College football was shaken up a bit on Nov. 27, 2022, when the University of Wisconsin announced that it had lured away University of Cincinnati head football coach Luke Fickell. Fickell replaces former Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, who was fired this season after posting a 67-26 record over eight seasons. Jim Leonhard, the Badgers' defensive coordinator who served as the Badgers' interim head coach, also had been considered for the permanent job.
Fickell will receive a seven-year deal that starts at $7.5 million per year with room for additional compensation for hitting performance and postseason milestones, UW athletic director Chris McIntosh said during a Nov. 28 news conference with the university's new coach. That's more than Fickell's most recent Cincinnati contract, in which he was earning $5 million per year. Fickell's Cincinnati contract also contained a clause saying the university would receive a $3.5 million payment if he left before Jan. 1, 2024, Kenosha News reporter Todd D. Milewski writes.
“This is a destination job at a program that I have admired from afar for years,” Fickell said in a news release from Wisconsin. “I am in total alignment with Chris McIntosh’s vision for this program. There is a tremendous foundation here that I can’t wait to build upon.”
UC athletic director John Cunningham said on Nov. 28 that Cincinnati was willing to compete with Finkell's offer from Wisconsin.
"We were always having conversations about moving our program forward anything that we could do. He knew that, that I wanted to invest and I wanted to grow this thing," Cunningham said. "I felt strongly about what it was going to take to get to the Big 12 and be at that level and still do. And so we were willing to get there with him, but it was a family decision and he made that decision."
Building Fickell's coaching teamFickell reportedly is bringing UC director of sport performance/strength coach Brady Collins to Madison with him, according to a Nov. 28 tweet from ESPN writer Pete Thamel.
During a Nov. 28 media gathering, Fickell said that he was open to Leonhard becoming part of his coaching team, saying that he had met with Leonhard Sunday and would continue to do so. Many college football experts had expected Leonhard, who had gone 4-3 as interim head coach this season, to move permanently into the head coach role.
"We had a great conversation. I'm very open to, obviously, picking his brain for a lot of things," Fickell said. "He loves this place. He's a die-hard, so there are a lot of options that are open. I respect Jim. I don't know Jim all that well. I'm getting to know him from afar. We know people who know each other. I think we're very similar in a lot of ways.
"Jim will know what's best for him, Jim will know what's best for the program, Jim will know what's best for this team, and I respect that," Fickell continued. "We'll continue to talk about what the future looks like, but we don't know what that is right now."
Fickell said that the futures of many Wisconsin coaches are up in the air during the transition.
"This is a really hard situation with a lot of coaches. You know, Jim obviously is the one that everybody knows about and talks about, but you walk in that room and there's a lot of guys that their lives are going to be turned upside-down and not everybody's going to be here," Fickell said. " I've got an obligation to do what's best for this program, this team. And I'm not saying I know exactly what that is yet as we go, but I know that it's getting the right group of people that will be aligned in the right way."
The new Wisconsin coach added that putting together the right coaching staff will be a "process."
"There will be a few guys that will come back with me right away, but we're going to work this process to find out what's best for this place, because there's a lot of deep roots here and the culture is incredibly strong here," Fickell said. "I don't want to jump [and] knee-jerk react to a lot of things. There's a process to this and stuff that has already begun."
Fickell's Ohio rootsFickell joined Cincinnati after the season's end in 2016, compiling a 57-18 record over six years. The Bearcats just completed the 2022 regular season with a 9-3 record, good for third in the American Athletic Conference. The team ended the prior season with an undefeated regular-season record and became the first non-Power Five conference team to go to the College Football Playoffs, where they lost 27-6 to the Alabama Crimson Tide. Also in 2021, ESPN’s popular pre-game show College Gameday visited UC for the first time.
Originally from the Columbus area, Fickell played defensive line for Ohio State University and later produced consistently top-drawer defenses as OSU’s coordinator, including for a national championship team under Urban Meyer in 2014. Fickell was part of another OSU national title winner in 2002, his first Buckeye coaching year, when mentor Jim Tressel hired him as special teams coordinator. In 2011, he was called on to serve a difficult year as OSU head coach, named as a placeholder when Tressel was ousted due to a scandal over player perks. When Meyer was hired in 2012, Fickell returned to his post as defensive coordinator.
The Bearcats' futureFickell's move to Wisconsin comes as UC prepares to move from the AAC to the Big 12, a much more competitive conference. Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham says the team is considering both internal and external candidates to replace Fickell. Kerry Coombs, UC's cornerback and special teams coordinator, will serve as interim coach.
"I want to join the millions of Cincinnatians, Bearcat faithful, our players and coaches in thanking Luke for pouring his heart and soul in to our town. We are all better for it!" Coombs posted to Twitter on Nov. 28.
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