We started the end of the work week with the unfortunate news of Jim Tressel’s abrupt resignation. Too stunned to really follow through and add on the relevant posts on this blog, I was nevertheless pleased with how Eleven Warriors has thoroughly handled the news. In particular, while I’m still considering a eulogy post of my own, Ramzy’s widely cited piece does more than justice to what exactly we’re losing at the position of head football coach. Read it if you have not already. It has already attracted the attention of Ohio State luminaries like Dustin Fox and Jay Crawford, that I can name off the top of my head.
On that point, our attention is now turned squarely to the position that Ramzy notes will be suffering for the absence of Jim Tressel. If not for the manner by which Tressel exited and the prospects of significant team-wide penalties (in the form of scholarship reductions and bowl bans, perhaps), the vacancy becomes the hottest such job opening in recent memory. College football has exploded in popularity in recent years, becoming, if you will, “the new politics” for American consumers. As it stands, Luke Fickell, appointed the interim coach early for the first five games, is now the interim coach for the entirety of the 2011 season. After which, the athletic department plans a hiring search that will include both internal and external candidates. I hope you know, after three-plus years of this dumb blog, that I try to avoid hyperbole and outlandish statements. Thus, I hope that underscores how serious I am when I say will be supremely disappointed if he is not given the job outright after that process.
It should have been an open and shut case. Before this happened, we had assumed that Tressel, who never had aspirations to be Joe Paterno, was going to retire when his contract expired after the 2014 season. Therein, the greatest mystery regarding his successor did not entail outside candidates, but was a guessing game between assistants Darrell Hazell and Luke Fickell. With Hazell’s departure for the Kent State job (perhaps as training wheels) and Fickell’s promotion thereafter in relation to Tressel’s scandal, the reigning AFCA assistant coach of the year and Ohio State alumnus may have had leverage over other competitors for the job. At least, I thought.
That changed with Tressel’s abrupt resignation. Given the nature of it, I think most fans — and certainly most, if not all, outsiders — are expecting that Fickell is keeping the proverbial seat warm for someone else. Even Chris Spielman, who has a bad habit of being unfortunately right about stuff lately, expressed this thought. The idea is that the nature of the scandal means Ohio State’s athletic department is somehow compelled to start over with entirely new people. Assuming that is the necessary thing to do, a priori, is dangerous.
The terribly unfortunate thing about Jim Tressel’s resignation is that he is leaving behind a high quality infrastructure in his wake, one that is in his image. His assistants are a good mix of personally ambitious, hardworking and dedicated to the program. He may not be terribly popular with fans, but Jim Heacock may be the most hardworking assistant of the bunch and has, by far, the least ego. Beyond Heacock, Taver Johnson — Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach — is another assistant coach known for being an aggressive coach with his unit and would probably be more popular with fans if he had the necessary persona to make himself known. He does not. Much like Heacock, Johnson keeps his passion for the job, on the job. He just doesn’t call plays like Heacock, who, you’ll notice, was beyond supportive of Fickell leapfrogging him in responsibilities. If Fickell does get the head gig for 2012, he may make some changes to the staff, most likely on the offensive side of the ball. Even if an outside candidate gets the job, he may decide to keep a few important people, though the number retained is usually no greater than one. I’m certain, with only minor qualifications about Penn State’s defense and Michigan’s unproven, but big name, staff, that we have the best assistant corp in the conference across the board. We’d lose that if we dismissed Fickell as a candidate outright and, worse yet, we’d signal to the assistants to pack their bags during the season itself.
My biggest fear is recruiting. Someone may correct me on this, but I don’t think any segment was more distraught to see Tressel resign than Ohio high school football coaches. Their testimonial to Tressel was that relations between and among OHSFCA had “never been better” in the ten years since Jim Tressel took over. The sad reaction among Ohio’s high school football coaches was almost universal. Ohio State’s recruiting in the state had been exceptional, minus the rogue city-state of Cincinnati. High school football coaches in the state know the recruiting process well, managed by tight end coach John Peterson (see above point). They universally commend Ohio State for being earnest with recruits, the high school coaches and family and being thorough in their evaluations. The summer camps for aspiring football players in the state are also very popular. No other external candidate that could appear in the search process would have the connections and good will we currently have right now. It would mean starting over, amid possible scholarship reductions and bowl bans (though this remains to be determined). It would be regained through time, but it would mean starting over under adverse circumstances. No external candidate would have the awareness of Ohio football that we currently have. This becomes particularly problematic if a new face has to oversee the program when under sanctions and probation, without the friendly context of familiar faces to facilitate clear communication between coach and recruit.
Nothing I’ve done here, so far, elaborates how Fickell would be the best guy for the job. Instead, this highlights a scientific principle I hold very dear to my heart: the first law of wing-walking. It’s the idea that, if you find yourself walking on the wing of a plane (and I would not recommend that), you do not take your next step unless you are beyond certain that your next step is an improvement beyond what you have now. In the science world, this becomes a philosophy that we are not to reject an existing paradigm until we can explain all that we already know and gain leverage over understanding new problems and generate more novel auxiliary hypotheses. Dismissing Fickell as a candidate outright, or at least not taking him seriously, invites the problem of going back to square-one, perhaps the hard way in the literal wing-walking anecdote. We would be erasing the infrastructure we have now and I don’t believe we would be replacing it with one that we knew for sure was better.
Still, it is my job to make an argument that Fickell, and not just the institutional status quo I’ve discussed, is the best candidate for the job. I wonder if the only reason we are having this discussion is because Tressel abruptly retired three years before we thought he would. Fickell was primed to be his in-house successor and we may not be seriously arguing about tearing down the house that Tressel built. Subtract three years and recall the manner by which Tressel resigned, and we apparently are having this argument amongst ourselves. Fickell is not connected to the ongoing scandal circulating around Tressel and it seems statistically impossible that his name will appear in relation to any related wrongdoing. The difference of three years, and Tressel’s misdeeds, may hijack Fickell’s dream to be a head coach of his alma mater and I’m not sure I’m okay with that.
Beyond that, I wonder if most observers of the team’s inner workings would peg Fickell as our best assistant. He is our most ambitious. His rise to prominence on the defensive side of the ball in recent years has resulted in him moving to the ground level from the booth (a sign of distinction) and has also coincided with the schematic flexibility of late that has made our defense look more like the Silver Bullets for which Fickell started a school-record 50 straight games.1 Unofficially, the linebackers “work the hardest” on the team because of Fickell2 and his track record with Hawk, Carpenter (as seniors), Laurinaitis, Freeman, Homan and Rolle attest to an aspiring assistant coach who gets the most out of his position.
I don’t get to see the inside workings of the team, but I do get to follow the visible recruiting aspects of the program. Therein, Fickell is our ace in the hole, after the departed Jim Tressel. He was primary recruiter of Kurt Coleman, Thaddeus Gibson, Cam Heyward, Travis Howard, Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat, Nathan Williams, Zach Boren, Jeremy Cash and Ryan Shazier, among others. Recently, Kyle Kalis, upset that he would not get to play for Jim Tressel, called Luke Fickell to decommit but was persuaded by Fickell not to do so after an hour-long conversation. Luke Fickell can coach, and can recruit.
Further, it is not clear to me that many of the outside candidates make any sense. You can scratch off a few immediately. Bob Stoops is not leaving his empire in Norman, Oklahoma, where he will one day retire as marginally less successful, but infinitely cleaner Barry Switzer. Further, Nick Saban, known for his wanderlust, will not leave Tuscaloosa. We can match Saban’s salary, but very likely could not match assistants on top of that. Further, the idea of being in a no-oversigning conference would make Saban’s chubby go limp. It would be, at best, a lateral move for Saban and he wouldn’t do it.3 Most importantly, I’m kind of against having a head coach for Ohio State who damn near ran me off the road under the railroad overpass on McFarland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa. That’s not cool, dude. There are other important outside candidates that I will consider in another post.
It is worth underscoring that I believe this should be Luke Fickell’s job to lose and yet, he’s already behind the 8 ball. Almost all of last year’s defense graduated and Fickell will start the first five games of the 2011 season without his offensive firepower. The problem may be compounded if Terrelle Pryor, clearly our best option at quarterback, is off the team (as is rumored, but not confirmed). Fickell is being put in a position to fail and I would fear Gene Smith could make it worse by not providing all the open support needed to make him the priority in getting the job in 2012. If Fickell wins games against the odds and his teams show fight and gumption, even in defeat, I would be more than happy to extend him into the future if I were Gene Smith. Luke Fickell is only 37, young enough to weather the NCAA storms for the next few years and not even touch his prime as a coach. With all his other accolades considered, I would be very disappointed if we did not provide that public support for him.
And yet, if Fickell’s squad bombs in 2011 (perhaps because of a lack of support) and looks hopeless, we may have to look for an outside candidate. Therein, the external hire scraps the great institution that Jim Tressel established over 10 years in Columbus. Recruiting suffers and a rash of transfers, who want to play for Fickell and Tressel, follow. The new coach will start from scratch, with the added degree of difficulty provided by possible NCAA sanctions. A hopeless 2011 season may set forward an ostensibly hopeless immediate future.
Then, I’ll be supremely disappointed.
- Also credit Jim Heacock for not having an ego and working with Fickell to make it happen. [↩]
- I cannot source this, but I’m 90% confident I heard James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman say as much on TV once. [↩]
- …certainly not for the only place that fired him for poor job performance in his coaching career. BAZING! [↩]