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COLUMBUS — In the master plan formulated in Luke Fickell’s mind, he would serve his coaching apprenticeship at the side of one of the game’s greats, then one day have his opportunity to prove himself, maybe first at a smaller program, and then hopefully at his alma mater, one of the real Goliaths of college football.
Things accelerated significantly recently, and Fickell now has his dream job, albeit under nightmarish circumstances, as the head coach at Ohio State.
The 37-year-old Fickell steps into the breach two weeks after ultra successful head coach Jim Tressel’s resignation, which came as an NCAA investigation into a multitude of potential violations by the OSU program intensified. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the target of many of the most serious allegations, bailed out last week and left Ohio State a year early; four more top players are suspended for the first five games of 2011, and a variety of NCAA sanctions loom.
But Fickell, a former Ohio State defensive lineman and a three-time, undefeated state champion wrestler in high school, repeatedly sought to put the focus on the future as he met with the media for the first time since being named as the interim boss for the entire 2011 season.
“It’s a tough situation,” Fickell said, “but if you know me, there’s no retreat.”
Fickell said that although Tressel’s resignation had put Fickell at the podium inside the Fawcett Center on the OSU campus well before he expected to be in that position, he would not wilt under the weight of his new responsibility as head coach.
“I would take the shot any way I possibly can,” he said. “We all understand the spotlight ... that doesn’t worry me one bit ... if you know me, there’s no retreat. I’ve had this dream and this plan. I’m excited.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who originally tapped Fickell to serve a shorter stint as interim coach while Tressel served what was then expected to be a short suspension, said Fickell will be paid $775,000 under a modified contract.
“I am very pleased that he is going to step into this role,” Smith said before leaving without taking any questions.
Fickell, who has been on the Ohio State staff for the past nine seasons, said he was as surprised as everyone else when Tressel resigned on Memorial Day. Tressel had been under considerable fire for not being truthful with the NCAA about reporting any potential rules violations.
“I didn’t have any idea until that morning,” Fickell said. “I wasn’t afforded that opportunity to sit and think about it.”
Fickell thanked Tressel for the “opportunities and friendship” and said that the embattled former coach has offered his support and urged Fickell to “be yourself.”
Ohio State’s new head coach said he had not spoken to Pryor since the controversial quarterback opted to leave the program a week ago and test the waters of professional football.
“I have had no interaction with T.P. as of the [last] Tuesday night team workout,” Fickell said. “Everything happened so fast. He did try to reach me, but we never connected.”
With Pryor gone, senior Joe Bauserman, sophomore Kenny Guiton, redshirt freshman Taylor Graham, and freshman Braxton Miller will all get a shot at the starting quarterback job, according to Fickell.
“To me, that’s the exciting thing about the situation,” Fickell said. “We’ve got four great guys who are going to be competitive.”
Fickell, who started a school record 50 straight games at Ohio State while playing for John Cooper, said that his former coach has reached out to him and offered counsel. Fickell said he expects to meet with Cooper in the near future.
Fickell also said he did not expect the swirling controversy to have a significant impact on the Buckeyes’ recruiting, stressing that in his view, recruits choose the tradition-rich school, not a certain head coach or position coach.
“We’ve always sold Ohio State,” he said. “We want to make sure they understand that’s what it’s about. What we’re telling them is we’re looking for a few good men. It’s about being bigger than this situation or one coach.”
Fickell is Ohio State’s 23rd head coach, but only the fifth in the past 60 years. He is the first Ohio State graduate to coach the Buckeyes since Earle Bruce. Fickell earned a degree in exercise science at OSU in 1997, after being honored as an Academic All-Big Ten choice four straight years.
Fickell said he wants to keep the Ohio State players looking forward, and not mired in the chaos and controversy that has prevailed in recent months.
“We’re going to focus on three areas: toughness, respect, and being men of action,” Fickell said. “That will lead us to the future.”
As for his readiness to take on the colossal task of restoring the luster at Ohio State, Fickell the Columbus native who has been a part of the football program for close to 15 years said he was more than ready.
“It starts with understanding what it takes to be a Buckeye,” he said.
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.