Two weeks after being named the interim head coach at Ohio State, Luke Fickell took to the podium…
"I think that would be awesome," the sixth-year senior defensive standout said. "To play here and then come back with one of my teammates being the head coach or me being the head coach, to be able to play with him and then coach with him, I think that would be a great experience."
Vrabel was the leading man at defensive end while Fickell did the dirty work at nose guard during the three years both were starters for the Scarlet and Gray in the mid-90s, but the roles are reversed now.
Fickell heads into his first year as head coach and Vrabel will mentor youngsters at linebacker, the position he played in the NFL for 14 years.
As Vrabel's career, which started unspectacularly in Pittsburgh, blossomed and he became part of three Super Bowl championship teams with the New England Patriots, Fickell said he used to rib him about his dream of coaching fading into the background.
Vrabel never bit, though.
"I remember texting him or calling him after he signed a couple of contracts," Fickell recalled on Monday. "I said, ‘I guess coaching it out the window for you now,' after a couple of those big contracts, but he would always text me back, ‘Not a chance. That's what I've always wanted to do, and I'll do it.' Knowing him, that was something he was not going to walk away from. I knew he was meant to be a coach. It was in his blood from the time I met him."
While both are headed for some uncharted territory, they are hopeful their long-developing relationship can be an asset.
"It's interesting," Fickell said. "The first time the idea really came up was when he said to me, ‘Give me a reason to retire.' I went to (Ohio State head basketball coach Thad) Matta and said, ‘Can you hire your best friend?' And he knew what I was talking about and said very clearly, ‘Yes. Make sure you have standards and guidelines of what you need to have done.' "
Fickell talked to other members of the coaching fraternity who agreed, telling him communication should be a major bonus for them.
"Sometimes it's great to have someone who can come in the room, close the door and tell you what they really think, give you true, honest feedback," Fickell said. "You know it's somebody who has your back and your best interests but knows you well enough to stand up and say, ‘No, this is wrong. You've got to do this, or this or this.' "
"We go back a lot of years, and Luke and I have never had an issue with telling each other how we felt, whether that be at 3 o'clock in the morning or 7 o'clock in the morning at a workout," Vrabel said. "If he tells me to coach the guys a certain way, I'm going to coach the guys how the head coach wants it. That's the only way I know. I'll have ideas I've learned through my years of playing. He may like them and he may not. That's his decision to make."
OSU players sound excited to welcome a new (and in a way, old) face to their ranks, both because of his NFL fame and his Buckeye roots.
"It sounds like a dream come true for those guys," offensive tackle J.B. Shugarts said. "They were best friends in college, they were great competitors who played on a great defense that won the Rose Bowl and they both had great success through their careers.
"Even if they weren't best friends, Coach Vrabel with his resume and his experience and knowledge of the game could get a job anywhere he wanted to, I feel."