When Luke Fickell closed the book on yet another Ohio State football season, he had a bad taste in his mouth and a worse feeling in his stomach.
“I don’t know if we’ve gone through an offseason since I’ve been here that I didn’t really feel good about the way we played at the end of the year,” the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach said Wednesday.
“So it was quite an eventful offseason, and I just mean that as we’re the hardest critics on ourselves.”
It’s easy to say that now after unnerving postseason losses to Michigan State and Clemson ruined a perfect season and 24-game winning streak. It’s easy to say that now when every autopsy of the 2013-14 season shows the Buckeye defense was its doom. But for the longest time, Fickell scoffed at questions about the state of a unit that looked curiously unstable from start to finish.
Most memorable, and most telling, though, was how Fickell snapped at reporters when someone asked “what went wrong” a few days after surrendering 603 yards in a close win against offensively anemic Michigan.
“What do you mean what went wrong?” he said. “Did we win? Did we win? Did we win?"
Sitting in a folding chair circled by TV cameras and their hot, bright lights, beads of sweat dripped down his forehead. His eyes darted at those hovering around him. The incredulous expression on his face said it all: this was a question that vexed Fickell to the core.
Because it was growing harder and harder for him to find new ways to sugarcoat a defense that was coming undone at the seams at the worst possible time. The need to find a quick cure was mounting, but it’s hard to cover-up a bullet wound with a bandaid.
Ohio State’s defense, which finished 47th in total defense and 112th in pass defense, was littered with inherent defects that weren’t going to get fixed by blitzing more or pressing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Instead, the program was rife with what head coach Urban Meyer called a “blame, complain, defend” culture. Fickell's defense fell under a spell of the sickness.
“It was one of those things, when you go through the offseason not playing well the last three games and not being where you wanted to and ultimately not playing better at the end of the year, you gotta do some self-evaluation,” he said.
So at some point during a cold and dark winter, Fickell – along with Meyer, new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash and the rest of the defensive coaching staff – hit the reset button.
“Coach Fickell changed his viewpoint and he said, ‘I’m not gonna blame anybody anymore, it’s gonna be the defense and the defense is together,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said during Big Ten Media Days last week.
“All of the defensive coaches have just come together and said we’re not fighting each other anymore. If there’s a run up through the middle, the linebackers aren’t going to come up to the D-line and cuss them out. They’re gonna take it on themselves and the D-line is gonna take it on themselves and the safeties are gonna take it on themselves for not filling. It’s everybody’s fault when the plays break down.”
Of course, there’s serious pressure on Fickell, who’s coached in Columbus since 2002, to limit broken plays. There’s pressure to ensure a late-season collapse like the one against Spartans and Tigers doesn’t happen again.
Last year, Fickell held those who asked him about his defense’s struggles in contempt. He can’t do that anymore. It goes against everything he’s trying to build. Being defensive about the defense won’t make it better for Ohio State. Humility and honest evaluation will.
“I’ve always told them from the day I’ve been here, it’s a lot harder to handle praise than it is criticism. They’ve been beat, they’ve been kicked a little bit,” Fickell said.
“There’s no harder critic than ourselves and they felt that in the way we played our last three games. And to be honest with you, it’s shown. It’s not just the first two days of camp, anybody can do that, but what they’ve done and they’ve shown throughout the weight room in the winter, in the spring, it’s the guys that’ve got a chip on their shoulder and they’ve got a mission.”
Fickell’s on a mission, too, whether it’s writing another chapter in legacy or job security. For a little while there, he was part of the problem. Now he’s part of the solution.