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Luke Fickell’s history-making season earns him Sporting News Coach of the Year award

Perhaps in a nostalgic temper as he and his teammates awaited verification of the most inconceivable school soccer achievement in a decade, maybe simply to kill a bit of free time – “I don’t know why,” he admitted – Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko was compelled to dig by YouTube in the hours following his workforce’s decisive victory over the Houston Cougars in the American Athletic Conference championship recreation. He was on the lookout for one thing specifically, which spoke to the distance coated by the Bearcats since Luke Fickell was employed to be their head coach.

Dublanko discovered the introductory press convention speech Fickell had given 5 years earlier, when he was offered to the Cincinnati neighborhood. A freshman in the fall of 2016, Dublanko redshirted that season, which ended with the Bearcats at 4-8 and then-coach Tommy Tuberville being heckled following a late loss that he was “stealing money.”

Fickell stated largely what you’d anticipate that day. “I’m not going to promise you wins and championships, but I am going to promise we will put a product on the field you will be proud to call your own,” he stated. “Our team will play with great passion, great intensity, great toughness and an incredible amount of class.”

Listening to this all once more “brought back some memories”, Dublanko stated, of his introduction to Fickell: the workforce assembly over the web the place they first gathered, the instruction to point out up for a 6 a.m. exercise to get began and the order that nobody was to reach carrying team-issued gear. “Nothing Cincinnati.” And after sweating throughout the garments they selected to put on, there could be no laundry service offered.

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Fickell wasn’t going to scrub away the previous for the gamers. They would have to be lively members.

On that first day, Fickell turned the 2021 Sporting News Coach of the Year in school soccer.

OK, not likely. He earned the award particularly for his efficiency this season, which noticed the Bearcats earn their highest-ever AP ballot rating at No. 2, full their second undefeated common season in a row and turn out to be the first workforce from exterior the Power 5 conferences to be invited to the College Football Playoff.

No in the future is wholly accountable for a coach’s success, however Cincinnati soccer wanted to maneuver as shortly as potential into a brand new period after Tuberville permitted a gradual decline in the program’s nouveau status, together with three consecutive bowl losses by a mixed rating of 114-41 and solely the second dropping season in 11 years.

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Fickell introduced a peaceful to the program so vital in the wake of the Tuberville catastrophe. That didn’t fade as success arrived in his second season or when nationwide consideration arrived throughout the COVID-impacted 2020 season. There is extra “regular guy” in him than with some of your extra bombastic, self-important soccer coaches.

“It’s not like where you fear talking to the guy,” Dublanko stated. “He wants you to do well and really loves the guys on the team. Having a coach like that, that’s really for you and involved with the coaching process – I’m on defense and I’m the middle linebacker and he used to coach linebackers, so he’s VERY involved.”

Tony Pike quarterbacked UC to a 12-0 common season and Big East championship in 2009, simply eight years earlier than the Tuberville implosion. He now works in the Cincinnati media, with a radio program on ESPN 1530 and as a contributor to reveals on Bally Sports Ohio. Pike grew up as one of the few individuals in the stands at late-90s Bearcats video games and was amongst the most essential figures in its ermergence as a regional energy. He has been delighted to see how Fickell has restored what might so simply have been misplaced.

MORE: Predictions on Cincy-Alabama and each different bowl

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“I don’t know how you can watch Luke Fickell or spend any time around him or watch videos of the locker room and not want to run through a wall for him,” Pike instructed Sporting News. “Brian Kelly was a great coach; he was just different than that. Always kind of reserved, very fiery on the sidelines – you see him lighting into different players – Luke Fickell is fiery, but there is a love and there is a compassion for those players he has.

“Truly, he has created a family environment. I know so many coaches have talked about that … He goes to bat for everyone on that roster. And the fact that, quite frankly, so many top-tier jobs have come open and his name is always attached and he’s still the head coach at Cincinnati – Cincinnati is very lucky to have Luke Fickell.”

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To be trustworthy, anybody is fortunate to have Luke Fickell as a head coach.

When he’d been a participant at Ohio State, making 50 consecutive begins between 1993 and 1996, together with on an 11-1 workforce that received the Rose Bowl and completed with the No. 2 rating, he thought he would apply to medical college when his enjoying profession was completed.

“I was laying in bed – I can’t remember where we were – Wisconsin, wherever we were at camp when I blew my knee out in the NFL, with the New Orleans Saints,” Fickell stated. “I started, for the first time, to really think about what life after football was going to be.

“All of a sudden, I started to recognize, like, ‘Holy cow. What do you really want to do? Are you going to give this game up? Are you going to give up competition and all of that?’ That’s when it all flipped. That’s when I decided, when it’s all said and done, I didn’t want to stop playing the game. And if you can’t play, the next-best thing is to coach. I really made a 180 in where I saw myself going.”

Fickell spent 1997 on injured reserve, then returned to Ohio State as a graduate assistant. He solely needed to spend two years elsewhere earlier than he received the probability to return to the Buckeyes as a fulltime assistant, teaching the particular groups in the 2002 nationwide championship yr. His fast rise led to him serving as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 2005-10.

When issues received ugly for the Buckeyes in 2011 – not on the area, however in the tattoo parlors – and head coach Jim Tressel resigned as the program confronted NCAA sanctions, it was Fickell who was put in cost of the program on an interim foundation. It was not a cheerful time.

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Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor withdrew from Ohio State and was misplaced to the workforce for the yr. The Buckeyes compiled a 6-6 common season that included one-score losses to rivals Penn State and Michigan. They have been chosen to play in the Gator Bowl and misplaced that one by a single landing.

Here’s what sort of season it was for the man in cost:

“I did not have a passion to be a head coach for the next four years, at least,” Fickell instructed SN. “And it wasn’t that you doubt yourself. Now, I look back, that was so unique and so different.

“Being a head coach, in my eyes the ones that have done it so well, I’m not saying they’ve all won national championships, but they’ve built, they’ve grown, they’ve developed things. I knew that year, you don’t have a chance to build, grow and develop anything of your own. But you’ve got to do what you can do. And I learned an incredible amount about being you, being yourself, maybe what it should look like and what it was going to take.

“I didn’t enjoy much of anything about it. I was pulled from the relationship with the guys and what you love and enjoy to do with the guys on a daily basis, whether it’s meeting with them, helping them, teaching them defense.

“I just said afterward, ‘Whether I’m good at this or not, I don’t know, because I don’t think it’s a fair shot, but I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoyed coaching defense and the kids and the linebackers a hell of a lot more. I said, ‘Look, I don’t have to be a head coach.’ ”

Because he was a real Buckeye, as a result of he was an clearly gifted soccer coach, and since he was a wonderful recruiter revered all through his native Ohio, Fickell was retained by Urban Meyer when he took over the program. That allowed Fickell to be half of a second nationwide championship, when his protection managed the celebrated Oregon zone learn offense in the first CFP title recreation.

When Fickell was prepared once more to be thought of for head teaching jobs, that interim yr was an impediment to beat as a candidate and with fan bases who knew little else of him.

“He’s talked about he learned a lot of lessons in how to be No. 1, because he was a lieutenant for so long. And you learn how to be a great lieutenant, but you never actually get to be the general,” stated Chad Brendel, who covers the Bearcats for the 247 Sports web site BearcatJournal.com. “He’s a very smart guy, a very thoughtful guy, so he had the ability to look back and go: OK, this is where I probably messed up this. Or: This is where I didn’t get the most out of what I could have.

“You had a bunch of guys who had to sit out at the beginning of the season, everybody was upset because they felt like it was BS, how Coach Tressel went down … So I don’t think there was ever any calm that entire year.”

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When Fickell arrived in advance of the 2017 season, the momentum that had been generated for Cincinnati football the decade before had dissipated. Once so non-descript as a program that a successful coach, Tim Murphy, left to coach at Harvard, such a non-entity in their city that home crowds filled less than a quarter of a stadium that didn’t hold 40,000 spectators, the Bearcats had soared to consecutive Big East championships in 2008 and 2009 under Brian Kelly and two more under Butch Jones in 2011 and 2012.

With Tuberville in charge, though, Jones’ leftover players produced an AAC title in 2014 and then the losing began. The one thing that didn’t fade, fortunately, was the community’s newfound passion for being good at football.

“You look at what Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly had to do here, they had to basically be both coaches and salesmen,” Pike stated. “Because of the groundwork that was laid, Luke Fickell didn’t really have to do the selling part in the community. I think that made him more comfortable.

“I appreciate that, from a former player’s standpoint, that your head coach is worried and only focused on the team and making the program better. Since day one of Luke Fickell taking over that’s what he’s been about, and you’ve certainly seen the success that came with it.”

In the course of of introducing himself to Cincinnati at that first press convention, Fickell made one clear distinction between himself and most soccer coaches – most coaches in any sport – by telling everybody the Bearcats wouldn’t have objectives, as a result of he believes them to be too broad, too distant. He prefers to focus on “objectives”, objects that may be measured every day.

So once I stumbled into asking what his purpose was for this group of Bearcats, with 30 senior gamers, All-America candidates at every nook and a four-year beginning quarterback coming off an AAC title and a one-point loss in the Peach Bowl, he merely stated he needed the workforce to “play for a championship.” The league championship? The nationwide championship?

“You can kind of shape that in any way, shape or form,” Fickell instructed Sporting News. “No matter what you do, the only way you have to have a chance to get yourself in the conversation or even have a chance to get into the playoff is you have to win the championship. And in order to win the championship, you have to get in the championship.

“If we play for a championship, then we can win a championship. And if we win a championship, then we have a chance to move forward, go on or whatever else that brings us. Last year, we won a championship, you go into this year and I said: There’s no difference, guys. If you don’t play for a championship, we have no chance to do anything beyond that.”

Cincinnati entered the season with quarterback Desmond Ridder as the reigning AAC participant of the yr, and he received that trophy once more this season. They had All-America cornerback Sauce Gardner on one facet, and he repeated that honor in addition to being named the AAC defensive participant of the yr. The nook on the reverse facet, foundational recruit Coby Bryant, was named the 2021 Jim Thorpe Award winner for greatest defensive again. Jerome Ford, a switch from Alabama, rushed for 1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns. There was an abundance of expertise.

MORE: SN 2021 All-America workforce

To attain the College Football Playoff when no different Group of 5 convention member ever had been ranked larger than No. 8 required Cincinnati to win each recreation it performed in the 2021 common season. That included a highway recreation in opposition to Big Ten member Indiana, which started the season ranked in the high 25 however pale to a 2-10 end, and a victory over Notre Dame, which had received 26 consecutive house video games. And then there was the matter of not simply profitable however “impressing” by an eight-game convention season and title recreation.

“I think that definitely weighed on their shoulders. They didn’t have to be perfect. They had to be better than perfect,” Brendel stated. “And that’s completely unfair to put on the shoulders of a group of 18- to 22-year-olds. That’s not how perfect works.”

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There could also be no higher illustration of Fickell’s health for this award, whose previous recipients embrace such legends as Ara Parseghian, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Nick Saban, than a month-long stretch of 4 AAC video games that started with a visit to Navy and ended with one to South Florida. Three of the video games have been on the highway. None was in opposition to an opponent that completed with a profitable file. Each of these groups was pushed to turn out to be the workforce that knocked the Bearcats off their perch.

Cincinnati was ranked No. 2 in the AP ballot when it arrived in Annapolis on Oct. 23. Inside the recreation’s first dozen minutes, Navy stunned the opposition with an onside kick UC was fortuate to recuperate. It was apparent the Bearcats must be prepared for extra than simply the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense.

Navy often set itself in a dual-option alignment relatively than its commonplace formation. They break up receivers broad and despatched them in movement. “It was kind of crazy,” Dublanko stated.

That turned a recurring theme as the Bearcats trudged by the dreariest stretch of their schedule. Only Tulsa, which had challenged Ohio State by three quarters, appeared to pose any menace on paper, however the Golden Hurricane, Tulane’s Green Wave and the USF Bulls all unveiled an abundance of new appears to be like or schemes or performs they’d not proven on movie.

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“I want to say that we had an idea, but I don’t think I actually recognized it until we played Navy,” Fickell instructed SN. “Even in pregame, hearing them talk about, ‘This is the highest-ranked team to come in here since South Carolina came in at No. 2 in 1985, and Navy beat them’ – All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, OK.’

“That little stretch right there, I don’t want to say that put us on our heels, but that’s where we struggled a little bit. There was a lot of different stuff. I think it maybe affected us different ways.”

The teaching workers didn’t cover this from the gamers. Fickell didn’t attempt to conjure a pretense, as so many coaches have in the previous, of hidden energy amongst these 4 opponents. He defined the Bearcats’ expertise and early success was going to result in the opposition going to distinctive lengths in search of any potential benefit, and the Bearcats would wish to manage and reply.

“He just kind of told us we are really talented and these teams recognize that; they know they can’t beat us straight-up, it’s a testament to us and a little bit of a show of respect,” Dublanko instructed SN. “But we’ll get some stuff.

“There was a span of maybe like three or four games there were things were doing stuff they hadn’t shown on film, and so it just kind of took maturity and respect for the coaches and the players — and great communication on the sideline — to make those in-game adjustments to what we were seeing. It was definitely a tough little stretch there.”

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I used to be curious how Fickell discovered that Cincinnati would, certainly, make historical past as the first workforce from exterior the Power 5 conferences to be invited to the playoff. Did he have to attend for the announcement on ESPN’s choice present? Did somebody inform him forward of time?

It didn’t appear to be a difficult query, however Fickell’s reply mirrored the improbability of this achievement. So a lot needed to go completely for the Bearcats to be invited as one of the 4 groups – completely for UC, imperfectly for others – that he by no means fairly trusted that Cincinnati could be on that bracket till he noticed it on nationwide TV.

Not solely did the Bearcats have to complete undefeated, they needed to do it considerably, as once they blew out 8-2 SMU in the last regular-season recreation, 48-14, or once they smoked 11-1 Houston in the AAC title recreation, 35-20. And they wanted one-loss Oklahoma State to not earn the Big 12 championship and put stress on the committee to decide on a Power 5 champion. And they wanted Notre Dame to proceed profitable and including heft to their most spectacular victory. About the solely assist they didn’t obtain was Alabama choosing up a second loss, although the Crimson Tide wanted a last-minute drive of greater than 90 yards and 4 overtimes to defeat rival Auburn.

MORE: Bryce Young is SN’s Player of the Year

Given the outcomes of Championship Saturday, Fickell was receiving assurances from individuals near him that the Bearcats would make the playoff.

“Now, I believe nobody. Through some of the stuff I’ve seen the last year, year and a half, whether it was coaching searches, all this other stuff, different things. I don’t know who told them that or who said that or if it was the bowl people standing at the game – I don’t believe it. But it was one of those things where: OK, you say we’re in, I think we might be in. But I’m that guy that wouldn’t tell anybody that, wouldn’t say that because maybe they could change their mind. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Cincinnati had a senior banquet to coincide with the announcement, and so it turned a banquet not like any Bearcats ever had skilled.

“I was standing on the other side as everybody at the banquet was watching the screens,” Fickell stated. “I was kind of positioned where I couldn’t see the TV – and kind of on purpose, just in case, I didn’t want anybody to see a really bad reaction.

“It was in some ways a relief, but it was also a joy that I’m so happy for our guys, our seniors in particular, are going to get this opportunity.

“When it actually came up on the screen, I smiled and truly, deep down, believed it.”

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