You may recognize the name Jack Lengyel. He was the head coach at Marshall from 1971-74. Most of you know of Lengyel, not because of his coaching prowess, but from the movie We Are Marshall.
The story that movie tells is arguably the greatest sports tragedy in history. On November 14, 1970, a plane carrying 37 members of the Marshall football team, as well as eight coaches, 21 booster members and multiple other athletic department staffers crashed. All in all, 75 people on board that plane were killed.
That disaster didn't just impact the football program or the university, it impacted the entire town of Huntington, West Virginia. Many were ready to cut the football program in the wake of the crash, but some key people and students fought to see it carry on and Lengyel would eventually be hired. The movie depicts this journey of healing for both Marshall and the town of Huntington. It's a story about carrying on and moving forward when quitting seemed like the more sensible option. As history shows, their resilience wasn't for nothing as Marshall would be the winningest Division 1-A program in the country during the '90's.
As moving as that story line is, every time I watch the movie or read the story I'm more blown away with Lengyel than anything. He was a man who took over a program in it's darkest hour when no one else seemed to want to, a move that was both unselfish and heartfelt. In fact, he would go on to have a 9-33 record at Marshall, yet he's still a hero. While his efforts in today's sports climate would seem like an epic failure, they were essential in moving the program on for greater success.
Flash forward to 2011 and Luke Fickell.
In was in the midst of this mess that Fickell would be named the interim head coach for the 2011 season. As a former player and assistant coach it was the job he had dreamed about having, but in a situation he neither asked for nor could have possibly wanted. The cards were not stacked in his favor, even beyond the obvious off the field issues. Not only had the coaching staff taken a hit, but many of the playmakers on the team were either gone or suspended for a good chunk of the season. In essence, as a first time head coach he was being asked to build a young team into a contender and instill confidence in a fanbase that had watched it's program come to it's knees.
Yet despite all of this - the allegations, the sanctions, the suspensions, and the expectations - Fickell did what his alma mater needed him to do, a move that was both unselfish and heartfelt. It hasn't been pretty, though, and much like Lengyel, the results on the field haven't really shown what he's done. A 6-6 regular season record, including a loss to Michigan, screams of mediocrity in Columbus. In fact, you can jump on any message board or blog and see Fickell being bashed for his conservative mentality or youthful coaching mistakes. I'll admit it, I have been part of those who have heavily criticized him throughout this season and called for a new coach in 2012. And while on the surface those complaints seem warranted, we do need to realize what he has done.
Think about it for a minute. Fickell has taken on a situation that would beat down many experienced head coaches, and has done so with class and humility. He's never asked for anything, and has continually talked about "the team" and "the program" every time he's been asked a tough question. Throughout the process he's bled scarlet and gray, and demanded his players do the same. Go read what they had to say after the game, they're behind Fickell's team mentality 100 percent. I also can't fail to recognize that despite the possible sanctions he has also brought in the second best recruiting class in the conference, full of young men who have bought into The Ohio State way too. The guy is all about advancing the program.
In fact, even after the loss to Michigan, Fickell could only talk about his beloved Buckeyes. On the verge of tears and with his future in question he said, "better days are ahead."
We may not realize it now, in the midst of a year that has been full of heartbreak, but Fickell is a hero. Someday when Ohio State gets back on top and all of this is behind the program, whether next year or down the road, Fickell will be remembered for what he did this season. Whether it shows in the win-loss column or not, his unselfish actions were part of moving the Buckeyes forward.