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West Virginia Coaching Candidate Report Card: Luke Fickell

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Could the Mountaineers convince the Cincinnati head coach to come to Morgantown after just two years?

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Temple Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia has now started the search for the next head football coach. This will be their first real coaching search since Don Nehlen’s retirement, and we’re here to break down the top candidates and grade them based on how they would fit in Morgantown.

Resume

Luke Fickell took the head coaching job at Cincinnati in 2017 after a long stint with Ohio State which included positions mostly on the defensive side of the ball.

A former defensive lineman, Fickell started 50 consecutive games for Ohio State from 1993-1996. He played a season for the New Orleans Saints before returning to Ohio State as a graduate assistant.

His first hired position was at Akron as a defensive line coach, where he spent two years. He was “called home” by Jim Tressel in 2002 as the special teams coordinator. In 2005, he was promoted to co-defensive coordinator and then assistant head coach in 2010.

Fickell has been the head coach of a Power 5 team before, as he led the Ohio State football team for the 2011 season, in between Jim Tressel’s resignation and Urban Meyer’s hire. During his one year as Ohio State interim head coach, the Buckeyes posted a 6-7 record, finished fourth in the Big 10 with a 3-5 record, and lost the Gator Bowl to Florida, 24-17.

The notable win from this single season was against No. 10 Wisconsin at home, 33-29. That was Fickell’s lone win over a top-25 team as the head coach of Ohio State; he was 1-3 that season.

Fickell was hired by Meyer to be his co-defensive coordinator in 2012. He remained in that position until 2016, when he took the head coaching gig at Cincinnati.

A slight surprise, Fickell took the job at Cincy while being thought of the sure-fire replacement for Meyer. Instead of waiting around, however, he decided to try his luck on his own.

Fickell’s first year at Cincinnati was less than successful, leading the team to a 4-8 season in 2017. That said, he inherited a program without much structure from the retiring Tommy Tuberville. Despite the lackluster season, Fickell helped four players make the All-American Conference teams (one first-teamer, two second-teamers and one honorable mention). Offensive tackle Korey Cunningham was drafted 254th by the Arizona Cardinals in the ensuing NFL Draft.

After just one season of rebuilding, Fickell’s Bearcats truly turned the car around in 2018. This season, Cincy finished with an 11-2 record, 6-2 in the American Conference, and a Military Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, 34-31.

Overall, it’s tough to say that Fickell has been a complete success at Cincinnati, given he has only been there for two years. But his work this season earned him the title 2018 American Conference Coach of the Year. He has certainly proven this season to be a very competent head coach.

Fickell has a head coaching record at Cincinnati of 15-10 (.600), and an overall record of 21-16, a .567 win percentage. However, he only has two years of real head-coaching experience, so he’s unproven with good upside.

Grade: B-

Strategy

Fickell is a defensive coach, which would be a contrast to the Dana Holgorsen philosophy. That said, Cincy averaged 34.9 points per game on offense. Fickell employs Mike Denbrock as his OC, who a spread-esque offense, to which he’s become accustomed from his time at Ohio State. This may be more similar to what Mountaineers fan saw prior to Holgorsen’s arrival.

Defensively, Fickell uses a more traditional 4-3 style of defense, which would be a major shift from the 3-3-5 WVU currently plays. The Bearcats surrendered just 16.1 points per game in 2018, but gave up more than 30 points per game in 2017. The difference Fickell made in just one offseason is quite impressive. Cincinnati recorded 76 tackles for loss and 31 sacks in 2018 as well, a positive sign for WVU fans.

At Ohio State, Fickell’s defenses produced a lot of talent but was highlighted by powerful players who were best at rushing the QB. That style of defense may work well in the Big 10, but how that would transition to the Big 12, where quarterbacks tend to deliver the ball quicker, would be interesting.

It’s hard to pinpoint if his defensive strategy is what makes his defenses good or if he had really great players on the field at OSU. However, the turnaround this season at Cincinnati shows he is a pretty good defensive coach.

Grade: B-

Recruiting and Player Development

In just a short time at Cincinnati, Fickell has been able to coach kids up to earn all-conference honors. Four players landed on the 2018 American Conference All-Conference First Team and six on the second team.

Fickell’s career as a defensive lineman could greatly help WVU recruit a position that has been a long-time weak point. Editor’s note: I can imagine players like Dante Sills and Reese Donahue would greatly benefit from Fickell.

Recruiting at Cincinnati has been a huge success under Fickell. The Bearcat 2018 class was ranked No. 47 by Rivals and 247 Sports, signing 23 players last year. The 2018 class consisted of 22 three-star players and one four-star.

The outlook for the 2019 class is not as bright, as 247 Sports has Cincinnati ranked No. 74 with only 15 commits so far. However, Fickell learned to recruit under Tressel and Meyer, whose classes were perennially in the top 10.

Though Fickell’s staff at Cincy has only placed one O-lineman in the NFL, the NFL is littered with players from his defenses at Ohio State, including recent big names Joey Bosa and Ryan Shazier.

Grade: B-

Personality

Fickell seems to be the type of guy you want to teach your kid how to be a man. Before starting at Cincy, he preached commitment and patience; he promised success but stressed that it woundn’t be immediate. He’s proven his players right so far, but those are some qualities that WVU fans should love.

He’s also relatively young, at 45 and focused and intense both on the sidelines and the recruiting trail. His personality seems to resonate with his Cincinnati team, which has boasted the best scoring defense in the American Conference.

This tough-minded, disciplined personality would serve WVU well in the Big 12 where games can quickly become helter-skelter affairs. His defensive mindset could also be a plus in an offense-heavy conference.

I’ve never met the guy or listened to many of his press conferences, so I can only go on what I’ve seen while watching his games, but I don’t think it’s fair to grade him. Fickell seems to be a good leader for young men, and I think that’s a plus for any college football program.

Grade: Satisfactory

Interest in WVU

While there may be no real connection to WVU and West Virginia so this evaluation will be based on professional attraction alone. Firstly, it was somewhat believed that Fickell left Ohio State to hone his coaching skills to succeed Meyer. Obviously, things have not gone according to plan in Columbus and Ryan Day will take over for Meyer sooner than most expected.

This brings up the second point: Fickell is not going to step into the OSU head coaching position in the near future. Now, he may be looking for a Power 5 job that would still allow him to jump to OSU or a similar-level job when the time comes. Fickell could stay at Cincinnati and wait for a decent P5 job to appear, but the WVU job could be the right fit.

Would Mountaineer fans be OK with a coach that could jump after a few years if a bigger job opens up? What if Day’s time at OSU turns sour quickly? Would Fickell be the first guy they call? Would being a current P5 coach make him more attractive to OSU or other bluebloods than being at Cincinnati?

From a personal level, Fickell is an Ohio guy through and through. He was born in Columbus, played at OSU and has only coached in Ohio. West Virginia, for those not aware, is a standalone state that borders Ohio to the east and southeast. It’s very possible that his first venture out of the Buckeye State could be to WVU to still stay close to home.

Financially, Cincinnati has an agreement to pay Fickell a base salary of $13.4 million over six years. That averages to $2.23 million per year. He made just at $2 million in base salary this season. WVU could certainly exceed his current salary, but the reason Holgorsen left is that the university wouldn’t give him more money. Now, whether that was due to an inability to pay him more or because he didn’t earn a pay raise is up for debate, but Holgorsen’s five-year extension in 2016 was set to pay him $18.6 million over that span, an average of $3.72 million per year. For both sides, this would be good; WVU wouldn’t have to break the bank to hire a current head coach and Fickell would likely get a pay increase, assuming the sides reach an agreement between his current deal and what WVU was paying Holgorsen.

On the whole, this would likely be an step up the career ladder for Fickell that would lead to more money immediately and could lead to better jobs in the future.

Grade: C+

Cumulative GPA: 2.6