Ohio State's Fickell answers call to lead

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's a moment Luke Fickell will never forget, but he won't let it get the best of him.

No one would fault Fickell if he trotted onto the field Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium and shouted, "This is awesome!" After nine years as a successful assistant coach for Ohio State, Fickell will take on the head-coaching duties for the first time. For his alma mater. In his hometown.

He'll be a few weeks past his 38th birthday.

Sure, the circumstances are less than ideal. Fickell, recently appointed Ohio State's assistant head coach, will be filling in for Jim Tressel during Tressel's five-game suspension for violating NCAA rules. Fickell would much rather serve in his standard role as co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach when Ohio State opens the season against Akron.

But the chance to lead Ohio State is an opportunity Fickell doesn't minimize.

"It is exciting, it will be exciting," Fickell recently told ESPN.com. "I'm sure there will be a gamut of emotions. But if you let yourself get drawn into those things and have them occupy your mind, that's not what I need to do. One of my strengths is to not allow my mind to be in those types of situations."

Fickell hasn't allowed his mind to shift into head-coach mode. Not yet, at least.

Tressel is leading Ohio State in spring practice, which frees up Fickell to handle his standard duties of mentoring the linebackers and collaborating with coordinator Jim Heacock and the other defensive assistants. Although the team announced Fickell would be handling Tressel's game-day duties before spring practice, there's no rush to get Fickell ready for game day.

"The week of the game," Tressel said when asked when the process would begin. "You don't rehearse anything about the game until the week of the game. We don't do it in spring, we don't do it in preseason. ... There probably will be very little differences before game week."

Tressel and athletic director Gene Smith had discussed promoting Fickell to assistant head coach after Darrell Hazell left for the top job at Kent State. And when Tressel's violations came to light, Tressel and Smith met again and selected Fickell for the interim role.

Fickell said Smith will be involved in getting the entire staff prepared for Tressel's absence.

"With our staff and coach Tress, we'll have a great grasp on how we want to handle things," Fickell said, "play it out and have a plan for adverse things that could arise. I don't know if there's a whole lot of situations that have been like this, maybe at Michigan State when coach [Dantonio] wasn't there this past year."

Ohio State might reach out to Michigan State's staff to discuss how it handed Dantonio's health-related absence last year. Tressel had both Dantonio and Don Treadwell, who filled in for Dantonio last season, on his previous coaching staffs and remains close with both men. Fickell also knows Dantonio well.

Although it's a unique challenge at Ohio State, both Tressel and Fickell expect a smooth transition.

"The first time I was a head coach at Youngstown State, we were starting over how we were going to do things," Tressel said. "That's a little bit more preparation-oriented than if you walked in the door and say, 'We're going to do things like we've always done 'em. I just have to be the one who calls timeout.' He'll do fine.

"Even the greatest artist was a beginner once, and he's going to be a beginner."

Buckeyes players admit it will be odd not seeing Tressel on the sideline. But they have confidence in Fickell.

"Everything will be under control," defensive end Nathan Williams said. "Coach Tressel, he'll have our minds right, and coach Fickell will do a great job being that leader he is."

Some will view the first five games as a preview of Fickell's head-coaching ability. He's viewed as a rising star in the profession and boasts the pedigree, recruiting skills and charisma to succeed in a lead role, perhaps some day at Ohio State.

But Fickell's goal is simple: steady the ship for five Saturdays through some potentially choppy water until the skipper gets back.

"Sometimes adversity only makes you better," he said. "It's going to make me work even harder."