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Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer 355d

The crazy life of Luke Fickell

College Football, Ohio State Buckeyes, Cincinnati Bearcats

CINCINNATI -- Luke Fickell almost got away with it.

After spending the morning on another campus wearing another team's polo, Fickell pulled back onto Ohio State's campus to report for his other job as the defensive coordinator at his alma mater, threw on a pullover and walked into the facility like normal.

But the slightly different color red of the Cincinnati shirt peeking out might as well have been a flashing signal to Kerry Coombs, a Queen City native and cornerbacks coach for the Buckeyes, who could spot the difference from a mile away.

"He called me on it right away," Fickell said. "I just told him I didn't know what he was talking about."

When it comes to all the various responsibilities of a man doing two jobs at once, simultaneously preparing for the College Football Playoff with the No. 3 Buckeyes while trying to hit the ground running with a rebuilding job down the road with the Bearcats, getting the wardrobe right might be pretty low on the list.

Aside from that one momentary slip-up and maybe an autograph or two that he nearly signed with a "Go Bucks" under his signature, Fickell has done everything he possibly can to keep those shades of red separate, which is leading to some long days and sleepless nights.

"It's tough right now," Fickell said behind his new desk overlooking Nippert Stadium. "You're still doing double duty, still getting prepared for a game and a playoff run, so you're not entirely separating yourself. Once I separate myself, I don't think I'll have any problem. But it's that ability to separate yourself, depending on which shirt you're wearing, and I'm very conscious about it.

"That's what kind of made me mad about accidentally starting to sign something the wrong way because I'm so conscious of it. It just slipped."

Given everything else on his plate right now, a few details sliding through the cracks might be understandable. But for a man with Fickell's attention to detail, his tireless work ethic and his burning desire to get both jobs right, the standard he's setting for himself is much higher.

It's obviously keeping him pretty busy.

'Anybody got any Advil?'

The black Chevy Tahoe pulls into a parking garage on the Cincinnati campus and into a spot with an unobstructed view of the football field just before 10 p.m. the Wednesday before Christmas.

Fickell was up bright and early for Ohio State's last practice before the holiday break, a workout that ran until about noon before he went inside for more film study and meetings. He has a personal life to juggle as well, so after finally leaving the Woody Hayes Athletic Facility, Fickell watched his oldest son and a nephew in a basketball scrimmage before loading up his SUV with Cincinnati gear, picking up a reporter and punching a destination into his phone.

"I don't think I've ever had to use a GPS to find my office before," Fickell joked.

No, after more than two decades with the Buckeyes as a player, an assistant and the head coach for an interim season -- all in the city where he was born and raised -- Fickell hasn't needed any help getting around Columbus.

He did miss an exit at the end of his third trip down to Cincinnati after accepting the job to replace Tommy Tuberville, a minor setback on an otherwise successful journey. In what amounted to a mobile office, Fickell kept his iPhone plugged in and busy, interviewing a prospective assistant for his staff, making a couple of recruiting calls and working through logistics for his jam-packed Thursday schedule before arriving in town.

His first hires were waiting for him at the hotel when Fickell arrived. After a couple minutes to stretch and catch his breath in the lobby, former Ohio State linebacker and new Cincinnati assistant Marcus Freeman led Fickell back to a conference room where Doug Phillips was waiting for a three-man brainstorming session at a makeshift table lined with four bowls of candy.

"A 10:20 p.m. staff meeting?" Freeman said after glancing at his watch. "I love it."

An hour later, the new Bearcats called it a night. They would be back in the lobby at 6:30 in the morning with a whole lot more to do.

'My head is spinning like a son of a gun'

Fickell has been in this position before, after serving an interim year in charge of the Buckeyes. He also has plenty of mentors to draw from after playing under John Cooper, working under Jim Tressel and, following his 2011 experience leading Ohio State, coaching for five intense years with Urban Meyer.

The most recent stretch wasn't always the smoothest. The last time the Buckeyes faced Clemson, in the Orange Bowl after the 2013 campaign, marked one of the toughest periods of his career, with that loss and the 40 points allowed prompting speculation that Meyer might revisit one of the first decisions he made when he took the reins from Fickell.

"I'd like to hear Luke on that one," Meyer said with a smile. "I'll give you my perspective, and that is I did not want to keep him when I got here. I met him a few times, and he was a good gentleman, very nice guy. Our meeting went over the top, and I had a lot of respect for him and his beautiful family.

"We weren't very good on defense for a couple years, and that stressed things out just a touch around here. But one of the greatest things I've ever done was keep Luke Fickell. He's a loyal, good man and a very good friend of mine. We'll be very close for a long time."

Obviously, those feelings have evolved over time, and Fickell also smiled while conceding that coaches "don't have to be on the best terms at all times." He and Meyer certainly weren't initially, but just like the coach stuck with his coordinator, Fickell returned the favor and fought through the adversity.

"Sometimes discomfort breeds growth," Fickell said. "To push somebody deep down inside, you just have to know it's for a reason."

The response to that rough patch has helped forge even more toughness in a former nose tackle who solidified his reputation in that department as a player by playing through a completely torn pectoral muscle in the 1997 Rose Bowl, the last game of his school-record 50 consecutive starts. The ability to get through the difficulties also provided another valuable lesson in the profession for Fickell, who for the most part already knows what he's getting into when he takes over the Bearcats full-time.

The double duty ahead of the College Football Playoff is almost impossible to prepare for, even after Fickell picked the brain of former colleague and new Texas coach Tom Herman for tips.

"Even, like, names of people, there's only so much space you've got up there in your mind," Fickell said. "So it's tough. I try to segment certain times of the day to be able to do the two different things, but it's hard to clear your mind and focus in on one thing because there's always something else.

"I don't know that I'm doing a great job. You try to make a list of things you have to do, just go down the list and try to check them off. That's probably what has caused me the most problem because I woke up at 1:30 this morning with the mindset of all these things I had to do. That's the only way I know how."

After starting his day in Cincinnati with a two-hour tour of the facilities, Fickell's to-do list grows in seemingly every room he visits. He takes in every detail of the room and jots down the changes he wants made -- most notably in the outdated graphics, including some in a corner of his office that list the "Core Values" that he was told were put up by Butch Jones and left unchanged by Tuberville for four years.

As soon as the tour is finished, Fickell has a meeting with compliance officials, he makes a quick stop by the communications department, and then he watches some video of recruits. This is a rare day with more Cincinnati time than Ohio State time, which means there's no slowing him down.

"When he's on Ohio State time, you can't get a hold of him," Freeman said. "I don't even try to. I just wait until I get a text or a call that says, 'Hey, I need you to do this.' It's a hard thing to do, and that's what I've realized. I see why so many coaches, when they take a head job, they say, 'Hey, I've got to go.'

"But his commitment to his players, to that place and the playoff championship race they're in, he's taking this challenge on, and it's great to see. But I also know it's hard on him."

'I feel like I haven't got anything done around here'

If Fickell is getting ready for his real graduation from Ohio State, then he's deep into the toughest finals cram session imaginable.

He is certainly aware of what's at stake on New Year's Eve, and there's nothing he wants more than to leave the Buckeyes on a high note by helping produce another national title.

His incredibly tight bond with the linebackers he has recruited and developed as part of one of the nation's best defensive units has made this month even more difficult. Fickell went out of his way to keep them in the loop before he was hired, and he promised he wouldn't shortchange them with his effort after the contract was signed.

"You know, Coach Fick, he's really been here for me on the field and off, and I'm excited and happy for him to get an opportunity to run his own program," junior Chris Worley said. "It's kind of hard seeing him leave. He's a diehard Buckeye, born and raised, but that's what happens. Just like players get opportunities to go to the next level and things like that, when coaches coach good, they have different opportunities to better their family and themselves. We're happy for him.

"I'm pretty sure it's been hard on him, but he seems the same. I don't think he's letting it get to him. He's still here with us, and he's still helping us get better. At least for me, I can't see the strain on him."

Maybe it isn't evident when he's in a room with his players, when he's leading drills on the field or when the film is on and the focus is solely on slowing down the high-powered Clemson offense. To the staffers on hand for one of his first full recruiting meetings or those leading him around Cincinnati's campus on his most recent visit, Fickell might not seem all that stressed.

Doing both jobs, and the effort it takes to keep them compartmentalized, however, eventually produces moments when Fickell cracks that his "head is about to pop off." Eventually, he knows, there will be time to rest, a chance to do just one job and plenty of reps scribbling down "Go Bearcats" for future Christmas gifts. Still, he isn't in a hurry to be done with the Buckeyes, and he is willing to make the sacrifice to stick around for potentially two more games.

"I never like to say I'm tired or worn out, but it's in my mind. There is so much stuff running through your head," Fickell said. "I mean, it's really difficult to dive in and be all-in here in Cincinnati when you've still got what we have going at Ohio State to finish the season. That's what I don't quite understand. I don't have that [all-in] feeling just yet.

"I can't devote everything to it, which I think I need to do, because I also have to finish something first."

For the time being, that checklist will continue to grow.

Even when he's ready to call it a day and punch the clock on Cincinnati time, Fickell grabs a yellow sticky note and a pen from his new desk before heading to a family Christmas dinner.

"I feel like I haven't got anything done today," he mutters to himself. "I've got 18 other things going through my head before I get to the car."

Odds are, by the time the man with two jobs gets there, he'll be ready to get right back to work.

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