Over the years, I’ve covered several coaching departures from the University of Cincinnati football program. Having covered the Bearcats from late 2004 until the end of the 2017 season, I’d seen the rise of the Bearcats football program under Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Butch Jones (Tennessee), and Tommy Tuberville to Luke Fickell.
All except Tuberville left for Power Five Conferences, or the “Dream Job” in Kelly’s situation. Fickell has left for the Big Ten even though the Bearcats are heading to the Big 12. While fans of the Bearcats will want to argue the move is a lateral move, having also covered a Big Ten program for several years, there is a difference and will remain a difference as the SEC and Big Ten will stay at the top of the food chain.
While Dantonio, Kelly, and Jones all left following their third seasons, Fickell stayed six and turned things around, going 57-18 in those years with his 2021 squad going to the playoff semifinals as the first Group of 5 teams to reach the College Football Playoff.
In a statement following news he’d accepted the Wisconsin job, Fickell stressed that he’d admired the Badgers program from afar over the years.
Why did Wisconsin check off all the boxes that kept Fickell from taking job offers from West Virginia and Michigan State in the past?
In my opinion, Wisconsin does provide Fickell with many things any head coach wants when moving from one successful job to one in a rebuilding mode. The Badgers program changed when Bret Bielema left and Gary Andersen took over. Despite having four ten or more winning seasons running the Badgers program, Chryst and the Badgers looked like they were on a different page, with him being relieved of his duties after a 2-3 start to the season.
Fickell brings more Bielema to the program than Andersen or Chryst. He’s a proven recruiter in the Midwest, a master motivator, and a developer of talent who fully understands how to run a major college program.
While fans of the Bearcats may be saddened and wondering what the program must do to keep a head coach long-term, much like Dantonio, Kelly, and Jones, Fickell leaves the program better than when he took it over. Continued growth and understanding of what is needed to compete at the highest level are now fully understood compared to when Rick Minter and Dantonio were at the head of the program.
However, as we’ve seen over the past several years, college football is ever-changing. It will continue to change with the transfer portal, NIL (Name, Image, Likeness), and the need to grow revenue streams as the cost of fielding a coaching staff, recruiting and facilities continue to rise.
The next phase of a coaching change will first come from any coaches Fickell wants to take with him to Wisconsin. Some, like Gino Guidugli, Mike Tressel, and Kerry Coombs, are expected to be allowed to interview for the open position. However, each of these coaches knows that if they can follow Fickell to Wisconsin, they may have to jump to keep from looking for a coaching job in the coming months.
As fans of the Bearcats fully understand, losing your head coach before a bowl game is not how anyone wants it done. However, recruiting takes center stage now with the early signing period and the transfer portal.
The job is now on the shoulders of Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham, who made it clear the Bearcats will be doing a national search immediately to find their next head coach.
Over the years, several athletic directors who faced finding a new coach have stressed they always have a list of coaches tucked away just for this purpose. So many names will be thrown out early on possible coaching candidates to replace Fickell, and we’ll dive into some names to watch going forward.