Luke Fickell took over as interim head coach at Ohio State in May under a cloud of scandal. His longtime boss and Buckeye legend, Jim Tressel, was forced to resign as head coach after NCAA allegations related to extra benefits accepted by some of his players and his alleged failure to report them appropriately, leaving Fickell, formerly an assistant, as the man in charge.
A rocky season in Columbus followed. Fickell's Ohio State team, though it managed upsets of then-No. 16 Illinois and No. 15 Wisconsin in late October, struggled to a 6-6 finish, including losses to conference rivals Penn State and Michigan.
Urban Meyer was hired to replace Tressel at the end of November, and Fickell is now set to return to his former role on the Buckeyes staff as an assistant after leading Ohio State one last time in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2.
It appears his eyes are wandering elsewhere, however, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Paul Zeise reports Fickell has interviewed with Pitt to take over in the wake of Todd Graham's departure to Arizona State.
And so, for more background on Fickell, we've enlisted the help of Luke Zimmermann, a blogger from Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors and SB Nation's national college football blog, Every Day Should Be Saturday for his perspective on the Buckeyes coach an his possible defection to Pittsburgh. Check out his responses to our questions about Fickell below.
AB: Generally, how do Ohio State fans feel about the job Luke Fickell did as head coach? Is there a consensus, or are there competing opinions?
LZ: I think Ohio State fans by and large feel Fickell fell on a bullet during just about the harshest circumstances imaginable (you know, aside from the unthinkable going on in State College right now). There may exist a small chance they'd feel slightly less charitable had Ohio State not scored such a coup of a replacement, but I imagine given the good will accrued from his playing days, he would still probably have enough in the tank to have the overwhelming majority of Buckeye backers in his corner.
AB: What do fans think about the job he did as an assistant under Jim Tressel?
LZ: Fickell had long been considered one of two head coaches on the staff the last several years essentially earmarked to be a head coach (with now Kent State head man Darrell Hazell). He'd been courted to take raises to go to places along the lines of Notre Dame (as a defensive coordinator and assistant head coach) the last several seasons but had stayed loyal to his alma matter and declined such overtures each time. It's tough to say where his oversight dropped off and fellow co-defensive coordinator Jim Heacock took over from a credit standpoint, but the linebackers (Fickell's position specialty) were always brilliant under his watch.
AB: What was his team's offensive identity at Ohio State?
LZ: Essentially to yield the reigns to one of the least competent offensive minds in the country. There was a ton of revisionist history this season claiming offensive coordinator Jim Bollman had secretly been calling plays for years, but make no mistake about it, the offense under his watch (even given rather green personal) was a night and day contrast of quality from Jim Tressel's micromanaged conservative tour de force. Fickell occasionally elected to go for it on 4th down in situations where Tressel never would've dared, but since the coordinator in place wasn't really "his guy", it's tough to say ideologically what he represents. If I had to wager a guess, I would say likely a pro style, slightly aggressive balanced offense (think back to Ohio State under John Cooper, Fickell's coach while he was a Buckeye).
AB: What was his team's defensive philosophy with the Buckeyes?
LZ: The defense struggled through injuries, suspensions, and a lot of inexperience as well, but by and large the philosophy was the same it had been for years: show a mostly nickel front and make the opposing team make more plays than you. The defense was physical and not afraid to force you to make plays in gaps. Unfortunately given the lackluster secondary this season, teams were able to do that far more often than Ohio State fans would've liked.
AB: How would you rate Fickell's quarterback development during his brief time with Braxton Miller in Columbus and why?
LZ: Miller actually came a long way from his first start to the regular season's finale against Michigan but given that Fickell wasn't directly involved with it, it's tough to know whom to give credit to (Ohio State's QB coach was an ex-assistant video coordinator with little to no actual FBS coaching experience to this resume and often drew the ire of Buckeye faithful for Terrelle Pryor and Joe Bauserman's lack of forward progression). Miller's also a super freakish talent with a good head on his shoulders so hard work and natural ability may have played a part (coupled with the requisite time for his head to catch up with what his body was already capable of).
AB: What was Fickell's approach to recruiting both as a head coach and an assistant and how would you rate his efforts?
LZ: Fickell is highly regarded as an extremely high caliber recruiter. Given the unique circumstances of the last calendar year, I'd say he did as well as imaginable. He even continues to help the team lure in new players for next year while balancing preparing them for the Gator Bowl.
AB: What kind of fit would you see Fickell being with the Big East? The ACC? How do you think he would fare at that levels?
LZ: It's a bit premature to say what kind of head coach Fickell will be long term but I don't think this season's underwhelming over-arching record should diminish his rising star one bit. Pitt may present the perfect opportunity for Fickell to, not so much learn on the job, but really rather more hone and refine his skills and help lead the program into a new era as they enter ACC play in a few years.
AB: How did Fickell handle off-field team issues (i.e. academics, legal issues, NCAA rules)?
LZ: By all accounts great. He preemptively suspended Travis Howard, Jordan Hall, and Corey Brown for their appearance at a banquet where they received improper benefits in the form of payments for their attendance before the NCAA stepped in and levied punishment, which while arguably the bare minimum, is a step further than his predecessor did in a similar situation.
AB: Obviously, stability is a big concern for Pitt fans right now. Do you think Fickell is the type of coach that could remedy some of the problems Pitt has suffered over the last year?
LZ: I think Fickell at Pitt would mean 2-3 years patience would be necessary in order to see maximum returns on the program's investment in him but he'd provide long term viability and stability in a way they haven't seen in 10+ years if given the chance.
AB: Any general thoughts about Fickell and Pitt?
LZ: As an Ohio State fan, I'd be miffed to lose him from the staff but think it would be a great opportunity for him. I also think he'd be uniquely qualified for the Penn State situation but would hate to have to go against him yearly nor do I think Pitt fans probably want to hear that right about now.