Fitzgerald understands Fickell's challenge

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't think Luke Fickell needs his advice.

"He's a great coach and was a great player, and he's obviously been under some great mentors, [Jim Tressel] especially," Fitzgerald said Monday night. "So he's in great shape."

But should Fickell choose to seek guidance during a crucial juncture in his coaching career, Fitzgerald could be a good resource. Fitzgerald knows what it's like to become a head coach unexpectedly. He knows what it's like to take over the football program at his alma mater at an awkward and difficult time with a season rapidly approaching. He knows the challenges Fickell will begin facing in the coming days and months.

The death of former Northwestern coach Randy Walker in June 2006 and Tressel's resignation from Ohio State on Monday are different situations and should be viewed as such. Another difference: Fitzgerald was elevated to a permanent head coach position a week after Walker's death, while Fickell will serve in an interim role through the 2011 season.

But it's impossible to deny the similarities of the coaches thrust into leading roles: thirtysomethings, rising stars in the coaching ranks, former defensive players with deep roots at their alma maters, standout recruiters. Fitzgerald and Fickell even coached the same position group (linebackers) before their respective appointments to head coach.

Walker made no secret about his desire to have Fitzgerald succeed him at Northwestern. And while Tressel looked extremely secure at Ohio State until recent months, Fickell's name had been mentioned by fans and media as a potential successor even before the program's troubles.

What neither Fitzgerald nor Fickell could see coming was a move into the head-coaching role so soon.

How should Fickell approach his new task?

"I would just tell him to be himself," Fitzgerald said. "He can't be Jim Tressel, he can't be John Cooper, he can't be Woody Hayes. He's got to just be himself, go out and do what he can to help the program through this. Things happen, and those are out of his control, but what's in his control is how he leads this group of young people through some adversity."

Fitzgerald thinks Fickell will benefit from knowing since March that he'd be taking on Tressel's duties for at least the first five games of the season. Fickell will have the next two months to prepare before fall camp kicks off in August.

But the overnight transition from position coach to full-time head coach can't be minimized.

"When I visited with coach [Gary] Barnett and with Randy and Tom Cable and Ron Vanderlinden on different things, they'd always say, 'You really don't get it until you sit in this chair, the head-coaching chair,'" Fitzgerald said. "You go from being an assistant coach, a guy who's on a need-to-know basis, worrying about your group of guys ... to now being the guy that needs to know everything. You're managing an entire program, not just the players but everything.

"It's a completely different level of responsibility," he continued. "Does being a position coach and being a coordinator prepare you for it? Absolutely. But what prepares you more are the experiences you've had as a person, developing and leading people.

"Luke is going to do a phenomenal job."

Fitzgerald also notes that the burden shouldn't be on Fickell's shoulders alone. Ohio State's players, especially the team leaders, need to answer the bell, especially during the critical summer months.

Fickell also should benefit from having some more experienced coaches on his staff, much like Fitzgerald did at Northwestern.

"You've got to look at the group and let everybody know, 'We're going to do this together,'" Fitzgerald said. "It's not going to be about Luke Fickell. It's going to be about the Ohio State Buckeyes and their program, and they're going to get through it together. Through adversity, a lot of times, people come together and become even tighter."

Fitzgerald also shared some thoughts on Tressel.

"It's a sad day, it's unfortunate," he said. "We lose a great football coach and someone who to me was always gracious in Jim Tressel. He was always humble, always very open with me and always tried to help other coaches in the profession. And for that, I'll forever be indebted.

"As a guy who has the utmost respect for Coach, it's a disappointing and sad day."