Interim Coach Fickell Faces Uncharted Waters

Luke Fickell faces an uncertain future as he enters the 2011 season as Ohio State's interim head coach. A look back into program history reveals that the team's new leader faces a pair of challenges unlike any of the other 22 head coaches in program history have had to deal with.

Luke Fickell will be wading through uncharted waters at Ohio State in more than one sense of the phrase.

By now, the news that Fickell is tasked with replacing a coaching legend in former head man Jim Tressel is common knowledge. On Monday, the university named the former OSU defensive lineman was named the team's interim coach for the entire 2011 season.

Not only will Fickell serve as the stand-in coach for now, he will attempt to follow up one of the program's most beloved members. According to OSU historian Jack Park, that makes Fickell only the second coach affixed with the "interim" tag since 1913.

"The one thing that might not help Luke is there will be a lot in the press about ‘who would you like to see? What about this guy? Urban Meyer just bought a house in Upper Arlington' and all that (from the) rumor mill," Park told BSB

In 1913, John W. Wilce piloted the Buckeyes to a 4-2-1 record and earned the right to go on and coach for 15 more seasons. The university's student health center now bears his name. But more recently, a reluctant man was thrust into the position in relief of one of the coaching profession's all-time greats.

One season removed from the 1942 national championship, World War II got in the way of head coach Paul Brown, who was just 34 years old. Forced to leave the program to serve his country, Brown spent two seasons coaching the Great Lakes Naval Station but departed Columbus with a promise from athletic director Lynn St. John: when he returned, the job would be his.

In Brown's stead, Carroll C. Widdoes coached the 1944 Buckeyes to a 9-0 record and national runner-up finish behind Army thanks to the efforts of Les Horvath, who became the first player in program history to win the Heisman Trophy. Widdoes, however, assumed the responsibility grudgingly.

"He never wanted to be the head coach," Park said of Widdoes. "He never had any intention. He never lobbied for it. He never applied for it. I think he was just doing it as a favor."

Brown never returned to OSU, instead landing the head coaching job for the Cleveland team in the upstart All-American Football Conference immediately after his military commitments came to pass. After two seasons, Widdoes had seen enough and traded positions with offensive coordinator Paul Bixler.

"When that (1945) season is over, (Widdoes) goes to St. John and asks for his old job back as an assistant because he never wanted to be the head coach," Park said. "It's one of the most unusual job changes there will probably ever be in college football."

Had Brown been revered as one of the game's most influential minds like he is now, the pressure could have overwhelmed Widdoes even sooner. Fickell will have to wear the caps of both interim coach and replacement to one of the program's most revered names.

As for the second challenge, Fickell does not need to look far for tips on how to fill that role. After spending 28 years as OSU's head coach and amassing a program-record 205 victories, Woody Hayes left the program after throwing an infamous punch at Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman at the tail end of the 1978 Gator Bowl.

Earle Bruce, who had been an assistant under Hayes after a torn meniscus prematurely ended his playing career at OSU, took over for his former coach and compiled an 81-26-1 record before being dismissed following the 1987 season. Bruce has been a mainstay around the program during Tressel's tenure after he spent three years as one of Bruce's assistants in the mid-80s.

Although Fickell will have to replace a coach who led the Buckeyes to three national championship games, seven Big Ten championships and nine victories against rival Michigan in 10 seasons, Park said his challenge might not be on par with what Bruce had to experience.

"(Bruce) was replacing a legend, and maybe even more so (than Fickell) because Woody had been here 28 years," he said. "There were young people who had graduated from Ohio State that were still in their 20s. Woody was there before they were born. There were so many people who couldn't remember Ohio State without Woody Hayes and this was a tough thing for Earle, no question about it."

Bruce declined to comment for the story.

Fickell will likely share one benefit with Bruce, however. Like the former coach, OSU's new head man figures to be able to call on his predecessor for guidance when needed.

Jim Karsatos, who led the Buckeyes in passing as the quarterback in 1985 and 1986, said he recalled seeing Hayes as a fixture at practice.

"Oh yeah, he was around," Karsatos said with a laugh. "He'd sit in on meetings and be out on the field just watching and scolding. He wasn't nearly as vocal as he was when he was the head coach because he wanted to leave that to Earle and Earle did enough of his own yelling.

"Coach Hayes was around a lot and still very much involved in not only the football aspect but the other things we did. He was always invited to come join us."

Whether Tressel will be able to maintain a similar level of involvement this fall remains to be seen. The same goes for Fickell's chances for permanently landing the job. Regardless of what happens, however, it is fair to say the 23rd coach in OSU history finds himself in a position unlike any of the 22 to come before him.

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