Luke Fickell, Big Ten coach of the year? Depends. First, Ohio State must decide who replaces Jim Tressel for the first five games (at least) of the 2011 season. Second, it's more important for that acting coach to win rather than win the press conference, this being one of the most troubling offseasons in school history.
Somewhere down the list of priorities, another ruling has to be made. The NCAA statistics department met Monday trying to answer a unique question generated by this new age of suspensions. Who gets credit in the records book for the won-loss record while a head coach suspended by the NCAA sits out?
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It could be Tressel. It could be Fickell, his highly regarded co-defensive coordinator, thought to be a top candidate to replace his boss. No one knows for sure because the NCAA only recently has shown an interest in suspending coaches in the major sports.
"We're about to set [precedent]," said Gary Johnson, the NCAA's associate director of statistics. "I've been here 26 years, this is all new territory."
The NCAA has yet to weigh in on Tressel's apparent violation of the association commandment dealing with unethical conduct. It can't be positive news that brother-in-bylaw Bruce Pearl was fired on Monday.
Tennessee must look for a new coach. Ohio State needs one temporarily and the gig doesn't exactly suck. Even with the suspension of their coach and five players, the Buckeyes are a preseason top-10 candidate challenging for a seventh consecutive Big Ten title. If everything falls right, a national title run isn't out of the question. There are worse emotional investments for the Scarlet and Frayed right now than to hitch their hopes to Fickell to pull the program out of the muck.
He is the sexy pick at the moment. Coordinators Jim Bollman (offense) and Jim Heacock (defense) are more experienced but almost too valuable in their current positions. Fickell, 37, was the American Football Coaches Association's 2010 assistant of the year. His linebackers regularly end up on All-Big Ten lists and in the NFL. Considering the circumstances, whoever takes over has a chance to make a career-changing impact, even if it is for less than half a season. Consider it a nationally televised resume.
Meanwhile, the NCAA has shown a willingness lately to suspend coaches from games. Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo was suspended for a game in December. The NCAA ruled that he employed someone associated with a recruit at a camp, a secondary violation. Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun will miss three games next season as part of the NCAA penalties for recruiting violations.
The NCAA has yet to rule on what coach will get credit for those three UConn games. The statistics division intends to consult with the NCAA infractions committee on the issue. In previous absences by Calhoun, assistant George Blaney has taken over. Still on the NCAA docket are cases involving Tennessee/USC coach Lane Kiffin, Pearl and Tressel. Even though Pearl was fired, the NCAA has yet to officially weigh in on his coaching future. Kiffin hasn't been suspended but that remains a possibility given the climate.
|Luke Fickell is Buckeye to the core, having played on the defensive line for John Cooper. (Getty Images)|
That differs from a "vacation" of wins. John Calipari lost 38 wins while at Memphis in 2007-08. Bobby Bowden lost 12 wins off his career record when it was determined Florida State had used ineligible athletes.
For now, Tressel's five-game ban is an institutional decision, his Ohio State record on hold at 106-22. The NCAA could adopt the suspension as part of possible penalties against the school or add to the suspension. The only winner in this mess seems to be Fickell, who can enhance a blossoming career. An acting coach can be considered for coach of the year honors in the Big Ten if the school notifies the conference, according to the league. The best undefeated starts in a coach's first year at a major college are Yale's Walter Camp (13-0, 1888) and Miami's Larry Coker (12-0, 2001), according to the NCAA.
Sure it's a long shot but considering what's at stake at Ohio State, a 5-0 start by a replacement head coach would be more than welcome. It would be sweet relief from the offseason from hell.
Credit for the record is less important than the buzz coming out of Columbus. Fickell is a young, fresh, born-and-bred Buckeye. The nine-year veteran of the staff is a Columbus native who played nose guard for John Cooper. Given his near spotless record, any success by Fickell would at least deflect attention away from a deteriorating situation at Ohio State.
But what to call him ...
Coach Fickle? (If he loses, the fans could turn on him)
Luke? (His age suggests a certain informality)
Temp? (This isn't a permanent assignment, we think, although best to wait until the NCAA does its CSI: Columbus number on the program.)
If the NCAA doesn't tack on any further suspension, Tressel would return for the Nebraska game on Oct 8. Imagine the undefeated Buckeyes going into Lincoln with a significant talent -- if not moral -- upgrade. The Buckeye Five back on the field. Fickell handing over the keys to the car with a -- a) Big Ten Leaders Division's title; b) Big Ten title; c) Rose Bowl berth and d) BCS title game berth, all in play.
Imagine a national championship with 36 percent of the wins -- five of 14 games -- going to the linebackers coach. That would be unprecedented as well as problematic for a jeweler.
How do you engrave that into a ring? More important, what would it be worth to Eddie Rife?