Urban can get this unit to gel together this year.  One "bad" thing about Meyer is that other colleges will be looking to poach from his staff; more so than during the Tress years.  At the end of every year we hear about Herman, Warriner and other coaches potentially leaving for better jobs (head coach), and while we all must commend them for bettering their lives and living their dream, this constant shuffling of coaches can lead to disunity. 

buckeyehub's picture

 This is all.

         COOL SHADE OF THE HEACOCK TREE
SEASON     SCORING D       TOTAL D            DC
2004                  24                     38           Mark Snyder
2005                   8                       5          Heacock/Fickell
2006                   2                      13         Heacock/Fickell
2007                   1                       1          Heacock/Fickell
2008                   7                       8          Heacock/Fickell
2009                   5                       5          Heacock/Fickell
2010                   3                       3          Heacock/Fickell
2011                  27                     19         Heacock/Haynes
2012                  31                     34           Fickell/Withers
2013                  28                     46           Fickell/Withers - WORSE than Snyder numbers. 

Lets go Chris Ash and Larry Johnson. Oh, and Fickell..

“Anyone can run the option. I can run the option.” - Urban Meyer
Let's beat the snot out of *ichigan.

TheSpiteHouse's picture

If the D suddenly gets a lot better, it's PROBABLY more damning for Withers than Fick...(?)

-1 HS
jhipbuck's picture

If the D suddenly gets a lot better it's because of Ash — and it will get a lot better.

+1 HS
The Horseman's picture

I don't believe there is any such thing as responsibilities actually being split with a "co" role.  For so many reasons, there has to be one in charge and ultimately making the decisions.  The assignments of "co" in titles seem more like a means of recognizing seniority and justifying higher pay than other staff assistants...

A good question to ask Urban Meyer would be: "Coach, when you were hired for the 2012 season, and joining with the previous HC Luke Fickell, how come Luke didn't maintain the Head Coach title and you take on the Co-Head Coach title??"  When he either comments that it is the stupidest question he's ever heard or gives a disgusted look, then ask "How come you are doing just this to Chris Ash??"