Long-ago talk with Mike Tomlin fueled Steelers OC Randy Fichtner
Feeling dissatisfied with the lack of results and perhaps a bit detached as a new staff member at Memphis, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner placed a call to an old friend in Tampa during the fall of 2001.
Fichtner wanted the input of the man he had worked alongside a few years earlier at Arkansas State. Now, in his first NFL season as a defensive backs coach with the Buccaneeers, Mike Tomlin was happy to lend a helping hand.
“In our profession, you call a buddy when you’re getting your butt kicked,” Tomlin said. “That’s just part of it. That’s just friends. I don’t want to make more out of it than what it is. That’s not noteworthy.”
Perhaps not, but what started generating headlines at the Conference USA school was the way the Memphis offense began making incremental progress.
In Fichtner’s first season, the Tigers generated more yards and scored more points than the previous year.
It took some time, but the wins started to follow. In Fichtner’s third season running the offense, Memphis went 9-4, upset Ole Miss and won a bowl game for the first time in 32 years. Bowl appearances followed each of the next two seasons while the yards and points piled up under the offensive coordinator who pushed an up-tempo spread system.
In a way, Fichtner is starting over again. When the Steelers take the field against the Cleveland Browns, it will mark Fichtner’s debut as an NFL offensive coordinator. Hired by Tomlin in 2007 to coach wide receivers, Fichtner transitioned to quarterbacks coach three years later and finished his eighth season in that role when he was tabbed to replace Todd Haley.
“He’s ready to do this,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Fichtner. “I have full confidence in him.”
Suffice it to say, Fichtner is more confident than in 2001 when he left low-level Division I independent Arkansas State to join Tommy West’s staff at Memphis — a modest step up in coaching circles.
Memphis started 4-2 but lost four of its final five in 2001 to finish under .500 for a seventh consecutive season.
“We really couldn’t hang our hat on anything and weren’t good enough at anything, but we were getting better on fundamentals,” Fichtner said. “We were showing small signs of improvement that I couldn’t see because I hadn’t been there (in previous years).”
Which is when Fichtner placed that phone call to Tomlin. They had spent the 1997-98 seasons together at Arkansas State before Tomlin started his ascension up the coaching ladder.
“I had only known the head coach (West) for about six months, and I didn’t know what he was thinking,” Fichtner said. “I told Mike, ‘We don’t talk like (you and I do) right now. … This is rough. I don’t know if I’ll last after this season.’ ”
Tomlin doesn’t recall specifics of the conversation, but Fichtner said the pep talk was enough to renew his confidence in his coaching methods.
“He was like, ‘You’re just thinking that. You’re just feeling that way because you’re disappointed (in the record),’ ” Fichtner said. “Sometimes you can’t see the progress made when it comes to the end result, which is wins and losses. In the beginning stages, you might not get the results that are going to come.”
That season, Memphis averaged 26.7 points, an increase of 10 from the final year under the previous coordinator. In 2001, despite a 3-9 record, Memphis set school records in passing yards and total offense. The next year, Fichtner’s offense averaged 30.2 points and 444 yards. In 2004, Memphis ranked ninth nationally in total offense and was 10 th in scoring at 35.9 points per game.
“There are going to be valleys, but how you work through those valleys is going to be the most critical thing,” Fichtner said. “I saw a lot of not very good games, but we never changed our work ethic. We never changed our path and eventually it worked out.”
It was that approach Tomlin cited this week as the overriding factor in his decision to add Fichtner to his coaching staff when he joined the Steelers in 2007.
“It’s about what I saw day to day when we worked together: his willingness to work, his thoroughness, his communication skills,” Tomlin said. “Those were the deciding factors, not the resume he built at Memphis.”
Fichtner is more cerebral than his predecessor. Haley, as those viewing HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this summer have discovered, has a fiery, unfiltered personality that tends to rub coaching colleagues and players the wrong way.
Fichtner speaks softly yet confidently when addressing players, Roethlisberger said. He’s just as apt to listen to suggestions as he is to offer his own.
“We have a great relationship,” Roethlisberger said. “He values my opinion and what I say because he’s seen me do it for such a long period of time. Just as much, I value his opinion because of how well we’ve worked together these past years.”
Fichtner wasn’t always so low key. In a newspaper account of one of his first spring practices at Memphis in 2001, Fichtner called plays via cell phone from an observation tower overlooking the field. Broken plays sent him into a tirade that featured screaming and loud stomping on the tower’s metal floor.
“We may have to put him over the stadium in a blimp on game days,” West said on that April day. “I’m afraid he’ll knock a hole in the bottom of the press box.”
Fichtner learned quickly to change his approach.
“Players don’t need to see me ride the highs and lows,” he said. “They’ll do it enough on their own because of their competitiveness.”
Unlike that first season at Memphis 17 years ago, Fichtner has been handed the keys to an offense that produced the third-most yards and ninth-most points in the NFL last season. He has two future Hall of Fame players in Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. When Le’Veon Bell reports, he will have one of the best all-round running backs in the league, and an offensive line that has Pro Bowl talent at guard (David DeCastro), center (Maurkice Pouncey) and tackle (Alejandro Villanueva).
Fichtner emphasizes rhythm and tempo in his offenses, so expect to see Roethlisberger run plenty of no-huddle this year to limit adjustments defenses can make in personnel.
“There’s going to be some learning curves because he’s never called plays at this level,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re all going to have learning curves together. But I know he’ll put the time and effort it to make it right.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.