Wisconsin hires Luke Fickell: Badgers make splash luring Cincinnati coach with deep Big Ten ties

Wisconsin has made a splash hiring Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell as its next head football coach, the program announced Sunday evening. The stunning development comes after the Bearcats and Fickell finished their regular season with a loss to Tulane on Friday while the Badgers wrapped up a 6-6 season with a 23-16 home loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

“This is a destination job in a program that I have admired from far away for years,” said Fickell in a statement. I am in total alignment 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 passionately loyal fan base all have a strong commitment to success and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

“I am incredibly excited to announce Luke Fickell as our new head football coach and to welcome his entire family to Madison,” McIntosh said. “Luke is one of the top football coaches in the country. He is a proven winner, recruiter and developer of players. Equally as important, he shares our values. Coach Fickell is focused on giving our student-athletes the best possible opportunities and is attuned to the changing landscape of college athletics. I have every confidence that he will respect and honor the foundation that has been set for our football program over the years while embracing the exciting opportunities ahead.”

Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst in early October, ending a tenure that saw the former Badgers player and assistant go 67-26 across eight seasons. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, another former Wisconsin standout, was named the program’s interim coach and long considered a candidate to be elevated to full-time status at the end of the season. Under Leonhard’s leadership, the Badgers went 4-3 to finish the 2022 season.

Fickell has deep Big Ten ties as a former Ohio State player and long-time Buckeyes assistant coach, even serving as the team’s interim leader in the wake of Jim Tressel’s dismissal in 2011. He continued as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator from 2012-16 until he He was hired by Cincinnati, where he elevated the Bearcats into one of the top program’s in the AAC ahead of the school’s move to the Big 12 in 2023.

After going 4-8 in his first season, Fickell was named AAC Coach of the Year in 2018 after leading the Bearcats to their only third 11-win season in program history. He followed that with another 11-win season in 2019, adding a division title before rolling off back-to-back AAC championships and top-10 finishes in 2020 and 2021. After finishing that 2021 regular season undefeated, Cincinnati became the first-ever Group of Five schools to earn an appearance in the College Football Playoff. He will finish 57-18 in six seasons with the Bearcats.

Long considered a potential candidate for other jobs, Fickell has remained in place instead of jumping at prior 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 come calling

When Mark Dantonio abruptly retired as Michigan State’s coach in February 2020, the school reportedly interviewed Fickell for the position. However, he elected to stay put at Cincinnati. Many viewed that decision, which came prior to Cincinnati’s invitation to the Big 12, as a signal that Fickell would be extremely picky about the destination should he choose to leave the Bearcats. When Cincinnati got the tap to join the Power Five ranks, and when jobs like Notre Dame and Oklahoma were open and filled without Fickell being connected, the notion that Fickell might be staying put for a very few jobs had to be considered.

In landing Fickell, Wisconsin has been able to lure away a coach who has seemingly waited for the perfect opportunity, meaning the Badgers have sold him on the potential for this program to be the spot where he can compete for Big Ten championships.

Player development and program building

At Cincinnati, Fickell rebuilt the roster on the recruiting trail and helped develop that talent into NFL Draft picks. From 2013-20, Cincinnati had more than one player selected in the NFL Draft just once (2016). The Bearcats had four players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft alone and nine players selected the next year, which ranked third among all trailing programs only Georgia and LSU. For Wisconsin, the opportunity to bring in someone who can evaluate and develop talent at that level will allow the Badgers to keep up in a rapidly evolving Big Ten landscape.

Much-needed splash hire for future Big Ten

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

That’s why Wisconsin needed to nail the hire at this moment; the Badgers will have the best chance to remain one of the top programs in the conference and avoid getting pushed into the league’s middle class. Wisconsin is a proud program with great tradition, but it also only has six conference championships since 1970 with three won by Barry Alvarez in the 1990s and three won 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 remain in the mix to play for conference championships on the field, and it hopes Fickell can be the coach to keep it among the elite.

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