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Luke Fickell building his case to keep job

11/1/2011

Asked a two-part question Tuesday about the development of freshman quarterback Braxton Miller and his own development as Ohio State head coach, Luke Fickell combined his answer.

"Both of us are a little bit similar," he said. "The confidence level is something you've really noticed with him, and it's kind of a similar thing here."

The key difference between the two, of course, is that Miller has three more years of eligibility to grow and continue to improve as a quarterback. Fickell is guaranteed nothing beyond this season.

But it's time to notice that, like Miller, Fickell is showing impressive improvement.

Few Ohio State fans would have thought it possible for Fickell to keep his job a month ago. The Buckeyes lost three of their first six games, looked inept at times on offense and appeared destined for a difficult season.

Right now, though, they're one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten, having knocked off a pair of ranked teams -- then No. 16 Illinois and then-No. 15 Wisconsin -- in back-to-back games. If Miller doesn't get hurt in the second half of the Nebraska game, maybe Ohio State holds onto its 21-point lead and wins in Lincoln, too.

The team has undeniably gotten better the past few weeks.

"When you see guys stay together and get through those kinds of things, you really start to see a growth," Fickell said. "That's probably the one thing you can ultimately point your finger at, is the belief in one another. That's why we have a chance to be where we are right now."

Fickell gets a large share of the credit for that growth. Simply keeping this team together, from the time Jim Tressel resigned on Memorial Day through all the off-the-field controversy and suspensions, was no easy task. The ship could have easily begun to submerge after dispiriting losses to Miami and Michigan State.

Few coaches have had to play more hamstrung this year. He had no quarterback with starting experience, he was missing three of his best offensive players (Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Mike Adams) and seemingly every week the team found out about another suspension just before kickoff. Fickell had to deal with all that while learning how to be a head coach for the first time at one of the most scrutinized programs in America. He has learned a lot in a short time.

"You don't ever know truly what to expect," he said. "But at least you've got a little more feeling for what you're doing and how to go about it. Not that you didn't have confidence before, but you spend a lot of excess energy with all the adjusting your schedule to this and to that. The ability to be able to handle those things and not lose your energy and your passion, that's the most important thing."

So maybe Fickell didn't look well-versed as a game manager against Miami, and he probably erred by not starting Miller right away. It's understandable why a coach in his position would go with the veteran quarterback in Joe Bauserman, and starting Miller probably doesn't change the Miami loss, though perhaps with more experience under his belt Miller isn't as flummoxed by the Michigan State defense.

The return of Adams and Herron has made a huge difference to this team, and Fickell always deserved to be judged by what he could do with a full deck (he's still a big wild card short, with Posey still out until Nov. 19). I said before the season that I thought Fickell would have to go at least 8-4 to have any chance at returning, given the high standards at Ohio State. His team is 5-3 now, with highly winnable games against Indiana and Purdue next. And then it gets really interesting.

The Buckeyes get Penn State at home and should match up well against another low-scoring, defensive-minded club. Then they go to Ann Arbor, looking to continue their dominance over Michigan. Should Fickell manage to go undefeated through November, Ohio State would only need a Penn State loss at Wisconsin or somewhere else to make the Big Ten title game.

Heck, Fickell should win Big Ten coach of the year honors if that happens. How could athletic director Gene Smith not bring him back in that scenario? In fact, it might be very beneficial for that to play out and for Fickell to be quickly re-signed, since recruiting isn't being helped right now by having a head coach whose contract ends in January.

Of course, that's a lot of what-ifs at this point, and Fickell has steadfastly refused to openly campaign or really even address his job status.

"I wouldn't change the way I'm doing anything if they told me one way or the other right now," he said. "That's where I'm making sure I stay focused. We ask our guys to be unselfish and not just think about themselves. If we don't show them we can do that ourselves, then it would just be words."

Ohio State may still choose to go after a big-name coach after the season. If the NCAA hands down a severe punishment, perhaps the school decides it's best to make a clean break from the Tressel era.

But Luke Fickell is growing into the role of Buckeyes head coach. Just like with Braxton Miller, that growth could lead to some very good things.