By Bruce Hooley
The more Ohio State wins, the worse it gets for OSU athletic director Gene Smith.
Three weeks ago, Smith kept an appropriately sad face while the Buckeyes’ football team blew a 21-second half lead at Nebraska in falling to 0-2 in the Big Ten and 3-3 overall.
Games against unbeaten Illinois on the road and unbeaten Wisconsin in Columbus awaited.
Smith, if competent at all, (debatable, given the last 10 months) was working the phones communicating through back channels with search firms, agents and friends of possible successors for Luke Fickell as OSU’s head coach.
If not Urban Meyer, then Chris Petersen and Gary Patterson had to grab Smith’s attention. Second-tier candidates like Kevin Sumlin, Mel Tucker and Mike Riley also looked better than Fickell, who appeared en route to a photo finish for even a Lil Ceasar’s Pizza Bowl berth.
But a mildly-surprising win at Illinois and a borderline-shocking win over Wisconsin now has OSU on track for a 9-3 finish, a possible berth in inaugural Big Ten title game and maybe a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
So Gene Smith squirms.
He’ll have a decision to make soon on whether to sign Fickell for 2012 and beyond or fire the former Buckeye player and long-time assistant coach to name Meyer or someone else as OSU’s next coach. A season of five or six losses would have made Smith’s decision easy. But a winning streak of six or seven games to end the regular season, and a berth in or even a victory at a BCS bowl, puts the pressure on Smith no matter what he decides.
Fickell will engender enormous good will should he right the Buckeyes after numerous suspensions and off-field distractions dominated the headlines throughout the preseason and the first month. He comes off as genuine, as a young guy working hard to hold onto his dream job. Everyone can identify with that and embrace it, so Fickell is an easy guy to root for.
Smith hasn’t made many, or perhaps even any, good decisions since the tattoo scandal surfaced in December. He’s stonewalled or come off as clueless at every turn. Given his abysmal job performance, it’s hard to believe he’ll make a smart decision on anything of consequence.
The decision here centers on whether Fickell is OSU’s best chance to achieve its potential as a football program over the next 5-to-10 years. Coaches with proven track records have answered that question, although coaching at Ohio State is a unique job with singular challenges unlike most places.
Meyer, as a former OSU assistant, wouldn’t be awed by the challenge. Petersen, Patterson and just about everyone else would get their eyes opened by the provincial nature of life in the Buckeye meat grinder. That’s not to say they couldn’t do the job, or that they aren’t better-prepared than Fickell. But rest assured, it would be an eye-opener for most guys given the way OSU zealots cannibalize their own.
Fickell was clearly over his skis in the losses at Miami and Nebraska, and my hunch is he’d still have that label if Braxton Miller’s Hail Mary had been intercepted before the clock struck midnight on Saturday. Right now, he hasn’t demonstrated nearly enough to take the training wheels off and give him the job permanently.
Meyer, if healthy, will always be the best long-term choice, provided his health is solid and his commitment firm. Introducing him in short order after the regular-season finale against Michigan loomed as the likeliest scenario until OSU’s current winning streak. But now, the more the Buckeyes win, the harder it gets for Smith to make any move until OSU plays its bowl game.
That will set Ohio State’s recruiting back at least a month until it names a new coach.
Even if that new coach is the coach who has the job right now.