Over the course of 50 straight starts for the Buckeyes in the ’90s, followed by 16 years of coaching in Columbus, Luke Fickell’s DNA is ingrained more than two decades deep into the Ohio State football program.
Not only does the Cincinnati head football coach still have ties to current Buckeyes he recruited, but his Ohio State legacy has left impressions on a coach in Ryan Day whose tenure as an assistant coach in Columbus began just weeks after Fickell’s ended.
“A lot of people talk about him when you talk about some of the Ohio State greats,” Day said.
Fickell left behind quite a bit at Ohio State, but it’s what he’s taken with him to Cincinnati that has turned the Bearcats into a program that can’t be taken lightly.
Columbus-born Fickell was a three-time state champion wrestler at DeSales High School before setting a program record for starting every game at nose guard for Ohio State from 1993 to 1996.
Playing under former head coach John Cooper, Fickell’s refusal to sit out of the 1997 Rose Bowl despite a torn pectoral was a testament to the brand of toughness that has become his signature.
Just three years later, Fickell found himself back on the field for Ohio State, but this time as a graduate assistant coach. After a brief stint as Akron’s defensive line coach, Fickell returned to win a national championship as the Buckeyes’ special teams coach in 2002. He’d serve eight more years under former head coach Jim Tressel, eventually moving up to co-defensive coordinator.
Following the NCAA investigation that led to Tressel’s dismissal from the program, it was Fickell who bridged the gap to the Urban Meyer era with a one-year stint as interim head coach.
Back at defensive coordinator, Fickell would capture his second national title with Meyer and the Buckeyes three seasons later.
By the time he left Ohio State to take the head coaching position at Cincinnati after the 2016 season, Ohio State had amassed a record of 172-36 while Fickell coached there, with an .822 winning percentage when his playing career is included.
Fickell is now coaching in the AAC, and the identity his Bearcats have assumed is unmistakable.
“They’re power football,” Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. “They’re really a Big Ten team. They really are. They run the football well. They have a really great scheme.”
Inheriting a 4-8 team that won a single conference game in 2016, Fickell would take just one transitional season to turn Cincinnati into an 11-2 team with the No. 9-ranked scoring defense in the country.
Cincinnati was ranked as high as No. 19 in 2018, with its only two losses being a one-score defeat to 8-5 Temple and to then-No. 11 UCF. Fickell led the team to its third 11-win season in program history, and was named conference Coach of the Year.
“It’s a very good football team, very well-coached,” Day said. “Coach Fickell has done a very good job of building toughness in this program.”
The Fickell-led Bearcats appear to be riding their 2018 momentum into this year, as they defeated a Power Five opponent in UCLA 24-14 in Week 1.
Ohio State redshirt senior defensive tackle Davon Hamilton, a Pickerington, Ohio, native, said Fickell was his primary recruiter besides Johnson, and even visited his home. Hamilton said Fickell’s central Ohio roots made a difference in attracting in-state prospects.
“He’s just a great leader overall,” Hamilton said. “When he was here he led the defense. He was always there, always prepared, always sound. We got a lot to look forward to Saturday.”
With 72 players from Ohio on Cincinnati’s roster, Fickell won’t be the only one coming to Ohio Stadium with a chip on his shoulder for what junior punter Drue Chrisman called “the battle for Ohio.”
They may be commanding opposing forces Saturday, but Day said Fickell’s contributions to the program over the years have made a friendly relationship possible between the pair, having conversed over the summer and even meeting each others’ families.
That being said, cordiality may not numb the pain of a loss on either side.
“Got a lot of respect for coach Fickell and what he’s built down there,” Day said. “I think it’s a very strong program, in great shape. So we know they are going to come in here hungry. Being in the same state, we know that means a lot.”