The conversation between two coaches began Monday with a standard question.
Luke Fickell asked Tom Bradley how he was doing.
"I kind of chuckled," Bradley said. "[Fickell] knew what I meant because he had the same thing."
Fickell started laughing as well. He then told Bradley, "At least I got my start in May."
It was a rare moment of levity for two men who haven't had much to laugh about lately.
Bradley and Fickell know one another like many assistant coaches know one another -- from the recruiting trail. They both have been among the top recruiters for their programs -- Bradley for Penn State, Fickell for Ohio State -- and crossed paths numerous times in the fertile football grounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania. They both played defense and coached defense, building reputations as two of the Big Ten's top assistants.
They both had aspirations to be head coaches. Their dream jobs? Coaching their alma maters.
They never expected to be doing so under these circumstances.
Bradley and Fickell will lead their teams onto the field Saturday afternoon at Ohio Stadium. Penn State and Ohio State will play a game with great significance to both teams, one that should add some clarity to the Big Ten title race. For three and a half hours, the spotlight will briefly shift back to football and away from the controversy that has consumed both programs.
But make no mistake: Saturday will be no ordinary Ohio State-Penn State game. Both programs have come under siege.
Ohio State is still dealing with the fallout from the NCAA violations by current players, former coach Jim Tressel and former player Terrelle Pryor. The school last week announced it had received a second Notice of Allegations from the NCAA that will prolong the wait for a ruling from the infractions committee. Senior wide receiver DeVier Posey, suspended 10 games for two separate sets of NCAA violations, will make his season debut Saturday, on Senior Day. Fickell, who became head coach following Tressel's Memorial Day resignation, has led Ohio State through an up-and-down season with no idea what his future holds with the school.
Penn State's problems have surfaced more recently, but the gravity of the issues consuming the entire university -- not just the athletic program -- continue to resonate. The sex-abuse scandal remains one of the nation's top news stories. Joe Paterno, Penn State's iconic coach in his 46th season, was fired last Wednesday. Bradley was appointed interim head coach. Penn State has no permanent athletic director, university president or head football coach.
Like Fickell and the Ohio State assistants, Bradley and the remaining Penn State coaches have received no guarantees from the school beyond this season.
"Obviously, not the exact same time frame, and not the exact same situation, but you have to go with what you've got," Fickell said Tuesday. "You're not going to make excuses with a whole lot of things in whatever situation you're dealt. Like we said, life isn't fair."
The turmoil for two proud and successful programs will be the dominant theme heading into Saturday.
Fickell and Bradley spent part of Monday's conversation discussing safety for the Penn State players and coaches. The two coaches also discussed a pregame show of unity, much like the moving midfield prayer between Penn State players and Nebraska players before last week's game in State College.
"There will probably be a little handshake or something to make sure that we all understand it's a tough time," Fickell said. "Just wanted to make sure that the people in the stands, they understand there are some different things going on outside of just the football game."
In recent years, Penn State-Ohio State was all about the game, the players and the two coaches, Tressel and Paterno.
You could argue Penn State-Ohio State has been the most significant Big Ten matchup since 2005. The teams shared Big Ten titles in both 2005 and 2008, but Penn State's victories against the Buckeyes gave the Nittany Lions the league's automatic BCS bowl berth.
Ohio State began its run to the national title game in 2006 with a 28-6 win against Penn State, and the Buckeyes' 2009 win in State College sparked their push to the Rose Bowl.
"It's still Ohio State-Penn State," Bradley said.
He's right, but it feels different. These programs aren't used to so much uncertainty and so many distractions.
Simply having an Penn State-Ohio State game without Paterno and Tressel prowling the sidelines looks odd.
"Those are two people that won't be here," Fickell said. "There are probably 70 on their side and 106 players on our side. So we focus on the things we have and not the things we've lost."
Keeping the focus is the challenge for two men leading their alma maters through turbulent times.
"This is all about the players," Bradley said. "It's about our team, their team. It's still football, great atmosphere, college football, playing at the Horseshoe. Doesn't get any better than that. It's going to be an exciting game. We're both fighting for the title. There's a lot on the line.
"It will be a very spirited match regardless of what's going on outside."