It has to be hard knowing you’re going to be replaced before it happens — knowing the institution you’ve dedicated a large portion of your life to has decided you’re not good enough.
It has to even harder pretending you’re unaware.
That’s what Ohio State coach Luke Fickell was facing Saturday after his team lost to Michigan for the first time since 2003.
Hoards of reporters crowded into a small room somewhere in the depths of Michigan Stadium to hear a lame-duck coach take the stand.
Fickell entered the room, brushed through reporters, and took a seat, staring directly ahead. He looked strained and defeated, but in typical Fickell fashion, he pressed on.
You see, if Fickell is one thing, it’s a fighter. No matter what the circumstances, he perseveres and stays focused on his goal. It’s what’s defined him his whole life.
In high school, Fickell wasn’t just a football star. He was a three-time state champion wrestler at Columbus DeSales. He went 106-0 in his final three years and was so dominant some of his opponents forfeited their matches against him in fear.
As a nose guard at OSU, Fickell started a school-record 50 consecutive games. He played the entire 1997 Rose Bowl with a torn pectoral muscle.
That’s why when OSU was in the midst of its biggest scandal in program history, Fickell stepped forward and accepted the challenge. Why couldn’t he do it? Why couldn’t he fight through the adversity and succeed?
At first, people liked Fickell’s no-nonsense mentality. They liked the toughness and structure he brought to a program that was in obvious need of some discipline.
But that was before the losses started.
First there was the close call against Toledo. Then there was the loss to Miami. Back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Nebraska moved the team to 3-3 and suddenly, Fickell’s poor game management replaced his toughness as the topic of conversation.
There seemed to be a brief revival after a miracle-win against Wisconsin, but three consecutive losses to end the year extinguished all hope. The Fickell experiment would be a one-year endeavor.
Fickell knew all of this when facing the press after the Michigan game.
He knew Urban Meyer was going to be Ohio State’s next head coach. He knew this was likely the last time he would face the media as the unquestioned head man at the university that’s been such a central facet of his life since he was 18 years old.
There was no hesitation when the question portion of the press conference began. Reporters fired away on questions about Meyer replacing him and the uncertain future he had with the university. At first Fickell stood his ground. He diverted the questions back to the rivalry with the Wolverines.
But slowly, Fickell began to break.
I’ll never forget when I first noticed it, but Fickell’s eyes started to become glassy. I leaned to the person next to me and asked, “Is Fickell crying?”
He wasn’t, but he was on the verge of tears. It looked like he could break down at any time.
Another question was asked regarding his future and Fickell had had enough. He slammed the table in frustration.
“It’s about the Ohio State-Michigan game,” Fickell said as his fist hit the table. “It’s been about that since Sunday. It will be about that always.”
The sequence of events is burned into my memory. It was the moment when Fickell, the man too tough to cry, almost broke down.
I think the fighter within him felt he lost. He finally met an opponent he couldn’t beat. At a moment that has been filled with joy and BCS chatter, here he was discussing a 6-6 season that most consider a disappointment — a disappointment he led them to.
For the first time since he was hired as head coach, I think Fickell took a step back, reflected on the whole situation and didn’t like what he saw. It cut him to the core not because he felt bad for himself, but because the state of the program was in such disarray. Columbus-born and bred with Scarlet and Gray coursing through his veins, Fickell felt like he failed the university he cared so much about.
It wasn’t about money or job security. It was about selfless despair.
Maybe Fickell made some mistakes. Maybe he was put in an impossible situation. But Fickell took over the program at its lowest point, at a time when many wouldn’t touch it. And he did it without hesitation.
Now, Meyer will take over that role. The former Florida coach was announced as OSU’s new head coach Monday evening.
Fickell will coach the team in the bowl and will apparently be offered a position on Meyer’s staff.
Most expect Fickell to accept the job, but make no mistake about it — this is Meyer’s team now. He will be the face of the program and personally, I think he’ll make OSU fans forget about the 6-6 season quickly.
But don’t forget about the coach that led them there — the coach that cared so much it almost brought him to tears. The season may be forgettable, but the coach deserves to be remembered.