Luke Fickell wants to "increase the standard" at Cincinnati.
That's the plan in his first year as the Bearcats' coach. Perhaps that will help a program re-establish Cincinnati's identity as an FBS player after compiling an 11-14 record the last two seasons. The challenge for Fickell is how to shape that identity after spending almost his entire coaching career as an assistant coach at Ohio State.
Will Cincinnati be a stand-alone program, or simply an Ohio State affiliate under Fickell? That’s a question he knows exists, but he has made a conscious effort to avoid comparing the two programs.
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"It doesn't mean the expectation has to change, but I really watch in using things that come from where I've been in the past because that's not what it's about," Fickell said on the American Athletic Conference teleconference Wednesday. "Being 125 miles from there, these kids don't want to be compared to that, and I understand that. I don't want to do that as well."
The truth is Fickell can take some of those lessons to reinvigorate Cincinnati, much like former Ohio State defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio did from 2004-06. That paved the way for success under Brian Kelly from 2006-09, Butch Jones from 2010-12 and Tommy Tuberville from 2013-16. Before this two-year slide, Cincinnati had won nine or more games in seven of eight seasons from 2007-14.
The Bearcats are one of the best football-basketball combination schools in the country, but it’s still a school wrestling with the label change to a Group of 5 school with its move from the Big East to the AAC. Fickell was hired on Dec. 10, 2016, and he has taken a low-key approach with simple coaching points: No bold statements. Attention to detail. Competitive spirit. Increased expectations.
Fickell harped on that last point, perhaps because that standard is implicit. He played nose guard at Ohio State and was an interim coach for the Buckeyes in 2011. in the aftermath of Jim Tressel’s resignation. He has played and coached for a program that expects to win the national championship every year. He's pushing for more at Cincinnati.
"We don't have a lack of talent here," Fickell said. "We don't have a bad team. To me, what we've had is a little bit of a lack of leadership. What does leadership do? They set a standard."
Fickell found a willingness to change that upon his arrival. He said players accepted change and gravitated toward the new coaches. That showed in the spring. The Bearcats played their spring game at Nippert Stadium last Friday, which Fickell said was the first time that has happened for current players.
If Fickell can parlay that momentum into recruiting, then the Bearcats will be in business. Cincinnati's high school pipeline produces elite talent, and the Bearcats have landed commits from two of the top 15 players in Ohio for 2018.
"This is the one area I never really recruited," Fickell admitted. "I didn't officially have Cincinnati area in my 17 years of coaching. I've never had this area. Now do I have relationships with them? Yeah. All the way back from playing high school in the state to really wrestling in the state and being a guy that's traveled and did that stuff through high school."
That's part of Fickell’s plan to increase the standard, and it's reflected in the staff. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock is a former Notre Dame assistant; defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman played linebacker at Ohio State. A coach who understands that blend will have success in Cincinnati, especially if they can pull recruits from the Greater Miami Conference, Greater Catholic League and other talent-rich areas in Cincinnati and Kentucky. That high school tradition is part of Cincinnati's identity as much as college football and the NFL.
"The relationships have been there," Fickell said. "To be able to get out and be face-to-face is something that they didn't do here the last four years in this area. So the ability to do that whether it was me or somebody else on the staff has been incredibly well received."
The next part is winning. Cincinnati finished 1-7 in the AAC last season, and has watched programs like Houston, Memphis and Navy touch that national spotlight. South Florida is a popular pick to be that Group of 5 buster in 2017. Fickell’s response will be to get a program that has enjoyed that success back on track. He'll use those lessons from Ohio State. That's what coaches do.
But he's set on giving Cincinnati its own identity. And that’s exactly what this school is looking for.
"We're not doing this because somebody else does it," Fickell said. "We're doing because it’s best for us."