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Cincinnati Bearcats Football

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Mar 13, 2017
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A conversation with Luke Fickell, who's transforming Cincinnati

CINCINNATI - The recruiting win being celebrated in Luke Fickell’s office on this day was the hiring of new baseball coach Scott Googins.

“How many head football coaches do you know would go in-home with a baseball coach to try and get him to come here?” Cincinnati’s athletic director Mike Bohn asks excitedly.

While Googins’ kids were taking turns sitting in Fickell’s seat, one of the Bearcats’ biggest wins on the football recruiting trail was standing in the hallway just outside of the office with a big smile on his face.

Tight end Josh Whyle is one of the jewels of Cincinnati's 2018 recruiting class class that 247Sports currently ranks No. 1 in the American Athletic Conference. The 6-foot-6 specimen out of nearby LaSalle High School chose to stay home and play for Fickell and company over an offer list that included Auburn, Georgia, Iowa, Louisville, Oregon, Tennessee and Wisconsin, among others.

Legit offers too. Not the dubious "camp offers" so prevalent nowadays.

The effort Fickell put into helping pluck Googins away from nearby Xavier to the availability he had to Whyle and his family is typical for what will be seen across the board in the future. So with that, there’s going to be a lot of highly-ranked recruiting classes under Fickell, and there will be plenty more big recruiting wins to celebrate.

One has to spend just five minutes with the 43-year old Ohio native to understand why Fickell was one of America’s top recruiters as an assistant at Ohio State. As one of the athletic department secretaries put it, “he’s a normal guy.”

The excitement Fickell has for what he’s doing immediately grabs you. Then his ability to make you feel at ease and connect makes you comfortable.

But perhaps more important than his personality, the former Buckeyes football player and three-time undefeated state wrestling champion is a guy that is always going to put the time and effort into everything he does. Over his college coaching career, recruiting has always been one of his biggest priorities.

“If the head coach doesn’t set the example and he isn’t the best recruiter on your staff and if he isn’t the hardest working guy on your staff, if he isn’t trying to build those relationships it’s a trickle-down effect,” Fickell explained. “And you can have one or two great recruiters but the reality is if you don’t have 10, if you don’t have 20, everybody in your office from (Director of Recruiting) Brian Mason to (Director of Player Personnel) Tom Phillips, to everyone in your recruiting department to all your secretaries, if everybody doesn’t understand it’s about recruiting then you’re going to struggle. Because you can’t be successful with just three or four recruiters. And I think that was the thing Coach (Urban) Meyer always talked about: yes we want good football coaches, but if you don’t understand it’s about getting players and getting the right players and giving you the right opportunities you’re not going to be able to out-coach a bad offense or bad defense and it truly has to start at the top.”

Long-time coaching veterans Mike Denbrock (offensive coordinator) and Joker Phillips (receivers), who are both among America’s top recruiters, told 247Sports they’ve been impressed by the leadership they’ve seen from Fickell and the cohesiveness he’s engineered for the new staff.

And we knew this would be the case, right?

Fickell was hired away from his alma mater in December, where he was a former 247Sports Recruiter of the Year while building a reputation as one of the best defensive coaches in America. Naturally, he hit the ground running and the Bearcats' 2017 recruiting class came in at No. 3 in the conference standings in just a two-month turnaround. Whyle is one of seven commits so far in 2018, along with four-star defensive end Malik Vann, who also had several Power Five opportunities before choosing to stay very close to his Fairfield, Ohio home.

Moving forward, Cincinnati is right in the thick of it for more in-state names like four-star linebacker Christopher Oats, touted defensive lineman Aeneas Hawkins and one of Ohio’s best receivers in Meechi Harris.

“Within a 50-mile radius for us, it’s everybody,” Fickell of said who they’re going to recruit. “We need to build a relationship, I don’t care who it is, whether it’s Ohio State or Alabama recruiting them.”

Five-star offensive tackle Jackson Carman has been on campus and so has blue-chip athlete L’Christian Smith. Fickell knows those guys are long shots at best. What he also knows is he wants to build “70 percent” of his roster from within a 300-mile radius. He’s talking Memphis to Chicago to Detroit to Pittsburgh so that’s a big radius. The other percentage comes from Florida, Georgia, Texas, Virginia and the DC area, where it’s easy for prospects to take direct flights to get to the Bearcats campus.

“Now we have to be smart about that, we don’t want to give into things but we have to be smart about guys who are going to be interested in building relationships with us,” Fickell explained. “But I think that goes back to saying, 'Who are the right ones?' And what you’re trying to do here is no different than what we we did at Ohio State, and I mean that in the sense that it’s about development.”

Recruiting isn’t just about making that extra phone call or sending that extra message to a prospect or their family. It’s also about rolling up your sleeves and evaluating, learning everything you can about a young man to know if they’re a fit all the way around as a person and certainly as a player.

“What’s the difference between the one percent and the five percent, maybe half an inch or a hundredth of a second in the 40-yard dash, but it still comes down to who are the right ones,” Fickell said. “You know what kind of culture you’re going to build here.”

Recruits like Vann and Whyle have seen the bios of guys like Fickell and Denbrock and Phillips, but the atmosphere created on campus under the new regime played big into their decisions.

“Everyone is going to say and use the word 'family' and 'culture' and those things, but the reality of saying we care about your son, your high school player, whatever it is, not just as a football player but in every aspect of his life, morally, spiritually, ethically is genuine here,” Fickell said. “And I find that’s why we stay in college, because we have such an impact on 18- to 22-year-olds. So I think we are doing things for the right reasons and if we truly deep down inside believe it, it becomes real when you talk to people and it’s genuine.”

John Cooper recruited Fickell to Ohio State out of high school, and a few years later that’s who gave Fickell his first opportunity to try his hand coaching. He worked a decade for Jim Tressel and spent the last five years under Meyer. He has two National Championship rings under two different philosophies. He’ll take something from guys he worked for and with while putting his own stamp on it in his first opportunity to lead at UC. Recruiting will be the backbone.

“The 10 years I was with Jim Tressel he was by far the best recruiter on the staff,” Fickell said. “And the five years I was with Coach Meyer he was by far the best recruiter on that staff. Not just because they held the title but because they worked at it. They were personable, they knew it was incredibly important. Both were very different in their leadership styles, both were very different in their recruiting styles, but what made them so successful is the people around them understood what their true vision was and how they were going to go about it.”