WEST HARRISON, Ind. -- Luke Fickell sits at a corner table in the dining hall at Camp Higher Ground, Cincinnati's off-campus football training site in the hills just beyond the Indiana state line.
Behind him, the most anticipated team in Cincinnati history devours lunch before a rescheduled afternoon practice. Three days earlier, the Bearcats received their highest-ever preseason ranking (No. 8) in the AP poll. Cincinnati is 31-6 since 2018, nearly went undefeated last season and is led by Fickell, one of the fastest-rising coaches in the sport.
But 10 summers ago, Fickell found himself in a different spot, preparing to lead Ohio State into a season of uncertainty. Then 38, he had received his dream job under nightmarish conditions. Head coach Jim Tressel had resigned amid an NCAA investigation into the program, after being suspended for not reporting that he knew players had received improper benefits. Fickell, a Columbus native who had played defensive line for the Buckeyes and had become a full-time Ohio State assistant under Tressel in 2002, suddenly held an interim role that he wanted but wasn't ready to inherit.
"I didn't really know who I was as a leader," Fickell said. "Maybe I'd been around Coach Tressel, that's really it, or Coach [John] Cooper. I hadn't really spent that time to say, 'OK, what would you do? How would you do it?' I worked hard, I cared, I trusted, but nobody really knows. The first time being a head coach, it's like being a pilot. Or are you ready to be a father? Well, no. You can take all the classes you want, but until you actually do it, you don't know."
Fickell didn't know immediately, but the 2011 season at Ohio State, which included seven losses for the first time since 1897 and the program's only defeat to Michigan since 2003, put him on a journey of self-discovery. An assistant too occupied with recruiting and other in-the-moment duties to prepare for head-coaching interviews became a head coach under incredibly challenging circumstances. A man who played for a College Football Hall of Fame coach (Cooper) and worked for another (Tressel) needed time under a third (Urban Meyer) to help craft a leadership profile all his own.
He lost the head-coaching bug after 2011, only to recapture the desire several years later.
"I realized all the mistakes I made, and it's probably been the best thing that's happened to my career," Fickell said. "It really was like a lifetime of experiences in eight months."
Fickell became a head coach again later than expected, and at a lower-profile program than some assistants with his credentials from Ohio State. But he believes he's exactly where he should be, leading a top-10 team he recruited and developed into a season filled with expectations and possibility -- even though schools will keep calling.