How learned lessons, blue-collar culture have Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati charging into playoff picture


Ohio State almost ruined Luke Fickell. Not his alma mater itself or the beloved Buckeyes football program but the experience of coaching Ohio State.

It was a decade ago when Fickell was dropped into the mighty program’s cockpit upon the resignation of coach Jim Tressel. Cincinnati’s present-day, celebrated national coach of the year candidate can’t forget the tailspin that followed.

“It kept me out of [head coaching] for five years, which probably was the best thing to self-evaluate at the time,” Fickell recalls. “I didn’t enjoy the experience I had as being a head coach.”

In that 2011 season — after Tressel lied to his Ohio State bosses and the NCAA in the infamous TattooGate scandal — Fickell was a one-and-done interim coach. As a native son who transferred easily from Buckeye linebacker to loyal linebackers coach, his job was not to screw up the program while the Ohio State administration searched for a permanent replacement.

Fickell didn’t screw it up, but he didn’t succeed either, finishing 6-7 with a program kneecapped by scandal.

“Every week it was something different,” Fickell remembers. “The constant handling of things outside of the actual games on Saturday was not very fun and exhausting. The experience I had of being a head coach I did not enjoy one bit.”

Similar signposts dot Cincinnati’s road to this moment. Like breadcrumbs, they mark the path from there to here, how a humble program in Ohio’s third-largest city — in the shadow of Ohio State — is knocking at the door of the College Football Playoff.

Halfway through a 2021 season potentially filled with magic, it’s important to chronicle why Cincinnati is here and how it arrived at this moment. If or when it does get that CFP berth, the Bearcats will be the first program from outside the Power Five to play for a national championship since BYU in 1984. No. 3 Cincinnati has reached this point with the best chance to reach the CFP of any Group of Five team, ever.

Such possibilities have been discussed through all eight years of the playoff. With Cincinnati, it’s within reach.

Fickell, 48, is in the prime of his career with a veteran roster that boasts a gnarly defense, difference-making quarterback and the increasing respect of the sport’s oracles.

“No one else had a realistic chance because they didn’t have the schedule,” CBS Sports bowls expert Jerry Palm said.

Not like this. The Bearcats have scaled two obstacles in the first half that few teams overcome in an entire season — beating two Power Five programs on the road back-to-back, one of them (Notre Dame) ranked in the top 10 at the time of kickoff.


For every CFP rebuff and frustration Cincinnati has endured on this journey, none are worse than what Fickell experienced during the week of the 2011 Michigan game. Against his better instincts, he decided to bring in Tressel — still a pariah at that point — to speak to the team. It did not go well.

Months earlier, on the day Tressel resigned under pressure (May 30, 2011), Fickell went to his former boss and mentor’s house. His message was just a few words: “You can’t talk to me.” Tressel was that toxic.

“I don’t think we spoke until I reached out the week of the last game,” Fickell said. “I told him, ‘I want you to come in and say a word before we take off.’ [He had to] sneak in the back door. People were mad at me because they heard. They were firing me anyway, so what the hell.”

Ohio State lost that day, 40-34, to this date the Buckeyes’ only defeat at the hands of the Wolverines since 2003.


Today, OSU isn’t the only powerhouse within the state’s borders. As such, Fickell may not be long for the program that gave him his shot at redemption.

“I really like Mike [Bohn],” Fickell said of the current USC athletic director who hired him at Cincinnati and who some think could eventually hire him to coach the Trojans. “There are guys at places where there is bad blood. There’s none here. It’s not just because he hired me. He was an AD who played the game, too. So for a coach in general, that’s a good thing in a lot of situations.”

Let’s just let those comments stand on their own. This story is about how Cincinnati got to where it’s place in the college football world today.

It is not a recent story. In their history, the Bearcats have been both big time (in the Big East) and on the outside looking in (Conference USA, American). But part of the reason Fickell took the job was the program’s overall level of consistency dating back to at least 2004 when Mark Dantonio arrived.

Ever since, Cincinnati has prospered under the likes of Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and even Tommy Tuberville, the current U.S. Senator who concluded his stay in 2016 by telling a fan to “go to hell“.

“I believed that I was going to be a lot different than what the previous coach was,” Fickell said. “Not that you’re better than anybody else, but a 180 in leadership styles is good for kids.”

Tuberville did leave an enduring legacy. Before departing, he had begun recruiting Desmond Ridder. The quarterback from St. Xavier in Louisville, Kentucky, had two offers out of high school: Cincinnati at Eastern Kentucky. When Fickell and the staff arrived, they took a look at the commitment list, flipped on some film and saw a 6-foot-1, 175-pound prospect who needed work.

“We were always curious to what else was out there,” Fickell said.

Ridder arrived in the summer of 2017. By then, Fickell and his staff had inherited a roster that had already been through “Attention Training“. That corporate label masked a brutal offseason training regime that opened the eyes of returning Bearcats.

“At the break of dawn,” sixth year linebacker Joel Dublanko recalled. “I think we had to be in the building by 5:30 a.m. We couldn’t wear anything that had ‘UC’ on it. We just had to run out there.”

Dublanko estimates it was 10 degrees outside that first morning. Over sheets of ice and snow, the players were bear-crawling, sometimes cutting their hands. New coaches throughout time have tested players they inherited with similar drills, attempting to achieve the “buy in.” It isn’t pretty, and a lot of it is not known publicly as it’s conducted behind closed doors.

Those who don’t survive, leave. Those who stay have made it through a crucible. 

“It felt like a breath of fresh air,” Dublanko said. “It was a new way of things happening. It was completely different. It felt like something our program really needed. It was the right decision.”

Strength coach Brady Collins was the 35-year-old force of nature leading the drills. He had been an Ohio State assistant strength coach focused on linebackers. Since that was Fickell’s position group, the two had bonded. When Cincinnati’s call came for Fickell in December 2016 as the Buckeyes prepared for the CFP, the coach turned to Collins and asked, “Are you ready?”

“When he told me, it was like, ‘Absolutely,'” Collins said.

You have to understand, the strength coach in any program is like an appendage — an extra limb – for the head coach. In many cases, there is no one closer to the players. Strength staff and players see each other every day. Collins’ old boss at Ohio State, Mickey Marotti, was given such power by former coach Urban Meyer there was an elaborate ceremony each summer. Marotti “turned the team over” to Meyer to begin fall drills.

Fickell’s first recruiting class was ranked 63rd nationally, No. 3 in the AAC, per the 247Sports Composite. Those players are now fifth-year seniors powering a 5-0 team for the third time in four years. Ridder was the 117th-ranked “athlete” in that class, a symbol for what Cincinnati has become — a top developmental program.

All of it is reflected in its leader, a three-time state champion wrestler who started 50 games as an Ohio State nose guard.

“We don’t want to be a top-10 team,” Fickell once told the staff. “We don’t want to be somebody that pokes our nose in there once every blue moon. We want to be a top-10 program.”

Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock did the detective work on Ridder. He drove to St. Xavier, speaking to everyone from the head coach to counselors to janitors.

“Lord knows sometimes why you make decisions,” Denbrock said. “We made the right decision in this case.”

Denbrock’s offense is a spread that is centered around a power running game. Ridder, who has run for almost 2,000 yards in his career, has never been better than the league’s third-best passer.

This season is on pace to be his best. It has taken a coaching village. Zac Taylor left his mark. As Tuberville’s final offensive coordinator, Taylor was instrumental in recruiting Ridder. Taylor is now coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Current QBs coach Gino Guidugli is Cincinnati’s career passing leader.

“We bonded from the start,” Ridder said. “As a quarterback, he played not too long ago. Maybe these offensive coordinators out there who never played college football or played in a top program. [Our relationship] makes it easy for him to translate.”

Guidugli is 38 with three sons. Ridder is 22 with a 6-month-old daughter. The middle is not a bad place to meet for a signal caller who never before had a throwing coach, today’s reflection of an elite QB.

“I was always just self-taught,” Ridder said. “I worked in my backyard. My family wasn’t fortunate enough to afford someone to train me for something I already do.”

As the wins mounted and Ridder improved and word spread, one of the nation’s top throwing coaches reached out to him. Ridder now works with Jordan Palmer, the famous Southern California-based QB coach who has trained some of the brightest college and pro stars.

“It’s a blue-collar culture,” Collins said, “Everything is not going to be shiny and pretty. We don’t have the fanciest facilities in the world. We don’t care. It’s what makes us who we are.”

The defense has been called “the oldest in America,” at least by senior defensive lineman Malik Vann. He has a point. The nation’s second-best in scoring defense (12.2 points per game) features nine seniors — three of the sixth-year variety and three fifth-year players. Vann is one of three traditional four-year seniors.

Still, the Cincinnati native is ahead of the game. Vann graduated after his junior year and is keeping busy with an internship in the compliance department.

“We’re unfazed,” Vann said of the seniors. “We’ve seen it all, been part of the big stages, big games. Nothing really bothers us.”

Everyone agrees on the point where the program turned from 4-8 in Fickell’s debut in 2017 to what you see today. The Bearcats walked into the Rose Bowl to begin the 2018 season and smashed UCLA, 26-17, in Bruins coach Chip Kelly’s first game.

Including that day, Cincinnati is 36-6 since. The Bearcats have been ranked for a school-record 35 straight weeks.


Maybe it’s a question of a CFP Selection Committee that has never given a Group of Five team a fair shake. UCF, this week’s opponent, is a reminder. The Knights self-proclaimed themselves national champions after finishing 13-0 in 2017. The committee ranked UCF 12th.

The Bearcats were at No. 8 prior to January’s narrow loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. It’s that kind of extended excellence that has to make an impression. The result hurt, but as the gloom cleared, Fickell’s men took heart in going head-to-head with an SEC power.

“I’m not going to lie. Deep down, it was one of those things where you’re very proud,” Collins said. “We know how the media perceives the SEC teams compared to us.”

That comparison will be apt for renewal if the planets align. The Bearcats surely need to win out to get in. Cincinnati, though, is likely to be favored in every game the rest of the season.

No. 1 Georgia might be awaiting at the end again, this time in the CFP bracket.

“I would welcome it,” said Vann, who missed the Peach Bowl with injuries. “Just so I could get back to that stage again and play them.”

Everything about Cincinnati now is big time. The program is moving to the Big 12 in 2024 at the latest. Fickell’s excellence as a coaching star with a pedigree was a huge factor. He is with super-agent Jimmy Sexton, the same force who basically controls any big-time search.

Conjure your own silly season scenario if LSU opens up along with USC.

Whether Fickell stays or goes will be viewed by the coach as a decision taking the same light as the day Tressel snuck in the back door at Ohio State to say goodbye one last time.

“It was the right thing [to do].”





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