Fickell has big fans in former Cincinnati players
By GERY WOELFEL
MOBILE, Ala. – If you ever encounter Tre Tucker, one of the last things you’d imagine him being is a football player.
That’s because he’s diminutive. Really diminutive, at least by college or pro football standards: He stands a mere 5 feet, 9 inches. He tips the scales at 185 pounds, and that may be charitable.
Now, imagine if you will, what Tucker must have looked like four years ago while attending Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio?
While he excelled as a prep football player, Tucker’s physical makeup didn’t exactly enamor him to major college coaches, including those at Ohio State who didn’t even offer him a scholarship.
“I’ll be honest, everyone wants to go to Ohio State if you’re from there (Ohio),’’ Tucker said at the recent Senior Bowl. “I wanted to go to Ohio State.’’
Tucker’s second choice of colleges was Michigan State and that didn’t work out, either. But there was a school that wasn’t on his radar but he was on theirs. And that was Cincinnati. Then Bearcats coach Luke Fickell and his staff saw big things in the little man with blinding speed. They never wavered in their recruitment of Tucker and their persistence paid off.
“Me and coach Fickell hit it off right away,’’ Tucker said of his former coach, who was hired as the University of Wisconsin’s head coach in November. “I was still looking at other schools and kind of taking my time, but they (the Bearcats) always showed the love.
“To show you the magnitude of how great of a coach, coach Fickell is, I didn’t even visit Cincinnati at first. I didn’t. But we bonded from the minute we met.’’
It was during Fickell’s in-home visit with Tucker that the coach and player realized they had more in common than just their passion for football.
“We shared the same sports: football and wrestling,’’ said Tucker, who was an outstanding youth wrestler before focusing on football and track in high school. “He was one of the best wrestlers in the world at one point, definitely the best in the state. I think he won three state championships.’’
Tucker was correct. Fickell was an exceptional prep wrestler and regarded as one of the best prep wrestlers ever in Ohio. During his decorated high school career at St. Francis DeSales in Cincinnati, Fickell was a three-time Division II state champion, once at 189 pounds and twice at heavyweight.
He never lost a match: He went 36-0 as a sophomore, 31-0 as a junior and 39-0 as a senior. Or 106-0 in three years. Of his 39 wins as senior, 29 were by pin.
“During that in-home visit, we bonded really well,’’ said Tucker who then paused and added, “I’m not the biggest kid, so for him to take a chance on me … ‘’
That “chance’’ was mutually beneficial for both Tucker and Fickell. Tucker went on to enjoy an excellent college career — he caught 52 passes for 672 yards last season and led the Atlantic Coast Conference in kick return average at 29.9 yards in 2020 – while helping Fickell build Cincinnati into an elite program.
In his six seasons at Cincinnati, Fickell posted a 57-18 record. In 2021, Fickell’s team went 13-0 before being selected to the College Football Playoffs. It marked the first time a football program outside of the “Power 5’’ conference advanced to the playoffs.
Tucker said he learned a lot from Fickell and observed what made the latter so successful. Tucker said Fickell’s biggest attributes are probably his focus and intensity.
“He’s a fourth-and-one guy every day,’’ Tucker said of Fickell. “It was always fourth-and-one with him, if you know what I mean. He doesn’t let up.
“He’s just so passionate. In my four years there, I never saw him relax. He just never relaxes. He’s always in the game. It always was football, which I love about him.’’
Fickell’s ability to communicate with his players, Tucker said, was another of the new Badgers coach’s assets.
“He’s a player’s coach, for sure,’’ Tucker said. “He always put the players first. He always made sure we were OK. And he would always ask for our input.
“Definitely a player’s coach; they’ll love him at Wisconsin.’’
Former Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle echoed Tucker’s sentiments on Fickell. Whyle, who also participated in the Senior Bowl, said Fickell’s “all-in’’ mentality had a trickle-down effect on him and the rest of the team.
“I was impressed with his competitive spirit and his ability to inspire guys on the team,’’ said Whyle, who chose Cincinnati over a batch of schools, including Georgia, Tennessee and … Wisconsin. “We’d be there (at practice) at 7 in them morning, and he’s able to get everyone fired up and ready to go for the day.
“I’ve never seen a more competitive person. And, not only that, I could really sense how much he really cares about his players.
“I’ll say this for coach Fick: If not for him, we would not have had the same success we’ve had in the last five years. I’m only happy for coach Fick. He did so many good things at UC, more than I could have dreamed of.
“Unfortunately in college football, you knew that day would come and he would move on. But, like I said, I’m happy for him and his family. He’s going to do big things at Wisconsin.’’
Tucker concurred, saying he fully expects the 49-year-old Fickell to make his mark at Wisconsin as well. Asked if he expected Fickell to turn Wisconsin into a national power, Tucker didn’t hesitate in responding and said, “One hundred percent.’’