Remember the book – and movie – Tuesdays With Morrie?
For the last six years, one of the best parts of my week has been “Mondays With Fick.”
Every Monday morning at 10:00 during the football season, I would meet with Coach Fickell to record TV and radio content and then we would sit in his office and talk. He never seemed to be in a hurry to get rid of me. We would obviously discuss the team, and I always appreciated his candor and willingness to share information. But it was much more than that. We traded stories about our families, discussed college football and NFL news, and laughed about the latest gossip. It was like hanging out with a buddy at a sports bar – with bottled water.
One of the things that always stood out to me in those conversations is that Luke never complained about Cincinnati’s perceived shortcomings. Whether it was conference affiliation, luxurious facilities at other schools, or UC’s budget in comparison to some of the “Blue Bloods” – Luke not only didn’t bellyache about it; he got everybody to embrace “Clifton Style” and the underdog mentality that’s been such a big part of Cincinnati’s success.
His accomplishments at UC are mind-boggling. A school-record 57 wins, back-to-back AAC Championships, a 32-game home winning streak, 17 NFL draft picks including a school-record nine last year, a 100% graduation rate, and a historic trip to the College Football Playoff.
And if last year’s win at Notre Dame wasn’t the greatest victory in Bearcats history, it’s certainly on the short list.
Like any great leader, Coach Fickell got people to buy in and he had a unique ability to form personal, long-lasting relationships. When the team arrived at the stadium on game day, he stood in front of the locker room door and briefly embraced every player before they walked in. Last February, he and his wife Amy treated the coaching and office staff and spouses to an all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico. He created an environment where players, coaches, and staff members felt valued and appreciated.
“He’s such a genuine person,” said interim head coach Kerry Coombs. “What you see is what you get. There’s nothing behind door number two. There’s nothing hidden back there. He is really Luke Fickell every day, all day. And I love that about him.”
Luke would be the first person to say that his success at Cincinnati has truly been a team effort. He hired a charismatic strength and conditioning coach in Brady Collins and outstanding assistant coaches like Gino Guidugli, Mike Tressel, Kerry Coombs, Marcus Freeman, Mike Denbrock, and many others. He wasn’t social media savvy, but understood its importance and encouraged the creative efforts of Kelsey Sharkey. He was a relentless recruiter and found indefatigable staffers like Pat Lambert and Max Stienecker. And he trusted long-time UC employees like his personal assistant Sherry Murray, football operations guru John Widecan, and video director Adam Niemeyer to take care of all of the little details that he didn’t have time to worry about.
Luke is a great coach and an even better person and he obviously leaves big shoes to fill. But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the years, it’s that his successor will have every opportunity to win big.
Four of the last five football coaches at UC have been enormously successful and the only exception failed to understand the importance of local and regional recruiting. The move to the Big 12 will mean stiffer competition, but it will also mean a huge bump in TV revenue, more national exposure, and a fair opportunity to compete for national championships. Luke Fickell’s successor will be inheriting a great job in a Power Five conference.
Here’s hoping his replacement will have an opening on his schedule on Monday mornings.