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August 1, 2011

Year of uncertainty begins for Fickell

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CHICAGO - The weight of the massive desk in Jim Tressel's old office can't possibly compare to what is already sitting on Luke Fickell's shoulders.

Perhaps that's the reason it took Fickell two weeks to walk into the office Tressel occupied for the past 10 seasons, the exact spot where he sat behind the bulky desk while restoring one of the nation's most storied programs to past glory.

Attempting to move Tressel's desk is quite the feat for any man, let alone a former wrestling champion and interior defensive lineman like Fickell. Sitting behind the desk while leading Ohio State's football program requires a force Fickell probably isn't even willing to describe.

So he started with the desk at 11 p.m. on a Friday night, the moment he was spontaneously inspired to enter the dark room that had gone useless for weeks.

Despite repeated offers from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center's maintenance staff to help, he did it on his own. He slipped folders under the heavy desk so it would slide.

Sitting behind it for the first time - it was his office and more importantly his show.

"It was difficult," Fickell admitted. "I left it alone for about a week and a half and just stayed in my office, knowing that it was eventually that time. Then one night I went in there and actually moved stuff around. I moved the desk.

"Once I started moving the desk, it allowed me to say that this is the way it is and we're moving forward… And it was a step." Pictures of Tressel have been long removed from the team's practice facility but the memories of what the program had turned into under his reign won't soon be forgotten.

Dominance over Michigan - Tressel lost only once in 10 tries - and the team's first national title since the Woody Hayes era will likely be what Tressel is remembered for.

But he departed in scandal, as his integral part in Ohio State's "Tattoogate" ended an era of Buckeye football that fans wouldn't have ever liked to see end.

Now there's Fickell - a 37-year-old that has no previous head coaching experience. What he does have is his Buckeye-bred mentality. A former player and an assistant with the program since his NFL career ended in his first year with the New Orleans Saints, all Fickell knows is what it is to be a Buckeye.

"I actually had no intensions of being a coach," Fickell admitted. "Getting hurt and trying to continue to play after college, I remember just laying there in New Orleans thinking, 'I don't know if this football thing is going to make it.'

"I just remembered back to my dad some day telling me to do what I love to do," he continued. "As I lay there hurting, I was reflecting back on who had a lot of impact on my life, I just kept thinking about all the coaches I had. Then it hit me that the next best thing is coaching."

And coaching at Ohio State seemed to be the only option. He returned to Columbus originally hoping to rehab his torn ACL in hopes of still playing, but eventually turned into a graduate assistant.

Despite offers years later from other schools with promise of promotion - like a spot on Notre Dame's defensive staff in 2009 - Fickell's dream to one day be in this position is what ultimately kept him in Columbus.

"I love Ohio State," Fickell said, repeating those three words frequently during his 2-hour-long session with reporters Friday morning at Big Ten Media Days. "This is an incredible place. I've always sold Ohio State. This is a great place and it is going to attract people no matter what."

But that will only get him so far. His leash couldn't be tighter, as his 1-year contract has him strapped to make instant results at the risk that his life-long dream will be nothing but a flash in the pan.

He admitted he has had talks with Gene Smith about what would need to be done for him to be retained as the head coach for more than just a year. Fickell wouldn't divulge what the criteria may be, but as he said in his own words during his introductory press conference - "winning is the cure all."

But there's so much more that needs to be done and so little time. Repairing the program's image may be just as important as winning games, as Ohio State is frequently referred to as a "dirty" program.

Recruiting is hurting, too. Ohio State's biggest rival in Michigan is cleaning up in-state high school recruits because of the uncertainty in Columbus, whether it is Fickell's job or potential sanctions stemming from a hearing with the NCAA Aug. 12.

Camp is just a week a way but so many questions still loom for Fickell. Who will be the starting quarterback? Will Ohio State play in a bowl game or be subject to more penalty? Will recruiting pick up?

Then there's the big one - Will Fickell be around next year?

"I don't know that there is," Fickell responded when asked how he could prepare for the future. "Sometimes I think that's the greatest challenge - to control your mind on what you can control.

"There's going to be all kinds of opinions, but what really matters to me is what the young men in the program really think and what kind of product we put on that field and if we do things right. We have to have confidence that our actions will speak for us. Whoever is to be the judge, we'll see."

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.



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