With head coach Jim Tressel facing a suspension of at least five games to start the 2011 season, Wednesday the Buckeyes announced that linebackers coach Luke Fickell will roam the sidelines in his place this fall. In addition, Tressel announced that he has no plans to step down from his post.
The announcement came on the eve of the start of OSU's spring practice, which will culminate April 23. It also came with the threat of future NCAA punishments hanging over the program, leading to rumors that Tressel would soon be stepping down entirely.
"We think what's important here are these kids," Tressel said. "Whether you have some personal discomfort going on or you make personal mistakes or whatever, (resigning) wouldn't be something that would jump in my mind unless there came a point in time where I said in my mind, ‘The best thing for those kids would be if I do.'
"I don't feel that way."
Standing at a podium in the team meeting room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center with Tressel watching from the front row, Fickell said he and the rest of the staff will weather the storm.
"This place is built on an incredible foundation with what Coach Tress has done and what they've done in the last 100 years," he said. "No little storm, no big storm is really going to be affect what we've done."
So what size of squall are Fickell and the Buckeyes facing?
"I don't know," he said. "To be determined. But as long as we don't make it a big storm and we just take it as ‘this is just a storm,' (we'll be fine). We don't are how big or small. It's like any game: we don't care how big or small that team is. It's a storm. It's a game. That's how we look at it."
The situation first came to light in December when five OSU players were suspended for the first five games of next season after it was discovered that they had sold personal memorabilia. In March, it was learned that Tressel had received word last April of two players being involved but did not report that information to either his bosses at the university – athletic director Gene Smith or president E. Gordon Gee – or the NCAA as it conducted its investigation.
At a March 8 press conference, Smith confirmed that the university had submitted a self-report to the NCAA. Now OSU must await word to see if it will receive further penalties, and Tressel's press conference began with a team spokesperson telling reporters that the status of that situation could not be discussed.
Tressel's role does not figure to change much during spring practice or fall camp, although the coach said he has not spoken recently with Smith, who is part of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee and is in Houston for the Final Four. It is not until game day this fall that Fickell's effect will begin to be felt.
"What I owed to Ohio State was 24-7," Tressel said. "I know this, as the season begins next year it may be 24/6. I know that but we'll work hard to make sure our guys are ready to go. It'll be 24/6, and the seventh day is the one you love."
Now in his 10th year as a coach at OSU, Fickell is an alumnus who was a four-year starter at nose guard for the Buckeyes. In 2010, he was selected as the AFCA's Assistant Coach of the Year for FBS schools. Fickell, the team's co-defensive coordinator, has also been promoted to assistant head coach to fill the position Darrell Hazell vacated when he took the head job at Kent State following last season.
Both Tressel and Fickell pointed out that most of the team's game-day decisions are made via committee and do not primarily fall on the shoulders of one person. Fickell admitted to feeling a little awkward at stepping into Tressel's place on the sideline.
"I know any of our coaches could be thrown into this situation and I promise you this place would be successful for a couple of reasons," Fickell said. "The foundation has been set here – the foundation from 100 years ago but more importantly I'm talking about the foundation of the past 10 years that Coach Tressel has set here.
"(Also,) the people, the kids that we have in this program. They are dedicated and determined to do everything they can for this school, this football program.
Other than that, the details of how things will work this fall are yet to be determined. Fickell said he and Tressel had not had much time to discuss plans for the fall in large part because their immediate focus is on the upcoming 15 spring practices and Tressel said his day-to-day operations have carried on in the same manner as before the incident.
"Just to make sure that we're all on the same page, this is Coach Tressel's team," Fickell said. "(Everyone) knows that. I can assure that each and every one of us is truly invested in what we're doing here."