NEW ORLEANS — In late 2011, when Urban Meyer has hired to reroute an Ohio State football program that had been beset by hard times, Luke Fickell agreed to stay on staff and guide the program into a new era.
In that span, the Buckeyes are 36-3 and back among college football royalty. But after Ohio State's defense collapsed in on itself late last season, it became unclear what Fickell's future in Columbus might entail.
“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,” he said in August. “So it was quite an eventful offseason, and I just mean that as we’re the hardest critics on ourselves.”
Perhaps none have been harder than Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s head coach and Fickell’s meticulous, finicky boss.
So after the Buckeyes blanked Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big Ten Championship Game earlier this month, Meyer gave credit where credit is due.
“He’s a guy I have a lot of respect for,” Meyer said. “He’s a guy that we have hard conversations.”
It comes with the territory of being in part responsible for an Ohio State defense that was, as Meyer said, “abysmal” in the pass defense last season.
More than a year later, Ohio State is one of four teams in the College Football Playoff. It will play top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl Thursday. If this season — which has seen the Buckeye defense make quantifiable improvement — is a redemption tale of sorts, Fickell is still writing his story. Perhaps the Big Ten title game is its most triumphant chapter.
“It was an exciting night, it was a lot of things that came together … (they) had been disappointed last year in that same situation, but this is a different crew,” he said Monday.
“This is a different group of guys and I think the big thing that we’ve gotta make sure we talk about is that these guys aren’t satisfied. I know that was a great night, that was a great time, it’s always a goal to win the Big Ten Championship. But the reality is this is a different group, and they know what they’re here for. And we don’t want them to think they’re satisfied with where they are.”
It’s this mantra of “never satisfied” that drives Ohio State, players and coaches say. It’s one that also motivates Fickell on a personal and professional level when it comes to working under Meyer, who hasn’t pulled punches when it comes to taking public shots at the team’s defense when appropriate.
“When things don’t go as well as you want them to, obviously there’s confrontation — not confrontation, but there’s conversations and the only way you can do that is address that head on,” Fickell said.
“We’ve had professional talks, he knows what this game means to me, he knows what this university means to me, he knows what these kids mean to me. And ultimately, that’s what you really want.”
Meyer said: “He was in a very interesting situation here before I got here and he had no reason to be as loyal as he has been to me.”
After all, Fickell’s had his chances to go elsewhere. A fierce loyalty to his family and to Ohio State, his alma mater, have kept him grounded in Columbus.
Yet Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach is as embattled as any assistant in Meyer’s three-year tenure. And after last year’s campaign unraveled because of major defensive defects that doomed its Big Ten and national title hopes, Fickell became an easy target.
“We hear all that stupid crap about ‘Fire Fickell’ and all that. That pisses me off because that guy’s done so much, he’s changed my life. He gave me the opportunity to even wear this jersey,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Darron Lee.
“So I go out, I fight for not only my brothers, but I for him too because he gave me this opportunity. I take that a little bit to heart, I go out and fight for him even more. Honestly, it is pretty annoying because some fans really don’t know what they’re talking about. So it’s kind of just like shut up and watch the game, please. But that’s all I can really say to that.”
Added Joshua Perry, a junior linebacker: “It’s hard for me to listen to people say negative things about him because I know how much he cares about this, I know how much hard work he puts into this.
“I know how much he wants to pull all the players that he has in his into his family and so what people may see and what it may look like — and I know we hold high standards here — you kind of just gotta say, 'Hey, we know what we’re doing, we work hard for each other.'”
After all, it’s gotten Ohio State to New Orleans and seemed to have earned Fickell Meyer's respect in the process.