If you are having trouble deciding if the Cincinnati Bearcats made a good choice in hiring Luke Fickell as their head football coach don’t worry. You are not alone. Even if there have been plenty of columns written, tweets sent and comments made that Fickell is a great hire, there is always reason to doubt. After all, we want to see the positives and optimism in a new hiring and not fall to pessimism and despair. Its easy to win the press conference and to build expectations. Its executing on those things that makes a good coach.
When Tommy Tuberville was hired back in 2013 UC was getting a recognizable coach with experience coaching high-powered offenses for power five schools. It seemed like a big get for the program. Well, after last season, we saw how that turned out.
What all this means is that its impossible to say if a hiring is good or bad before the ink even dries on the contract but that’s OK. You can still make an informed decision about how to feel based on what facts you have available. So let’s look at why Fickell is (and is not) the right guy for the job.
Pro: Fickell Knows Ohio
You may have heard once or twice that Fickell is from Ohio and that he has spent most of his life not only in the Buckeye State but around football in said state. Born in Columbus and a player and coach for Ohio State, Fickell knows this state better than any other candidate that UC may have considered. That means he knows how to recruit in-state, which is something that Tuberville and his staff struggled to do. In his introductory press conference, Fickell said that he wanted to recruit Cincinnati and not just its players, but the fans to show that UC football was a product that the population of the city could be proud of.
Con: Fickell Knows Ohio State
When I said that Fickell has spent most of his life in the Buckeye State I meant that in more ways than one. As noted above (and in previous news stories), Fickell played for the Buckeyes and has been a coach for them since 2002. That is a long time to be with one school. Now, I don’t think Fickell is some sleeper agent hellbent on destroying UC football from the inside, but after growing accustomed to a certain standard at Ohio State, it may take some time for him to adjust. The hope is that he will be able to mold UC back into the program that went to back-to-back BCS bowl games and was a consistent 10-win threat. However, its yet to be seen if he can spread his wings and fly outside of the comforts of the Ohio State nest.
Pro: Defense is his Specialty
Its really unfortunate that Cincinnati will be losing players like linebacker Eric Wilson and safety Zach Edwards this year because Fickell could have done wondrous things with those two. What he does with the defensive players who are left should be impressive as well. After all, Fickell’s calling card is defense. Its a bit of a shift in thinking for UC which has been dedicated to offense for years.
In 2016, Fickell ran one of the most opportunistic and effective defensive units in the country for the College Football Playoff-bound Buckeyes. OSU tied for 10th in the country in turnovers gained and ranked third in turnover margin per game (1.33). The Buckeyes were also a top five team in the country in total defense and S&P+ defensive rating and fell in at No. 10 in opponent third down conversion rate (30.77 percent). Although he will be working with different personnel at UC, that type of success on third down is something the Bearcats desperately need after they allowed conversions on 47.9 percent of their opponents third down tries in 2016, the ninth-worst mark in the country.
Con: UC’s More Immediate Need is Offense
Even if Fickell completely replicates what he did with OSU this past season and previous years (average ranking of 19.6 in S&P+ defensive rating the last five), it won’t matter if UC continues to be as poor on offense as it was in 2016. Cincinnati scored just 19.3 points per game plus there was that whole 14-quarter touchdown drought. In addition, UC averaged a pedestrian 374.1 yards per game, its lowest mark since 2008. Fickell does not bring much in terms of offensive acumen, so who he brings in as offensive coordinator will make a major difference, especially since young quarterbacks Hayden Moore and Ross Trail are still clearly in need of mentoring.
To his credit, Fickell has promised an up-tempo and spread-it-out offense, which would be a site to behold after the stagnant mess of this past season.
Pro: Head Coaching Experience
Unlike many other coordinators who make the jump to the big job, Fickell actually has some reps as a head coach. Those reps were quite difficult in nature as he stood in as interim head coach following Jim Tressel’s resignation during an NCAA investigation in 2011.
Now, Fickell was working with a team built by Tressel, so any success still belongs in part to his predecessor, but Fickell did enough to hold the ship together and push Ohio State to six wins and a bowl appearance. Some of those wins were impressive (at then No. 16 Illinois, vs. then No. 12 Wisconsin) and hard-fought losses against Penn State, Michigan and Florida in the Gator Bowl came by an average of 6.3 points.
His ability to keep things somewhat steady helped Urban Meyer to come in and go 12-0 in his first season and dominate the Big Ten ever since. He’ll be working with a less secure foundation in terms of roster at UC, but he has proven that he can weather storms.
Con: Even that Experience is Limited
Call this a counterpoint rather than a con. Even though Fickell managed to squeak out six wins from Ohio State in 2011, it was still a marked step backward for the Buckeyes, who went 12-1 the year before and had won 10 game in six-straight years. The loss of several key players and the looming investigation fallout obviously played a large part in that. However, Fickell still had a team that was good enough to be ranked in the preseason (if you care about that sort of thing) and you can’t call his one year at the helm a rousing success, especially since he was quickly jettisoned back to defensive coordinator once Meyer became available.
Pro: He’s Young, Hungry, Passionate and Ready to Prove Himself
The 43-year-old Fickell (nearly 20 years the junior of Tuberville) has been in the shadow of two top-flight coaches in Tressel and Meyer and he undoubtedly would like to chart his own course. His remarks at the introductory press conference emphasized passion, energy and unrelenting aggression. That’s the type of rhetoric that stirs up the fans and gives the indication that you are not happy to just settle for a job and get by. There’s no doubt that Fickell will push UC hard.
Con: Is UC Just a Stepping Stone?
We’ve seen this before. Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones all used UC to parlay big paydays at bigger programs. Fickell has agreed to a six-year deal but we’ll see if he actually stays that long. If UC rises from the ashes, expect him to join P.J. Fleck and whoever else becomes hot in the streets on the short list of candidates thrown out every time a major power has a vacancy.
But if he gets to that point that means the Bearcats would have recaptured some level of success and even if he burns bright before moving on, that’d be a good thing for the program.
In all there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about Fickell and plenty of reasons to doubt him. Until we see the product on the field, we’ll just have to keep weighing these things in our mind.