Stepping into a situation with dozens of unknowns, Luke Fickell turned his attention to three goals.
The interim head coach at Ohio State inherits a program facing potential NCAA sanctions. It has five players facing suspensions to open the season with a lingering possibility for more. Plus, the coach must navigate the season knowing that he is being evaluated every step of the way as his bosses attempt to determine whether he is fit to lay permanent claim to the position.
But at Monday’s press conference at the Fawcett Center on OSU’s campus, Fickell said he is entrusting three goals to his players as he attempts to pilot a new course for the program.
“Let me be clear to you guys: the 2011 Buckeyes will not be about comparing and contrasting what we’ve done before but what we believe we will need to do to move forward,” he said. “It will be about respect, toughness and being men of action. Those will be our focuses.”
Standing at the podium in a crisply pressed white dress shirt and scarlet tie under a black suit, Fickell presented a different figure than the coach he is replacing. Although previous coach Jim Tressel typically also wore a suit to his mid-week press conferences, he would typically open things up with a statement known to last as long as 15 minutes.
Monday, Fickell’s opening remarks lasted roughly three minutes and included an introduction for his wife, Amy, who was seated in the front row.
Once the coach opened the conference to questions, he immediately found himself being asked what he knew and when he might have known it. Professing to be ignorant of any past or present NCAA violations, he said he learned of problems as they happened.
“I wasn’t going to say that I had blinders on, but (I was) very focused on the task at hand,” Fickell said. “I was not informed of any information until it became public knowledge.”
Fickell had been named the interim coach with Tressel set to serve a five-game suspension to open the season. He was promoted for the remainder of the season once Tressel tendered his resignation May 30. It took two weeks to speak publicly, he said, because the program was concerned with preparing players for finals week, which took place last week.
Athletics director Gene Smith was present and delivered a two-minute opening statement but did not take questions. A number of Fickell’s assistant coaches were on hand, including defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, but four were at a golf event and unable to attend: offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano, tight ends coach John Peterson and running backs coach Dick Tressel.
With Fickell’s promotion to head coach, the Buckeyes are short one assistant coach. Fickell said the hope is to move forward with reassigning duties among the existing staffers within the next week while hoping to name a new defensive assistant soon. Mike Vrabel, who was a defensive lineman alongside Fickell at OSU, was on hand and told reporters that he had not discussed joining the staff.
Since taking the position, Fickell said he has spoken with a few former coaches for advice. Included on that list were Tressel, former OSU head coach John Cooper and current OSU men’s basketball coach Thad Matta. Their advice, he said, was “be yourself.”
It is with that viewpoint that Fickell attempts to try and earn the position on a permanent basis. However, he said his focus is not on convincing his bosses of his merits.
“Ohio State’s expectations will not change,” he said, “whether there’s a tag on the name or there’s not a tag on the name or there’s a long-term contract. It doesn’t matter. We will embrace the expectations of being a Buckeye and we know what that brings with it.”
Fickell’s message of moving forward was perhaps best personified by former quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who announced his departure from the program last Tuesday. Pryor had been facing a five-game suspension to open the season.
“I have had no interaction with Terrelle Pryor as of Tuesday night of our team workout,” he said. “Everything happened kind of fast. He tried to contact me and the situation didn’t work out. When I do talk to him, I will encourage him, I will wish him well in his endeavors and continue to encourage him to finish his degree.”
Fickell pointed out that the program loses players each season, citing Cameron Heyward, Ross Homan and Brian Rolle. When it was pointed out that he was losing a three-year starter who opted to leave the program during the summer, Fickell said, “It is different, but continue to embrace all the expectations and all the situations and continue to focus on moving forward with the program.”
Asked if he expected losing any further players, Fickell said, “those are hypothetical situations right now. We can’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about hypothetical situations. We’re going to spend our time worrying about the things that we know and as things arise we will handle them abruptly and thoroughly.”
One thing sounded similar to how it has been in Columbus recently, however. Asked about the team’s annual rivalry showdown with Michigan, Fickell stared the reporter right in the eyes and answered, “Our guys will know about November 26, I promise you that.
“Ohio State is so much bigger than any one team, one player, one coach or one situation. We all understand that change is inevitable. It is growth that is optional. We believe this is a time for growth for all of us.”
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