Matt Charboneau, John Niyo of The News talk about Mark Dantonio's decision to step down and who might replace him while talking MSU's loss in hoops. The Detroit News
Cincinnati football coach Luke Fickell, not long after wrapping up what is considered the best recruiting class in the history of the program on Wednesday, said on a national radio show he has had no contact with anyone from Michigan State, where he is considered the frontrunner to replace Mark Dantonio.
Dantonio announced Tuesday his retirement after 13 seasons as Spartans head coach. As that news broke, just ask quickly, Fickell’s name began popping up as the favorite replace him.
Fickell, appearing on “Playbook” on ESPNU, was asked if he has spoken to MSU about the vacancy.
“I have talked to nobody,” Fickell said Wednesday. “That’s the truth. Obviously, I’m very good friends with Mark Dantonio. I have been for a while. I have stayed in contact – we always do. But I have not communicated or talked to anybody besides Mark Dantonio in the last three, four weeks from Michigan State. I haven’t been thinking about it, I haven’t been focused on it.”
This doesn’t mean Fickell hasn’t spoken to a representative from the search firm MSU is employing to land a new head coach, or that he perhaps had conversations with Dantonio about the next step if he were to retire as head coach. The two overlapped on Ohio State’s staff under head coach Jim Tressel when Dantonio was defensive coordinator from 2001-03 while Fickell was special teams coordinator 2002-03.
Fickell, 46, has been at Cincinnati since 2017 and has coached the Bearcats to 11-win seasons the last two years. He will make $2.4 million this year and new Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham has said it is a top priority to extend Fickell’s contract, which currently expires Dec. 31, 2022. If Fickell leaves the Bearcats before the end of this year, he will owe UC a $2 million buyout.
Those who know Fickell describe him as extremely competitive but also deeply committed to his family and Catholic faith. He and wife, Amy, have six children.
Before he arrived at Ohio State, where he played on the defensive line from 1993-96 and made 50 consecutive starts, Fickell was a three-time state champion wrestler and two-time All-Ohio defensive tackle at DeSales High in Columbus. But playing for the Buckeyes – Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel was a teammate – is where Fickell distinguished himself as a player and leader and grew to love coaching.
“He was the ultimate teammate,” said Matt Finkes, who played alongside Fickell on the OSU defensive line. “He was the guy who wasn’t going to get all the stats, he wasn’t going to have seven or eight tackles a game, he wasn’t going to have a sack, all those big stat things. But he was the guy who did everything you needed to do and everything that was asked of him. You could always rely on him. You knew exactly where he was going to be. He was never going to be out of position. He was going to take up two blockers if he had to, three if he had to.
“He was reliable and put the team above everything, and that’s why you see him as successful as a coach. He instills that in his players and his team. It’s not about individual guys, it’s about winning games as a team. To do that, everybody has to not just do their job, but sometimes do the job you don’t want to do – make that block, or if you’re a receiver, go block on the edge instead of catching the ball. That’s the mentality he’s brings in to any team he’s going to be with.”
Linebacker James Laurinaitis was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008 when Fickell was his position coach. Laurinaitis was always a tough-as-nails player, but Fickell made him better.
“Luke is the best football coach that I played for as far as getting the most out of me,” Laurinaitis said. “There are certain staples of a Luke Fickell identity that you are going to have to have to play for him. Toughness is the first thing. You have to be tough, and you have to play with relentless effort. He is big on the things that don’t require talent. He shouldn’t have to coach you on effort and hustle. As far as running to the football and being willing to go and hit a pulling guard, that stuff he’s not going to waver on. He got the most out of me of any coach I played for.”
Joshua Perry, a linebacker at Ohio State from 2012-15, said Fickell distinguished himself during the recruiting process because he made it a point to know everyone in a player’s family and made clear he cared not only about developing recruits as players but as responsible men.
“He is a very hard coach, he’s a very intense coach, and he is demanding in terms of the standard that he wants his players to play at,” Perry said. “The great thing about that is, it’s really easy to be hard on your guys when you know they care about them. There are other coaches who are just hard on guys and you feel like they don’t really care about you. Luke really strikes that balance. For me, it was a combination of that aspect and fundamentals that he was able to teach, and the fact he wasn’t going to let me be OK with being OK. He wanted me to strive for the best I could be. That made him a really good coach.”
Laurinaitis described him as “authentic” and fair.
“That’s why he recruits well,” Laurinaitis said. “He’s not a BSer, he’s not a salesman. You feel like he'’ll have your best interests at heart. He’ll want to get the best out of you. When I told him I was coming back for senior year, he let me know right away, ‘Look, I’m going to be harder on you this year than maybe any other, because I need to prove to the guys behind you they can’t coast. He was very intentional with every single decision, but I always knew he had my back, and I knew he wanted to pull something out of me that sometimes I didn’t know I had.
“He’s tough as nails and was great to play for. I’m thankful I got to play for him.”
Fickell has been on the radar of other programs seeking head coaches. Last year at this time, West Virginia was interested in Fickell, but he opted to stay at Cincinnati. There were opportunities while at Ohio State to leave for coordinators jobs, but Finkes said Fickell was never going to move just to move. Laurinaitis described Fickell as “very selective” when it comes to jobs, and Perry said having his extended family in Ohio has always been important.
Coaching at Michigan State and in the Big Ten, however, could be an enormous draw for Fickell, even though it would mean coaching against Ohio State in the East Division.
“I don’t think he’s anxious to leave Cincinnati,” Finkes said. “The conversations we’ve had in the past and talking with Amy, I don’t think he’s anxious to go for just any job. But possibly the opportunity at Michigan State would be appealing to get back in the Big Ten. Obviously, it’s a step up on the coaching ladder, and to be able to compete in a conference that he grew up in and build that resume even more.
“It will be interesting to see how everything shakes out in these kinds of situations, but he’s probably as ready as anybody that they would be looking at. He fits right here in the Big Ten and in the Midwest probably better than any other candidate.”
Cincinnati has the top-rated recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference this year, according to 247Sports, and the Bearcats were No. 21 in the final AP poll this past season. The program has been the launching pad for several top jobs. Dantonio left UC for MSU, Brian Kelly coached the Bearcats before getting the Notre Dame job, and Butch Jones arrived at Tennessee from UC.
If Fickell decides to leave Cincinnati, the program will be in a better situation than when he arrived.
“He’s been ready (for a bigger job) for years,” Perry said. “There were different opportunities he time and time again he turned down. Part of it was a sacrifice to continue to be a family man; he has the support of other family members living in Ohio. But the other part is, when you take that step in your career and there are so many people depending on it, if it’s the wrong choice, your whole career could be in a tailspin.
“In terms of readiness, he’s been ready. Now it’s about matching that readiness with the right opportunity.”