Tramel's ScissorTales: Meet OU football coaching candidates Luke Fickell & Dan Lanning

·24 min read

The OU football coaching search nears the weekend, and it seems quite likely that Joe Castiglione is waiting to chat with some candidates whose teams play Saturday.

There isn’t much integrity left among college football coaches, but there’s enough that some coaches decline to interview for a job while still preparing for important games.

Which means Joe C. likely is waiting to talk with the likes of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, Baylor coach Dave Aranda and/or Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.

The Friday ScissorTales check in with College Football Playoff committee chairman Gary Barta and look at the Cincinnati-Houston showdown for the American Conference title. But we start with the OU coaching search.

Aranda, you should know plenty about. I wrote about Aranda earlier this week. But here’s a primer on Fickell and Lanning:

Tramel's ScissorTales: Personal stories from OU football coaching candidates

University of Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell talks with hs team during a timeout against Tulane University at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans Saturday, October 30, 2021.
University of Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell talks with hs team during a timeout against Tulane University at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans Saturday, October 30, 2021.

Luke Fickell

Age: 48.

Hometown: Columbus, Ohio.

Alma mater: Ohio State.

Playing career: Fickell was a nose guard who started 50 straight games for the Buckeyes. He then signed with the New Orleans Saints but suffered a knee injury and never played in the National Football League.

Coaching career: graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1999, defensive line coach at Akron 2000-01, then spent 15 years on Ohio State staffs, as special teams coach, linebacker coach/co-defensive coordinator and interim head coach, and head coach at Cincinnati 2016-present.

Record: 6-7 as Ohio State’s interim head coach in 2011, between the Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer regimes; 47-14 at Cincinnati.

Positives: Extensive experience at a powerhouse, for vastly-different coaches Tressel and Meyer. Ultra-success as a head coach at Cincinnati.

Negatives: Geographically limited, with his entire life spent living in the state of Ohio, except for the season with the Saints.

Carlson: The biggest hire of Joe Castiglione's tenure? Nah, it's OU's biggest ever

Dec 29, 2018 New Orleans: Dan Lanning, assistant coach outside linebackers, takes questions during the Georgia defense press conference for the Sugar Bowl against Texas on Saturday, Dec 29, 2018, in New Orleans.    Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Dec 29, 2018 New Orleans: Dan Lanning, assistant coach outside linebackers, takes questions during the Georgia defense press conference for the Sugar Bowl against Texas on Saturday, Dec 29, 2018, in New Orleans. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Dan Lanning

Age: 35.

Hometown: Richmond, Missouri, just outside Kansas City.

Alma mater: William Jewell College, Liberty, Missouri, alma mater of Kansas State coaching legend Bill Snyder.

Playing career: Linebacker William Jewell, which was in the NAIA when Lanning played from 2004-07.

Coaching career: Park Hill South High School assistant 2008-10, University of Pittsburgh graduate assistant 2011, Arizona State grad assistant 2012, Arizona State recruiting coordinator 2013, Sam Houston State defensive backs coach 2014, Alabama graduate assistant 2015, Memphis linebackers coach 2016-17, Georgia linebackers coach 2018, Georgia defensive coordinator 2019-21.

Positives: Touted as a recruiting whiz and clearly a sharp coach, with Kirby Smart entrusting his defense to Lanning.

Negatives: Limited experience. Lanning has been a coordinator for three years, at a place that already had a stout defensive culture and still has a head coach (Smart) who is a defensive mastermind. Lincoln Riley was 33 when named head coach at OU, but Riley had seven years as a coordinator and had established the offensive culture himself at both East Carolina and OU.

Tramel: How Lincoln Riley & Brian Kelly are Frankenstein's monsters

National Pregame: Big 12 on display

Saturday is a Big 12 showcase. Conference championship games will be played all across America, but the Big 12 can lay claim to two.

OSU-Baylor, of course, but also Cincinnati-Houston in the American Conference title game. Cincy and UofH soon will join the Big 12, either in 2023 or 2024.

Cincinnati, 12-0, is ranked fourth by the College Football Playoff committee, and Houston, 11-1, is No. 16.

Cincinnati “probably ought to be ranked higher,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said.

The Cougars and Bearcats are examples of mid-major programs that made a heavy financial commitment which paid off with the Big 12 invitation.

Houston is paying Holgorsen $4 million a year, and the Cougars are 18-14 since hiring him away from West Virginia.

Cincinnati is paying Fickell $3.5 million a year and is 47-14 in Fickell’s six years as coach.

The stakes are high in the American game. Cincy playing for an historic playoff berth. Houston is playing for a major bowl berth.

“Obviously, Houston’s a great football team,” Fickell said. “This is, to me, as well-balanced a football team as we’ve played all year, on offense, defense and special teams.”

And Cincinnati has played Notre Dame.

Upset special: Oregon over Utah

Two weeks ago, Oregon was ranked third by the playoff selection committee. But the Ducks were routed 38-7 at Utah, and Oregon’s playoff hopes withered.

Now the teams meet again on a neutral field, in Las Vegas, for the Pac-12 championship Friday night.

Oregon at its best is quite a team. The Ducks won 35-28 at Ohio State in September but have struggled at times since. Utah has been a solid, yet unspectacular team. The Utes lost at Brigham Young, at San Diego State and at Oregon State.

The one-sidedness of Utah’s victory over Oregon two weeks was an aberration. These teams are quite evenly matched.

Utah is a 3½-point favorite, but let’s go with Oregon in the upset.

Coach on the hot seat: Georgia’s Kirby Smart

Smart has done a spectacular job building the Bulldogs into a national power. But there’s one thing he hasn’t done. Beat Alabama.

Georgia hasn’t beaten Bama since 2007, Nick Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa. Since then, the Crimson Tide is 6-0 against Georgia, including two memorable Southeastern Conference title games, won by Bama 32-28 in 2012 and 35-28 in 2018. The Crimson Tide also beat Georgia 26-23 in the 2017 national championship game.

Saturday in Atlanta, Smart gets another crack at Alabama and has the better team. Georgia is ranked No. 1 and has been dominant throughout the season.

A Bulldog victory could eliminate Bama from playoff consideration and signal that a changing of the guard is at least possible in the SEC. But an Alabama victory would remind the world that Saban still is king.

This is Smart’s chance to elevate Georgia to the level of Alabama.

Ranking the games

1. Georgia vs. Alabama, 3 p.m. Saturday, CBS: Will the SEC get two teams into the playoff, or will Georgia knock out the Crimson Tide? Even a close Bama defeat wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the Tide.

2. Oklahoma State vs. Baylor, 11 a.m. Saturday, ABC: You know, there’s still a sliver of hope for Baylor to make the College Football Playoff. If Iowa, Houston and Baylor win, the Bears could be in the running.

3. Michigan vs. Iowa, 7 p.m. Saturday in Indianapolis: The Wolverines haven’t won an outright Big Ten title since 2003. The Hawkeyes last won in 2002.

4. Houston at Cincinnati, 3 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Big game on every front. College Football Playoff. Mid-major breakthrough. Fickell in the coaching carousel.

5. Oregon vs. Utah in Santa Clara, California, 7 p.m. Friday: Wonder if the Pac-12 ever will get off the Friday night slot for its title game. A 5 p.m. Friday (West Coast time) kickoff doesn’t seem ideal.

6. Wake Forest vs. Pittsburgh in Charlotte, 7 p.m., ABC: Few ramifications in this game, other than which team goes to the Peach Bowl and which team to the Gator Bowl.

7. Utah State at San Diego State, 2 p.m. Saturday, Fox: Aztecs are 11-1 but out of the running for a major bowl, since either Cincinnati or Houston will claim the mid-major berth.

8. Appalachian State at Louisiana-Lafayette, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: The Ragin’ Cajuns beat Appalachian State 41-13 earlier this season.

9. Western Kentucky at Texas-San Antonio, 6 p.m. Friday, CBS Sports Network: Western figures to be the power in the revamped Conference USA, which was gutted by conference realignment.

10. Kent State vs. Northern Illinois in Detroit, 11 a.m., ESPN: Kent State hasn’t won the Mid-American Conference title since 1972.

11. Southern Cal at California, 10 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports1: Lincoln Riley gets a sneak peek at his new team.

Last week: 36-9. Season: 471-159.

Gary Barta talks Playoff

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta has become a familiar voice this season while discussing the College Football Playoff. Barta is the chairman of the selection committee.

Barta has conducted a teleconference with media each Tuesday night in November and did so again this week, to discuss the committee’s penultimate rankings. The committee will announce the four-team bracket Sunday morning on ESPN.

Here is the latest Barta transcript, with my reactions.

Barta opening statement: “A reminder, this coming weekend the committee will have another piece of information to add to our process. Obviously referring to the conference championship winners. Winning a conference championship is an additional part of our protocol that the committee follows when we put together our rankings. It's a reminder -- it's not the only factor we consider but it is an important piece of information. And obviously we'll be able to review that for the first time once the champ games are all done.”

Tramel: That’s a huge thing for OSU. If the Cowboys beat Baylor and win the Big 12 title, OSU will have the jump on Notre Dame, which as an independent does not have access to a conference title game, and OSU would have the jump on Alabama, should the Crimson Tide lose to Georgia in the Southeastern Conference title game.

Q. Wanted to talk about the coaching changes and availability. In the instance of a team that has a coach or a player injury, but doesn't play in the championship game, is there a way you can kind of weigh that? Or is it kind of a situation where if they don't play, so you can't really evaluate a difference without a coach?

Barta: “Just a reminder, during the regular season, we don't look forward at all. So if we know someone is going to have a game coming up, we don't evaluate that. We only evaluate games that have occurred. And if a coach or a player wasn't available for that, during the game that we're evaluating, then we bring that into the discussion. After the championships are all played and for our final ranking, referring to the committee does have in our protocol the ability to consider any players that won't be available or any coaches that won't be available and then factor that in along with our other protocol, our other criteria. But yes, if we get done, when the championships are done and if anybody is in our conversations that has a player that won't be available, and the committee deems that it's likely it will affect the outcome, but that's the words in the protocol, then that can be discussed and can be considered. And each of the 13 members can weigh that the way they want to weigh it, compared to head-to-head competition and common opponents and all the other things we evaluate.”

Tramel: This is in obvious reference to Notre Dame, which stunningly lost its coach, Brian Kelly, who jumped to Louisiana State, leaving a team in playoff consideration. Will the committee downgrade Notre Dame, knowing the Fighting Irish would be without their coach? Maybe. Maybe they already have, though as I pointed out, OSU’s resume’ jumped Notre Dame’s this week, without the Kelly situation.

Q. Saturday night Oklahoma State and Oklahoma played the last game, I think the last meaningful game of the night. I assume every committee member got to sit and watch it. What did you learn and what did maybe some of your committee members from what you ascertained learn sort of watching OSU in that game going into this final week?

Barta: “One of the things we learned is this was a playoff game, for all intents and purposes. The winner goes on to the Big 12 Championship. So one of the things you learn is how a team or how teams can handle that kind of pressure. And I think both teams handled that well. Obviously Oklahoma State came out on top, which means in that pressure situation, whether it's the offense under Spencer Sanders or the defense that's been playing so well all year, they found a way to win in (what) was also a rivalry game. So the committee took that all into account in watching the game. We just learned that two really good football teams but Oklahoma State came out on top. They were able to score some points. The defense continues to play well. I don't know if we learned anything specifically about offense or defense, but certainly learned a lot about the character of the team under pressure.”

Tramel: That’s a glowing endorsement of the Cowboys. That explanation by Barta gave me more confidence in OSU’s chances than anything else I’ve heard.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta speaks during a news conference announcing Clarissa Chun as the inaugural head coach for the women's wrestling program, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta speaks during a news conference announcing Clarissa Chun as the inaugural head coach for the women's wrestling program, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Q. Gary, following up on the Notre Dame question, I know that, as you said, the committee does not try to project when looking at the regular season. But I guess a two-part thing here: One, I guess it's difficult to ignore the reality of the situation that you guys are sitting there talking last night or even this morning that the news is breaking that Brian Kelly is leaving Notre Dame. But also isn't Notre Dame in a much different situation than these other teams considering that they do not have a conference championship to be looking forward to and for you to judge, and that now that their regular season is over? So in a way that if you were to discuss it this past week, you would not be discussing or trying to project what's going to happen in the conference championship; you actually are projecting how it will affect it in the postseason. And that's what's actually in the principles and protocols.

Barta: “There was a lot in there. Here's the way the committee talked about it and views it. Champ games are going to occur, and some of the top 10 or go down to top 15, wherever you want to stop, will have an opportunity to play in a Big 10 champ game, in the case of Michigan, or Big 12, in the case of Oklahoma State and Baylor, et cetera, et cetera. But there's also going to be a team that's going to lose each of those games. And there's going to be teams that don't play. There's going to be winners and losers in the champ games and those that don't play. I can't project how that's going to impact a particular team like Notre Dame or Ohio State or Mississippi because they don't play. But when all the champ games are done, that's when we'll do our homework. That's when, if there is a team that's going into a game, where we can project whether or not a player or a coach not available is going to make a difference.”

Tramel: I believe Barta when he says the committee doesn’t project. It evaluates. This weekend is slightly different, of course, but I tend to believe that Barta is shooting straight.

Q. I guess, following up on that, like I said, Notre Dame doesn't have a conference championship, so you are projecting already for them this past week, you're projecting what they would look like in the playoffs. So what’s the difference between doing that, say, today and doing it a week from now, now that the regular season is already over?

Barta: “What I'm sharing with you is when we were doing rankings we were not projecting. We were evaluating. Just look at the teams right around them -- Oklahoma State compared to Notre Dame compared to Ohio State, based on what happened through this past weekend. That's all we were evaluating. So the ranking that you see -- 5, 6, 7 -- is based on that.”

Tramel: Too often, interviewers on this teleconference seem to want to trip up Barta. But he’s been excellent at staying on point and not giving in to aha moments.

Q. I wanted to get the committee's opinion on BYU. There seems out of a slot in the New Year's Six game. What is the committee thinking about them at 12?

Barta: “Well, they're a really good football team. They have the win over Utah. And I know Arizona State is not in the Top 25 but Arizona State has been playing better football. They have a rusher who has rushed for over 14, 1500 yards and a whole bunch of touchdowns. They're at 12. When you compare them to the team that ended right above them, Michigan State, Michigan State has the win against Michigan. So the committee certainly took that into account. Michigan State also has a great rusher in Kenneth Walker. The strength of schedule that Michigan State has is a little bit more difficult than BYU. And then when you look at this past week, the committee looked at the win that Michigan State had over Penn State and compared that favorably. BYU did beat USC but the committee -- when all those factors were taken into account, Michigan State went ahead of BYU. But to your bigger question, the committee thinks very highly of BYU's team.”

Tramel: It’s a bummer. It looks like BYU probably won’t make a New Year’s Six bowl and Michigan State might. I think America would much rather see BYU-Ohio State than Michigan State-Ole Miss.

Q. Considering the teams that are in the top five, all are involved in championship games. What will the committee be looking at in the various championship games? Are we talking about just the control of the game? Are we talking about clean play? Is it an overall eye test? What are they applying to the winners as they view them in the championship game?

Barta: “First of all, it's just exciting to get to this point of the season and have the opportunity to watch all these champ games. It seems like football season just started. But here we are, we're going to sit and watch, Friday and Saturday, we're going to watch all these great champ games. You know, I would say we already have formed -- the committee has already formed opinions. And you said one through five. So we've already formed a lot of, using the whole season, we formed a lot of thoughts about all of them. And so we'll use that information. We'll still use that information when we come back on late Saturday night into Sunday morning. But then we'll have an additional piece of information. And we're not looking for any one thing in those champ games. We're looking to see what that adds to what we already believe about those teams. I mentioned earlier Oklahoma State showed the committee that in a playoff-like environment against Oklahoma in a rivalry game, they really found a way to win. We'll see how that game goes against Baylor. We'll see how Baylor does against Oklahoma State. So there's not one thing that the committee is going to look at. But we all watched the games together. So we'll have a chance while we're watching -- I'm going to be sitting in between an NFL Hall of Famer and a long-time, couple long-time collegiate coaches and other ADs, and you have an opportunity to talk while you're watching, which is really invaluable.”

Tramel: The whole notion of the final vote is interesting. The committee in November meets each Monday, I think starting in the afternoon, and finishes up Tuesday morning. But this weekend, it’s a contracted process. Voting after the games Saturday night. Late night. Then early morning Sunday.

Q. Question about that protocol. I just looked it up on the website. It does say player or coach moving forward if it would affect the team's performance. I know it hasn't come up in major ways over the years, but does the committee think that they're similar? Would a missing coach be a different level of impact than a missing starter?

Barta: “The great thing about the way that the management group has set this up is dealt with protocol and principles. And then they don't give specific direction to the committee on how we use it. So what I mean by that is there might be one committee who thinks, hey, this team might be more motivated with their new coach. Or I've seen games where a quarterback who starts or running back that starts, they put in the next person and the team actually plays better. So it's a piece of information that the management group has said the committee is able to use but all 13 members may end up using it slightly differently when they place their vote. That's the beauty of the way the committee works. We all have this criteria that we need to use, we're responsible for using. How each committee member uses that in their vote might be a little different for all 13.”

Tramel: An interesting issue concerning Notre Dame and Kelly is that Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was elevated to head coach, and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees decided to stay in South Bend and not follow Kelly to LSU. So that matters. The Notre Dame coaching staff is not gutted.

Q. We are going to set a record tonight for questions about the No. 6 team in your ranking. Regarding Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame's All-American safety, who, the timeline for his injury … full recovery was supposed to have happened this coming weekend. Now, if Notre Dame doesn't voluntarily mention what his status is and whether he's going to play in the game and whether that timeline is true, will you go to seek that? Will you try to find out from Notre Dame what it is? The second part of the question is a little bit more splitting hairs on the coaching thing. I mean, if it's a staff where a bunch of assistants also leave between now and Saturday, if that also, if the committee has the latitude, I guess, to factor that in?

Barta: “So, I'm going to do the best I can to answer your question. The committee wants and the CFP wants every bit of information it can get. Obviously if, for some reason, Notre Dame would choose not to share that, there's nothing we could do about that. We do have another round of calls this week where we'll be talking to the conferences and the representatives. So there will be an opportunity for the information to be shared. We can’t control if they choose not to. So that's sort of part one. Part two, we'll just have to wait and see what the situation looks like before we try to see how it's going to fit into our valuation. The way it's written is if the committee believes that there would be a likely effect on the outcome of the game based on who is coaching or who is playing, it can be considered. So I know that's loose, but I'm not even going to -- I'm going to wait until Saturday night when everything's happened, we'll take all the information that's been given to us and we'll try to factor it in.”

Tramel: Truthfully, the whole thing’s a slippery slope. The idea of factoring in injured players and AWOL coaches, is a little bit squishy. On injuries, coaches are notorious for misleading information. That would be even moreso on injuries that could affect playoff decisions.

Q. You've been very consistent discussing Michigan these last few weeks. I was wondering your impressions, the committee's impression of the performance against Ohio State?

Barta: “The committee has been calling, referring to Michigan as a complete team now for about three or four weeks as we were watching the team. And I just think about what the defense was able to do. Hutchinson, but not just him, but he had an incredible performance; they were able to put pressure on Ohio State's offense and really contain an incredibly explosive offense, both passing and running. Then on the flipside of that, for Haskins to do what he did and they were able to run the ball in kind of difficult conditions, I would just tell you the committee was not surprised at the way Michigan played -- maybe, like everybody, a little surprised at the way the score ended up. But just a complete team. And that's how the committee's felt about Michigan now for quite a while. And they showed it in a championship environment. I talked about with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State. That was a playoff game. This was certainly a playoff game. And under that kind of environment, Michigan showed that they were able to find a way to win and win convincingly against a really, really good, a great Ohio State team.”

Tramel: Barta does a good job of answering needless questions. What do you think the committee thought of Michigan? The Wolverines kicked Ohio State’s butt.

Q. I would like for you to talk about Cincinnati. Do you think there's a way that they could possibly be left out of the top four even if they get a convincing win on Saturday against Houston? Do you think that's possible? Hopefully that's not -- do you think it's possible?

Barta: “I'm consistent in telling you that we as a committee don't project. So they're going to play a champ game against Houston. Georgia and Alabama are going to play. Michigan and Iowa are going to play. Oklahoma State and Baylor. We're going to watch all those games. And then until that occurs, until the last game is played, we won't be having any conversations about who is going to be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, et cetera, and that's the way we go about it. So until those games are played, there's really no way to predict who is going to go into those spots.”

Tramel: The committee does not project. I don’t know how many times Barta has to say it.

Mailbag: Dabo Swinney to OU?

The inquiries about the Sooner coaching search are never-ending.

Norman: “How about Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables and Jeff Lebby?”

Tramel: Fascinating. But fantasy. Swinney is the Clemson coach who has won two national titles. Venables is his long-time (and former OU) defensive coordinator. Lebby, an OU graduate and son-in-law of former Baylor coach Art Briles, is offensive coordinator at Ole Miss. But I don’t see it. I don’t know why Swinney would want to come to OU. Just because we’ve had two blueblood-to-blueblood moves this week doesn’t mean we’ll have a third. If Swinney is tired of the Clemson challenge, he can wait out Nick Saban’s retirement and possibly replace Saban at Alabama. Swinney is a Bama graduate. If Swinney were to leave Clemson, it’s quite possible that Venables would replace him.

Venue Ventures: AT&T Stadium

OSU plays Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Most Oklahomans are well-versed on JerryWorld, which opened in 2009 as the home of the Dallas Cowboys and for my money is the world’s greatest football stadium.

Here is the story of JerryWorld, told in numbers:

1: National championship games staged, Ohio State’s 42-20 victory over Oregon in January 2015.

1: Rose Bowl hosted, last season, when the game was moved because of California Covid restrictions.

6: Big 12 Championship Games staged, 2009-10 and 2017-20.

31: rank in size worldwide of high definition video screen

75: dollar average for parking at AT&T Stadium.

342: executive suites

1,200: Temporary seats at Super Bowl 45 that were blocked off because they hadn’t been erected in time for the fire marshal to inspect them.

80,000: seats

100,000: capacity, counting the huge standing room areas on each end of the stadium.

105,121: record football crowd, Cowboys vs. Giants, September 20, 2009.

108,713: record crowd, NBA All-Star Game, February 14, 2010.

325,000,000: dollars the city of Arlington contributed to the project, through taxation.

650,000,000: estimated cost of the stadium.

1,300,000,000: dollars the stadium cost to build; Cowboys owner Jerry Jones covered the costs of the overrun.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Meet OU football coaching candidates Luke Fickell & Dan Lanning

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