Wisconsin hires Luke Fickell: Badgers create a stir, luring Cincinnati coaches with deep Big Ten ties

Wisconsin has made a splash by hiring Cincinnati native Luke Fickell as its next head coach, the program announced Sunday night. The stunning development comes after the Bearcats and Fickell ended their regular seasons with losses to Tulane on Friday, while the Badgers ended a 6-6 season with a 23-16 home loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

“This is a target job in a program I’ve admired from afar for years,” Fickell said in a statement. “I am in complete agreement with [athletic director] Chris McIntosh’s vision for this program. There is a tremendous foundation here that I can’t wait to build upon. This world-class university, athletic department and fiercely loyal fanbase all have a strong commitment to success and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

“I’m incredibly excited to announce Luke Fickell as our new head football coach and to welcome his entire family to Madison,” said McIntosh. “Luke is one of the best football coaches in the country. He is a proven winner, recruiter and developer of players. Just as importantly, he shares our values. I am fully attuned to the changing landscape of collegiate athletics. I have every faith that he will respect and honor the foundation that has been laid for our football program over the years, while also capitalizing on the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.”

Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst in early October, ending a tenure that saw the former Badgers player and assistant go 67-26 in eight seasons. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, another former Wisconsin star, was named the program’s interim coach and has long been considered a candidate for full-time season-ending employment. Under Leonhard’s leadership, the Badgers finished the 2022 season 4-3.

A former Ohio State player and longtime assistant coach with the Buckeyes, Fickell has strong ties to the Big Ten, even serving as the team’s interim manager after Jim Tressel was fired in 2011. He stayed on as defensive coordinator for Urban Meyer from 2012-2016 from Cincinnati, where he made the Bearcats one of the top AAC programs before the school’s move to the Big 12 in 2023.

After going 4-8 in his freshman season, Fickell was named 2018 AAC Coach of the Year after leading the Bearcats to only their third 11-win season in program history. He followed that up with another 11-win season in 2019 and added a division title before winning back-to-back AAC championships and top-10 finishes in 2020 and 2021. After finishing the 2021 regular season undefeated, Cincinnati became the first ever Group of Five school to earn an appearance in the college football playoffs. He will go 57-18 in six seasons with the Bearcats.

Long considered a potential candidate for other jobs, Fickell has stayed in place rather than pursue previous Power Five opportunities. Special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs has been named interim coach at CIncinnati. according to The Athletic.

Not the first Big Ten school to call

When Mark Dantonio abruptly retired as Michigan State coach in February 2020, the school reportedly interviewed Fickell for the position. However he elected to remain in Cincinnati. Many saw this decision, made ahead of Cincinnati’s invitation to the Big 12, as a signal that Fickell would be extremely picky about leaving the Bearcats. With Cincinnati gaining access to the Power Five ranks and jobs like Notre Dame and Oklahoma open and filled without Fickell connected, the notion that Fickell could stay for a few jobs had to be considered.

With Fickell’s landing, Wisconsin was able to lure away a coach who has seemingly been waiting for the perfect opportunity, meaning the Badgers have sold him the potential for this program to be the place to compete for Big Ten championships.

Player development and programming

At Cincinnati, Fickell rebuilt the roster down the recruiting path and helped develop that talent into NFL draft picks. From 2013 to 2020, only once (2016) did Cincinnati pick more than one player in the NFL Draft. The Bearcats had four players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft alone and nine players in the next year, finishing third among all programs behind Georgia and LSU. For Wisconsin, the opportunity to hire someone who can evaluate and develop talent at this level will allow the Badgers to compete in a rapidly evolving Big Ten landscape.

Much needed spray rental for future Big Ten

Ever since the Big Ten split into East and West divisions, Wisconsin has enjoyed being one of the perpetual powers on one side of the standings, with arguably an easier route to the Big Ten championship from the West than teams to the East either Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State all in that division. But the arrival of USC and UCLA — and whatever timing and structural changes accompany their additions to the conference — will likely end this favorable path to competing for a championship.

That’s why Wisconsin had to nail rent at that moment; The Badgers have the best chance of remaining one of the top programs in the conference and not being relegated to the middle tier of the league. Wisconsin is a proud program with a rich heritage, but it also has only six conference championships since 1970, three of which were won by Barry Alvarez in the 1990s and three by Bret Bielema in the early 2010s. Paul Chryst led Wisconsin to the Big Ten Championship Game three times in the last six years, but that was thanks to the current divisional structure. Wisconsin wants to stay in the mix to play for conference championships on the field and hopes Fickell can be the coach to keep it in the elite.

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