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To cap the day’s preparation for the biggest game of his coaching life, Luke Fickell sits surrounded by fans at his weekly radio show, filling them in on the Indiana win and the stakes of the battle to come.
“So who’s making the trip to South Bend?” asks Dan Hoard, the show’s host.
Most of the red-and-black clad attendees at the Original Montgomery Inn, “home of the world’s greatest ribs,” raise their hands. Seeing a moment for levity during a stressful week, Fickell quickly raises his, too, and the room booms with laughter.
There are so many other things Fickell could be doing right now, such as preparing for an eventual 24-13 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, , but he doesn’t make this time feel like an obligation. During commercial breaks, he thumbs his phone looking for score updates on his daughter Luca’s high school volleyball match.
“Hey coach, did your daughter win?” a man asks, knowing the family rhythms.
Fickell flashes a thumbs up. “3-0,” he replies, nodding with a smile.
As he fields questions from the audience, Fickell’s two sets of twin boys, ages 13 and 7, walk into the restaurant, all decked out in football gear from practice. Fickell mentions to the crowd that during Cincinnati’s bye week he was able to see their seventh-eighth grade football game, a true treat.
“Coach, any good prospects in that game for your 2027 class?” a man asks.
You assume the guy is joking — that he actually knows a coaching star like Fickell won’t be at Cincinnati six years from now — but then maybe these Bearcats supporters know something you don’t. Here, Fickell is the coach who stayed, putting an end to the three-and-out trend sparked by Mark Dantonio (to Michigan State), Brian Kelly (to Notre Dame) and Butch Jones (to Tennessee). In the past two years, Fickell already turned down serious advances from East Lansing and Knoxville.
But those assembled in this room also know his suitors will only get louder the more the Bearcats roar on the national stage. The current source of anxiety comes from out west, where a dormant blue-blood powerhouse is now looking for a head coach.
On the surface, USC and Fickell might not be an obvious match, but USC athletic director Mike Bohn is the man who gave Fickell his shot at Cincinnati. If Bohn comes calling again later this fall, Fickell would have the rare chance to take over a traditional top-five program with an administration that he already trusts backing him.
“I keep telling him that Cincinnati is not a destination, that you gotta move on from there,” says John Cooper, who coached Fickell at Ohio State in the 1990s. “I spent seven years in the Pac-10, and I personally think Southern Cal is the best coaching job in football. I’ve heard people say that Luke may not want to live in California, but to me it’s a no-brainer. I would go to Southern Cal in a heartbeat.”
That line of thinking is why Cincinnati fans panicked when Bohn fired Clay Helton. Trojans backers are convinced that the program went soft under Helton, and so a guy with Fickell’s profile — three-time state champion heavyweight wrestler, 50-game starter at nose guard for the Buckeyes, a man who defines himself and his teams on grit above all — is exactly what is needed to bring USC back to prominence.
Of course, the qualities that could make Fickell desirable for USC will also make it harder to get him to Los Angeles. He is loyal, some would say almost to a fault.
“Luke’s never worried about where he’s going,” says Jim Tressel, who hired Fickell as an assistant coach at Ohio State in 2002 and has mentored him ever since.
“We kind of go with the old ‘paradise is where I am.’ What I really grew to love about Luke was how he fell in love with every place he was. He was a Columbus DeSales [High] guy, and you couldn’t even talk about another high school. He won’t be at Cincinnati forever, and everyone knows that. But while he’s there, he’ll be totally immersed.”
Every L.A. transplant has had to ask the same question: Will I really be happy there? Bohn is looking not just for a great coach but one who can confidently answer “yes” and turn the experience of coaching USC into their paradise, as Tressel put it.
Can that be Luke Fickell? On this Tuesday night in a quaint local establishment, as he snacks on French fries while his younger sons color with crayons, he looks awfully comfortable as a Bearcat.
But the one person who truly knows the answer isn’t here. Amy Fickell is at Luca’s volleyball game, on the go as always as the mother of six. With her two youngest now in grade school, she’s hoping for a simpler life, not one that’s drastically more complicated.
Given their history, Bohn should understand better than anyone the Fickell family dynamic: If he wants Luke at USC, he will have to convince Amy to say yes for a second time.
She was one of 10 children growing up in a Catholic family in Northwest Ohio, with six brothers who all shared one thing in common: They played football. She became a cheerleader, getting folks fired up on chilly Friday nights.
They were raised a Buckeye bunch, and when Amy’s older sister went to Ohio State, she dated the starting quarterback, Bobby Hoying. One of Hoying’s friends was a hulking nose guard from Columbus named Luke Fickell, and he just happened to join Hoying and Amy’s sister on a couples’ getaway to Amy’s home — with Luke’s then-girlfriend.
“I remember cooking him burgers,” Amy says.
Amy, still in high school, didn’t give Luke much thought, but once she went to Ohio State for school, she was around him all the time due to her sister. They dated other people until her sophomore year in 1996 when they decided they would give it a whirl after an Ohio State victory over Notre Dame — coincidentally, the last time Fickell competed in South Bend before Saturday, almost 25 years to the day.
“When you see this tough, fierce competitor, and you get to see the soft side, it’s a very special thing,” Amy says.
She wasn’t going to be intimidated by the wild man in Luke, either. She’d heard all the stories, of how he went unbeaten as a wrestler in high school and pinned every opponent, which was unheard of.
“I think he’s the toughest person I’ve ever met, mentally and physically,” says Bob Jacoby, Fickell’s football coach at DeSales.
Jacoby credits Luke’s parents, Pat and Sharon. In his formation, Pat, a no-nonsense laborer, provided the hard lessons while Sharon, a sweet-mannered beautician, taught their three kids compassion.
“If any of them would say, ‘That’s not fair,’ my husband would say, ‘Who promised you a rose garden?’ ” Sharon says, laughing.
Luke apparently got the message. He was fine taking matters into his own hands.
“Another mom asked our wrestling coach, ‘Why can’t I make my kid be as good as Luke?’ ” Sharon recalls. “And he goes, ‘Because Luke is nasty, and your boy is not.’ ”
At Ohio State, Fickell fit right in with one of the most talented college football teams of the mid-90s. Adding to his legend, he played in the Buckeyes’ 1997 Rose Bowl victory over Arizona State with a torn pectoral muscle.
“We’re all thinking, ‘Who the hell is gonna play nose guard for us?’ ” Cooper recalls. “Well, Luke Fickell played nose guard.”
That would be the last game Fickell would ever play. A torn anterior cruciate ligament kept him from sticking with the New Orleans Saints, who signed him as an undrafted free agent.
When Amy met Luke, he was on a pre-med track, with the goal of becoming an eye doctor. But once he got an offer to join Cooper’s staff at Ohio State as a graduate assistant, “that eye doctor thing went out the window,” laughs Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, Fickell’s best friend.
Predictably, Fickell loved coaching, and the position brought him back to Columbus. Soon Luke and Amy would be engaged. At one point as the officiating priest was getting to know the young couple, he posed a foreboding question to Amy:
“You know what it’s like to be a coach’s wife?”
Not long after the wedding, Amy got her first taste. They were off to Akron for Luke's first assistant gig, and she quit her job, which she loved, moving to a city where she knew no one.
“It was a little bit of a shock to my system,” Amy says.
After two years at Akron, they were back in Columbus with Luke coaching at his alma mater under Jim Tressel, and it was time to start a family. Having their first child, Landon, was so hard Amy decided she only wanted three (Luke still wanted four). With daughter Luca, Amy was due during the Alamo Bowl trip, so doctors induced her beforehand so that Luke could be there. Then he was off to San Antonio.
“So I was at home with my 2½-year-old and newborn baby, over Christmas,” Amy says. “That was quite the holiday.”
With their third pregnancy, Amy was at an early appointment — alone, she adds — when she got the news it was twins. She called Luke.
“Well, you’re getting your four,” she told him.
That year, Amy attended the Fiesta Bowl in a wheelchair. Ashton and Aydon arrived eight weeks early, in January, and, mercifully, Tressel gave Fickell some time off from recruiting.
By 2011, Tressel had been mentoring Fickell for nine seasons, but it turned out he was grooming his replacement. After Tressel took the fall for Ohio State football players swapping Buckeyes gear and memorabilia for free tattoos, athletic director Gene Smith tapped Fickell, the native son, to steady the ship.
Fickell had never actively looked for the next job, and being the interim head coach actually made him more vulnerable to a change of employment.
Under Fickell, Ohio State went 6-7, including a loss to Michigan that ended Tressel’s seven-game win streak in the series.
“It was an awful year,” says Vrabel, whom Fickell hired to join the staff when he took over. “Everybody was just kind of in shock. Here he was, just kind of being a placeholder, but I think there was a lot more in him.”
Says Amy, “I really don’t think Luke thought about himself. He just wanted to make Jim proud and to do right by these kids. But in hindsight, it’s what made him what he is today. He learned so much in that year.”
Fickell would be judged on that season — if he couldn’t win at Ohio State, where could he win? There was a chance he was going to hit the open market with that stigma and his family would have to uproot.
“He’s never worked the phones, never tried to get another job, and that’s why Urban Meyer kept him on,” Vrabel says. “Under normal circumstances the guy coming in is not going to retain the guy who had so many ties to the players.”
Meyer’s decision to name Fickell a co-defensive coordinator was met with huge relief in the Fickell family.
“I am not a mover,” Amy says. “And the more children you have, the more difficult it is to move.”
Sure enough, in 2014, seven years after their first set of twins, Amy became pregnant with twins again. These were certainly not planned. Like their older brothers, Laykon and Lucian came eight weeks early in the heart of what would be a national championship season for the Buckeyes, which meant Amy was on her own again.
But the Fickell half-dozen, for as much heavy lifting as there was, would not be an anchor on Luke’s career. Amy and Luke had a list of schools that she would consider, and Cincinnati, just 100 miles southwest of Columbus, was on it.
When the Cincinnati job came open after the 2016 season, Fickell was not on the top of fans’ wish lists. After all, they remembered 2011 and that unsightly Michigan blemish, and guys like Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck and Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm were the hot names.
Fleck wasn’t interested in Cincinnati, and Purdue hired Brohm. Bohn zeroed in on Fickell and made the offer. Amy said yes.
The Fickells live on a rolling swath of forested green that runs into a peaceful creek about 20 minutes from Cincinnati’s campus. Their big stone house commands attention, but it is not the biggest in their Indian Hill neighborhood by any stretch. They’ve got pumpkins at the front door, and many of the nearby homes proudly fly American flags.
Luke and Amy have each sacrificed to make this place their paradise, but in Luke’s world, that means some other place is always coming for your family’s beloved stability with a sledgehammer.
Five years after he was settled for here, USC fans across the country are clamoring for him to come. In his lone public comment about the Trojans job, he used the cliché “the grass isn’t always greener,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find grass much greener than here.
He’s built Cincinnati so solidly it can lose to Georgia in the Peach Bowl in heartbreaking fashion and come back the next year to set up another top-10 matchup with Notre Dame. He’s done it his way, the Ohio way, starting with his first team’s winter workouts in the early-morning snow where each player had to earn their right to wear the Cincinnati paw.
“He just kind of ripped everything up and started new,” says Hayden Moore, the quarterback on Fickell’s first Cincinnati team.
To Fickell, toughness is something that can be taught.
“It’s a skill,” Fickell says. “Obviously you’re born, and you walk in the door, and we say there’s a toughness meter, and you’re somewhere on it. But our job is to increase that by the things that we do, and it has 90% to do with mental. It’s not bench press, not squat, it's about a mental challenge of how are you going to rise to the occasion.
“To me, the mental health stuff, we’ve been dealing with it for hundreds of thousands of years. Do you have the courage to overcome it?”
After two turbulent years at USC and three seasons overseeing Fickell at Cincinnati, Bohn should have the data to determine if Fickell’s a fit. USC officials are not addressing questions related to their coaching search, but what they’d be getting in Fickell is something like a controlled maniac.
As he discussed the Notre Dame game this week, you could see the wrestler and nose guard in his trim-yet-toned body, pushing to get out. He says he has to work out every morning to calm the player inside of him so he can properly focus to perform the role of coach. He said he wouldn't even be able to notice the fanfare of Notre Dame Stadium, how much Cincinnati red there is in the stadium, until the clock hits zero.
So you’re kidding yourself if you think USC will be on his radar before December.
“Good wrestlers have tunnel vision,” Sharon Fickell says. “They can block out everything around them and just see what’s in front of them. That’s how he is. He sets himself on a mission, and I don’t think he’ll leave it until he’s done what he’s set out to do. Who knows? He could be getting to that.”
Only Fickell knows his final mission at Cincinnati. Everyone else can theorize.
“It isn’t wins and losses, a certain bowl victory or ranking,” Tressel says. “He wants that feeling that, 'Hey, I’ve given them everything I’ve had,' and then assess if that’s something he wants to continue giving them — every ounce of his being — or if he wants to have the opportunity to do that somewhere else.”
Tressel says he has told Fickell to listen to every school that wants to talk. He does not think Fickell would rule out USC no matter how difficult the sell may be at home.
“He’s highly competitive, and I don’t think whether it’s USC or something like it that he would just turn a blind eye,” Tressel says. “I’m sure he’s giving that zero thought as he turns the film on and watches Notre Dame. That’s the beauty of him. He’s not going to think about the final match of the tournament when he’s wrestling in the second round. He’s going to wrestle the match he’s on. If not, you find yourself on your back.”
It is clear that Amy Fickell does not want to move. She is hopeful that the promise of Cincinnati’s coming move to the Big 12, a Power Five conference, will provide Luke a fresh mission with a higher hill to climb.
A new job this offseason means Landon, Luke’s oldest who is a freshman on the Cincinnati football team, hitting the transfer portal if he wants to play for his dad. It means Luca finishing high school in a new city. Those elements would be unsatisfying if the next job was Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan or Penn State, but at least they’d have tons of family a short drive away.
“Everyone thinks football, I think about my kids, my family. 'Do I want to raise my kids in this place?'” Amy says. “So you kind of look at those things first. We pray a lot about it, and you go from there.”
Whatever list Luke and Amy still have, it's unclear where USC might fall on it. When asked if moving to Los Angeles was a firm “no,” she knew better than to rule it out.
“You never know what the future can hold,” Amy says, and with that, Bohn has permission to fight on for Luke Fickell once again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.