Fichtner boasts pedigree to succeed Arians as offensive coordinator with Steelers
Randy Fichtner's former boss said three words best describe the coach that could become the Steelers' next offensive coordinator: energy, enthusiasm and passion.
"It's not just a day at the office with Randy, and I think it's contagious," said Tommy West, who was the head coach at Memphis University when Fichtner was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach there. "He has 'it,' and players respond to it."
Fichtner, the Steelers' quarterbacks coach, is a candidate to succeed Bruce Arians, who told the York Daily Record earlier this week that the Steelers did not renew his contract.
Fichtner has a close relationship with coach Mike Tomlin and franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers' last three offensive coordinators — Arians, Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey — were in-house hires. Fichtner also has play-calling experience, having served as an offensive coordinator for 10 consecutive seasons before joining Tomlin's staff in 2007.
Fichtner presided over a spread offense at Memphis, something that might be at odds with the Steelers' smash-mouth sensibilities. But he also helped mold running back DeAngelo Williams during his second coaching stint at Memphis, and Williams became an All-American and a first-round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2006.
"(He was an) unbelievable players' coach when I was with him at Memphis," said Clay Helton, who coached wide receivers at Memphis while Fichtner was the offensive coordinator. "I think players understand that he has a genuine care for them on and off the field, and he is as an attention-to-details coach as there is out there."
Helton said Fichtner put as much energy into coaching players that weren't on the depth chart as he did the starters. That, he said, allowed Memphis to weather so many injuries at quarterback during one season that the Tigers were forced to start their No. 4 signal-caller and still went to a bowl game.
Helton said Fichtner's success didn't just stem from preparing his players for games.
"I thought he had a great strength for being able to adjust in ballgames, being able to make adjustments at halftime," said Helton, now the quarterbacks coach at Southern Cal. "Everywhere he's been, he's been successful. Given the opportunity (to serve as the Steelers' offensive coordinator) he would do that again."
Fichtner and Tomlin go back to the late 1990s, when he served as Arkansas State's offensive coordinator while the latter served as the team's wide receivers coach in 1997 and the secondary coach in 1998.
West said the two were known to have such a strong working relationship that when the Steelers hired Tomlin in January 2007, he knew Fichtner would soon be bound for Pittsburgh.
Fichtner coached the Steelers' wide receivers for three seasons, helping to develop Santonio Holmes and Mike Wallace, whom he had endorsed before the Steelers selected the speedster in the third round of the 2009 draft.
Fichtner took over as quarterbacks coach in 2010, following Ken Anderson's retirement, and he helped ease the Steelers through a tumultuous first quarter of the season. The Steelers started three different quarterbacks in the first five games because of injuries and a suspension to Roethlisberger, and they still went 3-1 during that span.
This past season, Roethlisberger threw for more than 4,000 yards for only the second time in his career, despite a high-ankle sprain that caused the eighth-year veteran to miss a game and hampered him in two others.
Roethlisberger will play in his second Pro Bowl on Sunday, and Fichtner and his wife are among those who will be in Hawaii as Roethlisberger's guests.
One thing that could work against Fichtner becoming only the second offensive coordinator under Tomlin: if the Steelers want to shake things up after Arians and go outside the organization for his replacement.
The Steelers finished 12th in the NFL in total offense last season (372.3 yard per game), but were tied for 21st in scoring (20.3 ppg).
Team president Art Rooney II brought up the Steelers' scoring difficulties last week when asked what he thought had gone wrong in 2011.
Tomlin said at his final news conference of the season that he values continuity. If he decides to promote someone from his staff, West said, Fichtner would be an ideal choice.
"Randy's got a great football mind," West said. "It's the enthusiasm that I think sets him apart as a coach."