Bob Huggins Laid the Groundwork For Luke Fickell's Success at Cincinnati
Bob Huggins returned to the University of Cincinnati to pay tribute to star basketball player Herb Jones, who had passed away earlier in the week. Actually, Huggins has been on the campus in Clifton for the past few seasons, albeit in a younger version and overseeing a different sport.
Luke Fickell has transformed Cincinnati's basketball program, much in the way Huggins did the basketball program three decades ago. Back then the Bearcats were non-contenders on the hardwood, losing recruits and fans to the perennial powerhouse University of Kentucky.
Cincinnati's basketball team had only one winning season between 1977 and 1989, the year Huggins was hired. Three years later Huggins led the Bearcats to the Final Four, a highlight among ten conference championships and eight league tournament titles.
During his current tenure, Fickell has achieved the same progress for UC's football program. After inheriting Tommy Tuberville's group in 20167 Fickell mustered a 4-11 record.
He did manage to set the tone that year, for in 2018 Cincinnati went 11-2 and won the Victory Bowl. The next season Fickell again led UC to eleven wins, and again won their postseason game over Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl.
Last year he led Cincinnati to a perfect regular season, after which they suffered a loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. No longer satisfied with merely Conference Titles and Bowl game victories, Fickell took the Bearcats where no other non-power conference team had gone.
Another undefeated regular season, including a crucial victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, earned Fickell and the Bearcats a slot in the BCS championship series. Just as Huggins had led UC to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament during his fourth year at the school, Fickell accomplished its football equivalent in his fourth year as well.
His success with the gridiron has allowed him to get the top local recruits, who had for generations preferred to head for Columbus and The Ohio State University. Huggins had managed to draw attention away from Kentucky in basketball, and now Fickell has done the same thing in football against the long-revered Buckeyes.
Before transforming the University of Cincinnati into powerhouses in their respective sports, the two men followed almost identical paths. Huggins played at Indian Valley South High School in Ohio, where his father was the head basketball coach.
He stayed in the Buckeye State directly out of high school, attending Ohio University in Athens for a year before becoming a star player at West Virginia. Shortly upon getting his degree, while he was at a attending a tryout camp for professional basketball, a knee injury while riding his bicycle ruined his potential NBA career.
Huggins's coaching career began when he assisted at the Ohio State University under Eldon Miller in 1977, and in a few years he became head coach at the University of Akron from 1984-89. It was then he was hired by the University of Cincinnati, and the rest is history.
Like his basketball predecessor, Fickell spent his teen years in Ohio. After setting records at Francis Desales High School, Fickell joined the Buckeyes and was named as an All-American defensive defensive lineman at Ohio State.
He, too, like Huggins, had a knee injury end his chance of a pro career. After tearing his ACL and forced to face a future without playing football, Fickell egan working as a coach.
He worked as an assistant at Akron, the same school where Huggins began his successful climb. In 2002 he moved up to an assistant under Jim Tressel at Ohio State, the same school where Huggins had done his apprenticeship.
Although their paths to and at the University of Cincinnati were nearly identical, Fickell and the myriad of fans hope his departure will be much different than that of Huggins. Dean Nancy Zimpher and the powers that be forced Huggins out in 2005, resulting in a weakened program that would take several years before being rebuilt under Mick Cronin.
Here's hoping the University of Cincinnati does not repeat that mistake with Fickell.