Hard conversations turn to hugs for Luke Fickell, Urban Meyer

NEW ORLEANS -- A wild, unusual few years on the sidelines were about to produce a championship, and all Luke Fickell wanted to do was coach the final minute.

First the Ohio State defensive coordinator had to pry Urban Meyer off his back and break out of the vise-grip hug his boss had on him.

Fickell had plenty to celebrate both personally and with his players, and he was as emotional as anybody given all the rough patches he'd gone through professionally over the past few seasons. But he wasn't quite ready to return the embrace or start smiling until the Big Ten championship was officially clinched and a shutout victory was intact.

"He knew what I was trying to do," Fickell said. "I was like, 'Let's finish this thing.'

"There are different challenges, that was the first for that unique challenge."

There have been plenty of other challenges for Fickell since Meyer took over three seasons ago and retained Ohio State's interim coach as his defensive coordinator, some of them situations that popped up repeatedly and produced more than a few uncomfortable moments. But the way his relationship with Meyer has evolved is just a part of the reason Fickell had so much cause to grin as the No. 4 Buckeyes punched their ticket to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

There was the scandal that brought down his old boss Jim Tressel, thrusting him into the spotlight as the one-year stopgap until Meyer's arrival. There was the criticism of his defense as it completely unraveled down the stretch last season and Ohio State's shot at a national title was buried in an avalanche of passing yards. That was followed by the uncertainty of his role with Ohio State moving forward as Meyer vowed to make changes to get that unit straightened out and brought in a new co-defensive coordinator in Chris Ash, who brought with him previous experience calling the shots on that side of the ball.

Fickell has stressed repeatedly that his school and his players are the most important things to him, and they were the ones he was most happy for as the seconds ticked down earlier this month in Indianapolis. But there was certainly a little bit more bottled up inside him that ultimately he would pour out once he peeled off Meyer.

"I was so happy for Luke," Meyer said. "He's a Buckeye, he's a great family man, he's a guy that I have a lot of respect for.

"He's a guy that we have hard conversations about. He was in a very interesting situation here before I got here and he had no reason to be as loyal as he has been to me."

Fickell's loyalty to the program where he played and has now coached for 13 seasons gave him some incentive to stick it out. Always fiercely committed to his players as well, Fickell also didn't want to set an example that he couldn't handle tough coaching while trying to dish it out on the practice field.

The Buckeyes were aware of the outside criticism, and it would have been impossible to ignore Meyer when he started popping into defensive meetings to figure out what was going wrong in the middle of the season a year ago. But that only added to their own appreciation for the way Fickell handled his business, and it gave them just as much reason to wrap their arms around him after he helped lead Ohio State back to a conference title.

"Coach Fickell has always been one of those guys, he played here, obviously, but he loves Ohio State and wants only the best for Ohio State," Buckeyes LB Joshua Perry said. "To see what happened when we played Wisconsin and to see his reaction and how happy he was in the locker room, it was amazing. This year has been really different for him.

"I know that people, they said some things about him in the media and a lot of people probably were down on him when the defense wasn't playing great, but he was one of those guys, you shut all that out and you go coach. If you're a player, you shut all that out and go play. ... Just seeing him from when I first came in and some of the situations we were in [compared] to now is just amazing."

The fact Fickell is even still around at Ohio State might be every bit as surprising because he has been pushed to the limit by Meyer and the two didn't appear to be reading from the same script at the end of last season.

Even if Fickell wasn't in danger of being forced out, he had chances to leave after being interviewed for a couple of jobs to lead his own program after his brief shot in charge of the Buckeyes. He also could have certainly put himself in the mix for other coordinator jobs if he wanted. But instead of running from the difficult discussions Meyer was having with him, he embraced them and turned them into chances to better both his own coaching style and a defense that improved dramatically this season.

"I've been mad, uncomfortable, pissed," Fickell said. "The reality is that is what makes you better, makes you grow. You asked why I stayed. Everybody wants to be challenged -- comfort is not the greatest thing in the world. We've had those moments, those times where he has a vision, and the most important thing is we all got clear on what that vision is.

"It's one of those things that only takes place in the public eye only on a Saturday afternoon. The reality is we're all competitors, [Meyer] as much as any of us. When things don't go as well as you want them to, obviously there's going to be conversation. The only thing you can do is address that head-on."

This time, Meyer actually attacked him a bit from behind with his big bear hug.

But just like everything else that has come Fickell's way over the past few seasons, he kept his focus straight ahead on the field, emotions in check until his winding road had officially reached a championship destination.