STILLWATER — Joe Wickline stood outdoors in a frigid Champaign, Ill., able to see his breath as he talked on the phone.
He had just arrived in town on that winter day in early 2005 and estimates the temperature was about 3-below zero. But that's a sacrifice this Florida native was willing to make to stay employed. Wickline had followed Ron Zook and Larry Fedora, his head coach and offensive coordinator who were part of the staff that had just been let go at Florida but were heading to Illinois.
But now Wickline was chatting with Fedora, who was going to Oklahoma State to serve as the offensive coordinator for newly promoted head coach Mike Gundy. Fedora asked Wickline if he'd be interested in joining as the offensive line coach.
“How cold is it there?” Wickline asked Fedora.
“I don't know, 49 (degrees)?” Fedora answered.
“I'll take it,” Wickline said.
Of course, it wasn't exactly that simple. But Wickline eventually got the gig. And now in entering his ninth season at OSU, Wickline is the last remaining member of Gundy's original staff.
He's watched OSU evolve into an offensive juggernaut and a staple in the national polls. He's seen former coordinators like Fedora, Dana Holgorsen and Todd Monken move on to head coaching positions and multiple other co-workers take other jobs. In the process, he's earned a reputation as one of the top offensive line coaches in college football.
Staying on one staff for nearly a decade is rare in such a nomadic profession. And it's not like Wickline hasn't had opportunities. Texas wanted to hire him. So have NFL franchises.
So, what makes Wickline one of the best in the business? And why has one of the best in the business stayed in Stillwater when other programs and organizations with more prestige — at least in name — have offered gobs of money?
To answer the first question, Wickline deflects to the people surrounding him at a program he's helped build.
The answer to the second question is simple.
“It's not always greener,” Wickine said. “You stay with what you've got and you keep getting better and you believe in the kids, you believe in the people and just keep moving forward.”
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Wickline calls his father, Dan, his hero. He was a Marine during World War II. He was also a high school football coach for more than 20 years.
But Joe actually wasn't set on following in his father's footsteps after his playing career at Florida.
“I'm not going to sit here and tell the story like he was a coach and I wanted to be a coach,” Joe said. “No, no, no. I really didn't know what I wanted to do, so I went back to school.”
Florida's then-coach Charley Pell, then-offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and then-academic advisor Terry Don Phillips had an offer. Wickline could get some financial aid to finish his degree if he joined the staff to help coach the junior varsity team as a graduate assistant.
“I don't really want to coach. My dad coached,” Wickline told Pell.
“Well then you'll pay your own way,” Pell countered.
Wickline's response to that?
“Where's the whistle?”
And thus, Wickline was a coach. He soon moved up to working with Florida's varsity tackles, then got a graduate assistant job at Tennessee. Then it was on to Delta State. And Mississippi. And Pearl River Community College. And Southwest Mississippi Community College. And Baylor. And Middle Tennessee State. And then finally back to his alma mater on Zook's staff.
When Zook was fired by Florida after the 2004 season and subsequently hired by Illinois, Wickline took the opportunity to keep working under him and Fedora. But he admits now that it wasn't exactly a great fit.
He was not very familiar with the Big Ten schools or culture. He considered himself a southern guy. Then there was that whole being-able-to-see-your-breath thing.
“But there I was, because it's nomadic,” Wickline said. “And when we heard about the opportunity (at OSU), I obviously spoke to Coach Gundy and was fired up about the things he said and the ideas he had for the program and the people that were putting things into the program, the direction it was going.
“It was a fairly easy decision.”
Zook, understandably, wasn't thrilled about the quick exit. But Wickline made the leap.
As of now, it's been his last.
“Who'd have thought it?” said Wickline's wife, Nicki. “We've never been anywhere this long. We could not have predicted this, it's just kind of happened this way.”
* * *
Wickline knows a lot of people think his coaching philosophy is wrong.
It seems simple enough — he wants to get the best five offensive linemen on the field together. But that can lead to a lot mixing and matching at positions — often during a game — to find the right combo at any moment.
Wickline realizes he's consciously giving up continuity and chemistry for a unit that often thrives on those intangibles in favor of playing the top 5.
But that develops a guy like Parker Graham, who can play tackle and guard on either side. Or a guard who can also play center like Andrew Lewis. And it creates competition amongst the entire group.