COSTA MESA — Ryan Ficken had some money saved from selling inflatable pool toys, but that wasn’t enough for him to continue being a volunteer coach at UCLA.
Eighteen years later, money wasn’t an issue for Ficken’s second coaching job in Southern California. He’s in the process of searching for a new home after being hired as the Chargers’ special teams coordinator and Newport Beach could be an option.
Ficken commuted from Newport Beach to Westwood after ending his collegiate career as a walk-on wide receiver at Arizona State. He was living with a buddy and quit his salesman job in Long Beach to join then-UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell in 2004.
Ficken took out loans to coach at UCLA and attend games, but it quickly paid off because his other buddy, by the name of Eric Bieniemy, helped him get a job with the Minnesota Vikings in 2007. Bieniemy, the current offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, coached the running backs at UCLA before getting Ficken to help him coach the same position in Minnesota.
Ficken met another buddy with the Vikings by the name of Jonathan Gannon, the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator and longtime friend of Chargers head coach Brandon Staley. Gannon vouched for Ficken to Staley and that’s why he’s back in Southern California with a healthy bank account.
“I was in the red,” Ficken said about his bank account during his three years at UCLA. “Looking back at it, it’s something I don’t regret at all.”
Gannon didn’t need to sell hard. Staley was well aware of Ficken’s success as a 15-year assistant coach with the Vikings.
“He did his homework,” Ficken said about Staley. “There were guys that he had reached to that I didn’t know he was doing any of that stuff. Couple guys in Cleveland, (coaches) across the league and players. Guys I’ve coached and he’s coached; Harrison Smith, Cordarrelle Patterson. Just doing his homework. What a good leader and head coach does. Making sure they go ahead and uncover every stone and make sure you’re the right fit.”
When Ficken moved to the special teams side in 2013, he was groomed by Mike Priefer, a well-respected special teams coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. Ficken was Priefer’s special teams assistant from 2013 to 2018. The Vikings’ special teams regressed after Priefer went to Cleveland, but Ficken delivered drastic improvements after being promoted as the coordinator in 2021.
It’s rare for an assistant coach to stay with the same team for 15 years. Ficken worked under former Vikings head coaches Brad Childress, Leslie Frazier and Mike Zimmer.
The Vikings wanted Ficken back for their latest head coach, but he was hooked by Staley’s energy and vision for special teams success, something that hasn’t occurred for the Chargers for many seasons.
“I love Coach Priefer,” Ficken said. “We really worked well. We did a lot of good things. A unit well respected in the NFL.”
Ficken wants the Chargers’ special teams to eventually have a similar reputation, but he understands that will take plenty of work because of the team’s recent track record.
“You gotta give them a reality check of ‘All right, this is what we are and this is what people know us for who we are right now,’” Ficken said about his conversations with Chargers players.
Derius Swinton II started at ground zero after the Chargers had a dreadful 2020 season on special teams. Swinton made improvements, but not enough for Staley, who fired Swinton after one season as the special teams coordinator.
Ficken said he’s not looking to change everything because he wants to follow Staley’s long-term vision for special teams.
“It’s definitely going to be under what his philosophy is because this is Brandon Staley’s team and this is his special teams unit,” Ficken said. “It’s not mine. And then branching off that. It’s Coach Staley’s special teams unit and then it’s the players’. It’s the players who make up this unit. I want to make sure that we cultivate good leadership.
“I do have my own philosophy, but that’s going to go ahead and tie in to what Coach Staley’s vision is, ultimately.”
The Chargers improved on special teams last season after they signed kicker Dustin Hopkins and return specialist Andre Roberts. But both are free agents, along with punter Ty Long, who struggled last season.
Ficken said he would like to see those players return, but he’s also intrigued by the $56 million in cap space the team has to work with for free agency next month.
“They want to put in a lot of resources into special teams,” Ficken said. “They feel that is the missing piece to go ahead and get them to the next level.
“That’s one thing that drew me here, too, is the fact that there is money to be spent on the roster as a whole, not just special teams, but I thought those pieces are integral parts (Hopkins, Roberts and long snapper Matt Overton) to our success moving forward. It would be a great opportunity to go ahead and coach those guys. I think they’re very talented, obviously.”
The Chargers took their lumps last season with their young special teams during a 9-8 season. But Ficken sees potential in linebacker Nick Niemann, edge rusher Chris Rumph II and linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga.
“The young nucleus, I think that is what is intriguing about these guys,” Ficken said.