Coming home with bad intentions
They played together on the same defensive line at Ohio State for three seasons in the mid-1990s.
Now, Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel remain teammates of sorts, at least this weekend, even though Fickell is a head coach in college football and Vrabel has a similar spot in the NFL.
Fickell brings his Cincinnati Bearcats into Ohio Stadium on Saturday for a noon (ABC-TV) kickoff against fifth-ranked Ohio State.
Vrabel will be roughly 150 miles north, in Cleveland, with his Tennessee Titans, for both teams' season-opener.
Back in their college days it was opposing offenses Fickell, the nose tackle, and Vrabel, statistically the most successful pass-rushing defensive end OSU has ever had, collaborated to ruin.
If both men win as road underdogs this weekend, Fickell and Vrabel will undermine the early-season optimism surrounding both the Buckeyes and the Browns.
That possibility puts Matt Finkes in a bind, given his rooting loyalties as an Ohio native, but it's understandable given that he started between Fickell and Vrabel on the OSU defensive line from 1994-96.
"It puts me in a tough spot," Finkes said. "I'm debating whether to wear a Cincinnati hat with my Ohio State shirt...It's going to be tough for me in the Stadium going to this game. I can't imagine what it's going to be like for Luke."
Fickell hatched a strategy this week to deal with the emotional dilemma of coming home.
It's called, denial.
“There’ll be no feelings," Fickell said. "I’ve said it before, if all of the sudden you had the opportunity to play your brother — yeah, you love him to death and want nothing but the best for him — but at that moment, you’ve got no love lost for him … I think when you compete, you detach your emotions.”
That sounds plausible, if not for multiple on-the-record comments from Fickell over the years about how much he loved Ohio State and could be content forever as an assistant coach.
Then he got tabbed on Memorial Day 2011 to succeed Jim Tressel when OSU finally realized that it couldn't retain a coach, no matter how successful, who lied to the NCAA and the school's own investigators.
Fickell played the good soldier, stepping in front of a runaway train with box cars full of bad national PR and behind-the-scenes wooing of Meyer.
The worst-kept secret in college football that fall was that Meyer had the wanderlust to take over at Ohio State in 2012, while he bided his time working at ESPN after leaving Florida because of a health scare.
Ohio State's administration will deny any such courtship took place while Fickell was coaching the Buckeyes, and that's officially true because of the effort OSU put into maintaining plausible deniability at the time.
Meyer was courted by a university trustee and an intermediary. He never met with any OSU athletic administrator until his hiring was a done deal.
Maybe that's why Fickell said on a podcast of that season: "I don't know if there was anything positive....Everything that went on in those seven or eight months was negative in a lot of ways."
Vrabel probably feels a big differently, since he became the one assistant coaching hire Fickell was permitted to replace himself on staff.
"I was in the Denver airport when Mike called me and said he was leaving the (Kansas City) Chiefs to coach at Ohio State," Finkes said. "I said, 'What are you doing? You're trading a $2 million contract, playing in the NFL, to make what, $100,000, being an assistant in college?
"But he said, "Hey, this is what I want. It's my chance to make an impact at a big school and work on getting where I want to be. I want to be a head coach some day.' "
OSU went 6-7 with Fickell as the interim.
Meyer retained both Fickell and Vrabel, in 2012 and the Buckeyes, ineligible for a bowl because of sanctions related to Tressel, went undefeated.
Vrabel stayed on staff only one more year beyond that, because, well, because when push came to shove -- literally -- he and Meyer were a volatile mix.
With Meyer, every day is a challenge. Every day is a competition. He's not averse to calling anyone out.
Well, let's just say that on the Mount Rushmore of exceedingly-prickly players to wear an Ohio State uniform over the last 30 years, there are three vacant rock faces waiting for guys difficult enough to be worthy of keeping company with the chiseled likeness of Mike Vrabel.
Or, as the starting quarterback of Ohio State's 1996 Rose Bowl team, Stanley Jackson, said on WTVN Radio last week before the opener in a discussion about OSU's nine team captains:
"Mike Vrabel used to complain about never being a captain. Well, Mike, maybe if you hadn't been such a jerk to everyone and been a little nicer to people, you would have been a captain."
One day in 2013, Meyer was doing what he does, challenging someone in search of improvement.
Only this time, Fickell was the recipient of that challenge.
Vrabel didn't take kindly to it and a brief altercation with Meyer ensued.
Vrabel was soon coaching linebackers in Tennessee, leaving Fickell behind, Vrabel believed, to become the successor to Meyer some day.
"Because Luke was in his position at Ohio State, Mike felt he had to go somewhere else to recognize his dream of becoming a head coach," Finkes said. "Luke was the heir apparent. I think it's very accurate to say that without Luke Fickell, Mike Vrabel wouldn't be head coach of the Tennessee Titans."
Fickell finally left Ohio State after the 2016 season when the fire to become a head coach finally returned and Cincinnati beckoned.
He won 11 games last season in his second year with the Bearcats, including the Military Bowl over Virginia Tech.
An upset of the Buckeyes would only be the greatest victory in Cincinnati history.
"If Ohio State makes mistakes and Cincinnati plays a near perfect game, then they have a shot," said Finkes, who took in the Bearcats 24-14 win over UCLA last week at Nippert Stadium. "It would have to be the perfect storm, but I'll say this: UC is going to come in and they're going to be tough. They're going to be fundamental. You're not going to see blown coverages.
"You're not going to see the first eight minutes of (Ohio State's win over) FAU, where there are three guys running free in the end zone with no one around them for 20 yards. You're not going to see that from Cincinnati's defense."
"And if it's close in the second half, then Luke is really going to have to manage his emotions. I can't imagine coming back to where my entire life has been based around. High school, college, all your years as an assistant coach. Up until two years ago, his entire life, family is in Columbus, Ohio and at Ohio State.
"To come back in here, I know he's trying to take that methodical approach, but it's going to be tough for him."