I would argue that collegiate athletics is one thing that plays a major role in the United States. For well over 100 years now we have been recording results and following certain programs. There is no question as to what the most popular collegiate sport is: football. College football is a piece of our country’s rich history. It’s a war of wills, a defense of tradition, and a display of unity in front of thousands (sometimes one hundred thousand+) at a time.
One of the most storied programs in college football history is covered in Scarlet & Gray and plays in Columbus, Ohio. The Ohio State University is highly decorated and is a flagship organization for academics and athletics.
I am not a self-proclaimed Big 10 fan (college football is split up into six major conferences, Ohio State plays in the Big 10 conference), but I am a fan of greatness, and Ohio State defines that. So I wanted to sit down with one of Ohio State’s coaches to ask some questions. You don’t have to love Ohio State Football to appreciate what they do individually and collectively to find success. Actually, you don’t even have to love sports. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about sports, business, cooking, or about a daycare, when top-performers in any industry are willing to talk, you better listen! Remember, you can learn from anybody and everybody, regardless of position.
I sat down with Coach Luke Fickell, the current Defensive Coordinator for Ohio State Football. He was named head coach for one year after Jim Tressel left, right before the university brought in Urban Meyer. Both Jim and Urban are Hall of Fame caliber coaches, and Coach Fickell coached with Jim and is currently coaching with Urban. Needless to say, Coach Fickell has seen the program being ran by two very successful men.
I knew we were meeting around 4pm, and I knew it was on campus, but I didn’t know where. So around 3pm I made my way to the stadium since I had never seen it before. Ohio Stadium is MA-JES-TIC. It is one of only 10 stadiums in the world that seats over 100,000 people (side note–eight of the top 10 largest stadiums are home to college football. Remember what I said about college athletics?). I am in awe whenever I think about the history of certain venues. The athletes, the games played, the upsets, the victories. The fact that for many, that stadium stands as an iconic landmark that reminds them of their childhood. Sports are a wonder, but it’s no wonder why.
While inside the stadium, I received a text from Coach Fickell, “I’ll be there at 3:30. Front of the Woody Hayes Center.” I arrived at the Woody Hayes Center to be greeted by a security guard. “How’s it going,” I asked. He doesn’t answer but says, “It’s closed for the day.” I told him I was instructed to meet there at 3:30. He didn’t believe me because he then said, “I don’t think anybody is in there.” I politely informed him that Coach Fickell was, and I continued to make my way to the front. “You can check,” the security guard invited. I just smiled and thought, thanks, I was going to. I texted Coach Fickell that I was out front but that the door was locked. While I waited for a response, a gentleman with his son asked from a parked truck if they could go inside and check out the trophies. I raised my eyebrows, shook my head, and said, “I have no idea.” Suddenly taking a page out of the security guard’s book, I said, “I’m pretty sure it’s closed.” The thing is, I didn’t want Coach Fickell thinking I was bringing a couple fanboys along with me. I guess seeing the situation as an opportunity to meet an Ohio State coach, the man and his son (maybe 10 years old) jumped out of truck and came and stood by me. I thought, “You kidding me? This is awkward.” Coach Fickell appeared out from behind some Ohio State vinyl wrapped doors, made his way toward us, and as soon as he opened the glass double-door, I threw the man and son under the bus: “I don’t know who he is, but he had a question.” Coach Fickell, looking at me shifted his glance towards the man and his son. An awkward two or three seconds passed before the guy asked if he could get a picture with Coach Fickell and the National Championship trophy. Coach Fickell was very polite, agreed, and the father-son combo left. I don’t know why, but I felt like an idiot. Like, don’t get invited to a party then bring a couple of uninvited friends.
He led me through the vinyl wrapped doors that opened up into a long, wide, scarlet and gray painted hallway with a lot of decoration. Helmets, trophies, decals, life sized statues displaying all the latest uniforms, and furniture with Ohio State logos and name embroidered on it was everywhere. Historic victories, players, and legendary coaches were remembered on the walls. It was kind of a sensory overload. I’m going to skip all the details, but just trust me when I say that it wouldn’t completely suck to be an Ohio State football player.
We walked past a number of offices until we got to Coach Fickell’s. More Ohio State memorabilia was all over the place, but on his desk, surrounding his computer area was all about family. I dug that. Very cool.
First, I thanked him for his time. With recruits currently on campus, and freshman obligations starting in two days, I knew his schedule was slammed. How appreciative I am for the time he took can’t be overstated. I got right into the questions I had prepared.
I ask him who he looked up to and why. He mentioned that of course his own coaches in high school had a major impact on him, but more recently, it was Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer who he was able to really learn from. He said that the two men were complete opposites in terms of leadership style, but that they both found success. He said Jim Tressel is very mild-mannered, very nurturing, very positive, and hardly, if ever, raises his voice. On the flip side, Coach Fickell said that Urban Meyer is the intense, in your face, keeps you uncomfortable to force you to grow type of leader. I feel like these two pictures sum up what was being said.
He said the two men could not be more different, and that he looked up to them for different reasons. He mentioned that they are both incredible leaders, just in different ways. This stuck with me from what he said:
“A leader is somebody who makes others around them better, and that’s what Jim and Urban do, they make those around them better. So who is the better leader? It’s hard to say. They are just different.”
I love that he said that because too often we see what we think leadership is and try to mimic it. Teachers try to use the practices of another teacher, a manager might try a management style of a successful peer, or teenagers act a certain way because of a perceived acceptance by others. But the truth is, the best teachers, most effective managers, and happiest people are the ones who are willing to be themselves. This is the lesson I took away from Coach Fickell’s answer: be the best version of you that you can be. Don’t be a cheap imitation of somebody you think others would accept more. By doing so, you’re cheating yourself and you’re cheating them because you have something incredibly unique to offer. Both Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer have won a National Championship at Ohio State, and Coach Fickell says the reason they are great is because they are who they are. Pretty simple.
Next, I asked Coach Fickell what it was he told recruits who are being pursued by other top-tier programs throughout the country. I asked why somebody would choose Ohio State over a program like Alabama, Florida State, USC, Notre Dame, etc. He said that he is very transparent with recruits. He mentioned that he communicates the idea that “they are going to try to sell you a dream. We’re going to show you the dream.” He leaned forward and said to me, “Now, it’s still hard to recruit these kids, but recently winning a National Championship helps. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it makes it a hell of a lot easier to sell Ohio State.” This is the lesson I took away from Coach Fickell’s answer: You can use past successes in future endeavors. When you’re having a bad day, things seem to be stacked against you, or doubt starts to creep into your mind, remember the things you’ve already accomplished. Every person alive has done something of value. Use those things to sell yourself on the idea of keeping your head up!
I asked Coach Fickell why a walk-on can become a first round NFL draft pick and a 5-star recruit is never heard of after his freshman year. Hardly letting me finish, he said, “Intangibles.” He said that the discrepancy between a 5-star athlete and a walk-on isn’t as big as one would think. He explained, “The biggest difference is the walk-on has been competing his entire life. He has been conditioned to fight for his spot. The 5-star has never really had to compete in the same way. So when he gets to Ohio State, some of these 5-stars who don’t have the intangibles, i.e., the heart, the drive, the will to not be beat, get beat out.” He said that they tell their players that they better “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” because discomfort is where we grow the most. This is the lesson I took away from Coach Fickell’s answer: Sometimes in life it’s not just about what’s on paper. Don’t get me wrong, credentials matter, your resume matters, “tangibles” matter. But what separates the “first-rounders” from the “undrafted” is hardly about what is written down. Jerry Rice, Emmett Smith, Tom Brady, and a long list of many other legendary performers all had less-than-average measurables.
They are great because they possess solid intangibles. What intangibles do you have that set you apart? What could you work on to give you an edge? Answering these two questions can add value to not only your work life, but to your personal life as well.
Before I got to my last question I asked Coach Fickell if they give new players any advice about not getting caught up in all the hype about Ohio State. I said that it’s not hard to imagine how an 18-22 year old could get distracted. He shared that he warns the athletes about praise and criticism. He said, “It’s harder to handle praise than it is to handle criticism. Praise kills you from the inside out. Criticism strengthens you from the outside in.” He expounded by saying that as soon as we hear praise, our guard drops just a bit or our work ethic might lighten up a hair. “Criticism,” he said, “if done constructively, can give you that desire to work harder. A good athlete takes criticism and uses it as fuel.” This is the lesson I took away from Coach Fickell’s answer: It’s okay to take praise, it feels nice, but don’t dwell on it. It doesn’t do much for us in terms of self-improvement. As for criticism, we also can’t dwell on that either, but we can take it and use it to our advantage. As we have all heard before, if somebody criticizes you, don’t get bitter, get better.
Finally, I ended the interview with my favorite question: If you had just 20 seconds to give me your best advice, what would you tell me?
He said, “Do what you love. You have to find your passion.” He explained that his career takes him away from his family for 60-80 hours per week. But his family loves what he does and he loves what he does, so it works. He mentioned that he mixes his football family with his wife and kids. He said he will have get-togethers at his house with players because he genuinely wants them to be a part of the family. This is coaching.
He said that being a college football coach isn’t for everybody, and that is not hard to understand. He clarified that it’s not just Ohio State that he loves. Though he played there (he actually holds the record for most games ever played as a Buckeye), his love for the game is what makes him happy. He shared, “I’m no happier now than when I was making less money at Akron because I love what I do. I am a better husband and father because I love what I do.” Fun fact: his salary while coaching at Akron was less than what a teacher makes in the worst paying state in the nation.
Sitting down with Coach Fickell was a privilege. I don’t call it a privilege because I got to sit one-on-one with an Ohio State Football coach. I call it a privilege because I got to sit one-on-one with a man who is a husband, father, brother, and son who seems to be fulfilling those respective roles while providing for his family, helping gifted teenagers grow into men, and following his passion.
If you haven’t found your passion, your calling, your purpose, whatever you want to call it…pay attention: KEEP LOOKING. How many times do we have to be told that we have one life to live, and that’s it, before we realize it’s true? Stop spending your days doing what you don’t love, or what you can simply tolerate. Life wasn’t meant to be tolerated, it was meant to be filled with daily experiences that you love.