Fickell isn’t Jim Tressel, and that’s just the way he wants it

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The Sports Bank’s, Jeff Beck, reporting from day two of Big Ten Football Media Day in Chicago. 

It was late, 11 p.m. on a Friday night a week and a half after Jim Tressel had been dismissed as head coach of the Ohio State program, when an undoubtedly drained Luke Fickell worked alone in his office.  Much had transpired in that week and a half.  In the blink of an eye, the coach of the past decade was gone, the star quarterback had jumped ship for the NFL, Ohio State was plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated for all of the wrong reasons, and questions swirled about the future of the very program that had been a pillar of stability in the Big Ten for years.  But one thing hadn’t happened.  Fickell hadn’t moved into Tressel’s old office.

The space was rightfully his and maintenance had been asking for days what he wanted to do with the room,  but Fickell continually told them to leave it alone.  So there he sat, in his familiar assistant coach’s office late into the evening.  But this night was different, because on this night Fickell realized why he’d been dodging questions about office reorganization.

“It was something I had to do,” said Fickell.

So, he walked into the room, shoved a few folders underneath Tressel’s hulking desk and moved it across the floor himself, all the way to the other side of the room.

The change was subtle, but it didn’t go unnoticed.  The maintenance men wondered how Fickell had moved the desk on his own and players asked why the desk wasn’t where it had been before.

“Well its some change,” said Fickell. “I think it allowed me to say, this is the way it is and we’re moving forward.  It was a step.”

Fickell understands the importance of defining himself as someone other than Tressel, and the moving of the desk was the first step in writing that narrative.  At the same time, Fickell respects his former boss and the winning foundation he left in Columbus.   For Fickell the coming season is going to be about carving out his own niche as head coach while still assuring players, the media, and recruits that the winning tradition and foundation that Tressel fostered at Ohio State has gone unchanged.

On the surface, defining himself as someone other than Tressel wont be tough.  Fickell is a different guy.  He’s younger, he has a more intense glare and he doesn’t wear a sweater vest.

“We don’t have a whole bunch of them that would fit,” said Fickell.

He’s also a defense first guy at a school with an entire offensive style named after their former head coach, “Tresselball.”  But Fickell didn’t shy away from that difference.

“I’m going to try and play to my strengths, that’s on the defensive side of the ball, said Fickell.”

While the look and mindset of the Ohio State head coach has changed, the reality is, not much else on the seven-time conference champion coaching staff has.

“The greatest asset we have is the stability we’ve had in the coaching staff,” said Fickell.  “I’ve been with Coach Bollman for nine years… we know eachother, we know who we are.  That’s the best thing we’ve got going for us.”

Stability is something that has been questioned all summer when it comes to this Ohio State team.  Who will start at quarterback?  How will the team do without key suspended starters for the first five games?  Does Fickell have what it takes to coach the program to another championship?

Aside from questions of stability, the national perception of Ohio State has soured.

The popular belief is Ohio State is wounded.  The Big Ten did away with preseason football awards this year, but the Cleveland Plain Dealer held its own vote among 24 beat writers to predict the finish of every team in both divisions.  The writers selected Nebraska to play Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game, while Ohio State received only one first place vote.  But Friday, Fickell reminded reporters there is a fine line between perception and reality.

The reality is Ohio State is coming off of its sixth straight Big Ten Championship, they led the conference in total defense last season and they are returning a number of starters from last year.

“To be the No. 1 team in the nation last season, that to me shows the foundation of a program that is strong,” said Fickell. “Those are the things that we are building on and making sure that we stress to the outside, to the recruits, to the people who are curious as to what is going on.”

With training camp set to start in a matter of days, there is no doubt Fickell will sit in his former boss’s office and contemplate the coming season.  He will be sitting at the same desk and in the same chair, but he is not Jim Tressel.  Yet, much like him, Fickell understands that winning starts with a committed group of players and coaches.  A group that stays at the office just as late as he does.

“I was walking down the hallway at 9:30 at night and a light was on in the weight room,” said Fickell.  There is Mike Brewster on the treadmill at 9:30 at night.  You just kind of smile, keep walking and say, ‘you know what, that’s why we will be ok.’”

It’s safe to say the rest of the conference hopes he is wrong.

By: Jeff Beck

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffMBeck

 

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