The Athletic

Why Luke Fickell decided to leave Cincinnati now

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell will be Wisconsin’s next head coach, sources have confirmed to Athleticism on Sunday. Fickell informed Cincinnati Sunday morning that he would be leaving to take the new job.

Fickell leaves Cincinnati as the winningest coach in the program with a final record of 57-18 in his six seasons at the helm, including 53-10 in the last five years. He led the Bearcats to the college football playoffs in 2021 as Cincinnati became the first 5-team school to reach the four-team playoffs, and he earned numerous Coach of the Year honors in the process.

Fickell resurrected a sunken program when he took over ahead of the 2017 season, turning Cincinnati into a cohesive, legitimate force on the field and in the local recruiting scene, helping deliver the Bearcats to a Power 5 conference. Cincinnati has made three consecutive appearances in the 2019-2021 U.S. Championship game, winning the last two and winning all six consecutive New Year’s Eve bids at the Peach Bowl and Cotton Bowl, the latter being a CFP semifinal. The Bearcats finished the 2022 regular season 9-3 (6-2 AAC) and in third place in the AAC, and will officially join the Big 12 Conference next summer ahead of the 2023 season.

Sources close to the Cincinnati program said Athleticism Sunday that senior administrators within the athletic department have been aware of and prepared for the possibility of Fickell’s departure for a few weeks, with Nebraska and Wisconsin expressing interest. A source familiar with the negotiations also said Athleticism that Fickell’s wife, Amy, traveled to Madison, Wis., this month to explore the Badgers’ interest in Fickell for the head coaching job.

Sources close to Cincinnati said Athleticism that Bearcats administrators have had conversations with Fickell in recent weeks about what could be done to keep him in Cincinnati, including a desire to increase the salary pool for assistants, among other things, but that when the offer of the Wisconsin finally came, Fickell felt it was the right time and the right situation for him to pursue.

The Bearcats lost their regular season finale 27-24 to Tulane on Friday, missing an opportunity to host a third straight AAC championship game on Saturday. Cincinnati was officially eliminated from the conference title game on Saturday night.

Asked Friday night after the loss to Tulane how he will approach the potential for another week of hiring rumors and mention of his name on the coaching carousel, Fickell said: “It’s too hard to think about. . I hope there are things that can happen, and we still have a chance to play, so you don’t know. Now is not the time to think about such things. We need to get back up there and take care of these particular seniors, make sure they have their heads held high and are ready for whatever lies ahead this week or two. »

Fickell briefed Bearcats administrators on his decision to take the Wisconsin job Sunday morning, then met with Cincinnati players and staff. There was a team meeting previously scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sunday, but it was moved to 1:15 p.m., and Fickell broke the news to the team. Bearcats special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs has been named interim head coach, sources say. Athleticism. Athletic director John Cunningham is scheduled to hold a press conference at 6:15 p.m. Sunday on campus.

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Kerry Coombs is back home in Cincinnati

The question for many loyal Bearcats in the wake of Fickell’s departure is: why now? After a decade in the realignment wilderness, Cincinnati is poised to finally join the Big 12 and a Power 5 conference in just a few months, thanks in large part to Fickell’s sustained success on the court. He signed a new contract extension in February through the 2028 season that paid him $5 million a year, increased his annual payroll to $5.2 million and included promises of a new facility. permanent indoor workout, the latter two being Fickell’s top priorities. The training facility, which is expected to be built on the existing footprint of Cincinnati’s Sheakley Athletics Center’s current training ground, was estimated to cost a total of $100 million and is in the planning stages. The Cincinnati program has long been a stepping stone, dating back to Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. But so many resources and benefits that the Bearcats’ head coaches had long sought, including Fickell, were finally available.

There’s also the fact that Fickell has deferred or declined interest and offers from numerous Power 5 programs during his six years in Cincinnati, starting with West Virginia after the Bearcats’ surprising 2018 campaign, as well as the State of Florida, Baylor and, more specifically, Michigan. State after the 2019 season. The same goes for interest from USC and Notre Dame last year, with the latter a job still seen as coveted by Fickell and one of the few that could steer him away. a comfortable fit and location in Cincinnati. But Fickell wouldn’t take any other jobs while the Bearcats hunted for a playoff berth last season, and Notre Dame ended up hiring Fickell’s former assistant and mentee Marcus Freeman.

The sentiment among many sources close to Fickell is that the experience with Notre Dame last year, as well as other previous training opportunities, impacted his decision to be more proactive as the carousel s intensified this year and led him to take the job from Wisconsin. .

Fickell-led culture, evaluation and development in Cincinnati lifted the Bearcats to a four-team playoff berth and garnered a Big 12 invite, along with increased resources, season ticket sales and a general investment of the university and the community. But the team also felt the impact of losing nine NFL Draft selections to last season’s playoff roster, including four-year-old starting quarterback Desmond Ridder and the All-Americans of first team Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant. The Bearcats have continued to recruit at the Power Conference level, and even seen a slight increase with the impending move to the Big 12, but the Athletic Department has lagged slightly in terms of establishing and promoting NIL avenues. . (Cincy Reigns, an all-sports collective intended to benefit Bearcats athletes, was launched and announced last week after months of being in the works.) Fickell, who has been reluctant to embrace NIL as a recruiting tool, was frustrated by numerous withdrawals. and lost recruitment battles due to NIL in recent months, sources said Athleticism.

Even though Fickell remained in Cincinnati despite constant and considerable outside interest, he faced steady turnover among his assistants and support staff. Freeman left to be defensive coordinator at Notre Dame after 2020, and four assistants left this past offseason for top positions in Power 5 or the NFL.

Ultimately, the sentiment among sources familiar with the process and Fickell’s decision is that there was no singular issue or topic that prompted his departure from Cincinnati. The latest contract extension, Big 12 move, upcoming practice facility, new NIL collective, payroll increase offers and other resources weren’t enough to make up the money, the resources and infrastructure in place in Wisconsin and the Big Ten, a conference Fickell knows and loves his playing days and coaching career at Ohio State.

The addition of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten and the planned move away from the divisions will no doubt make it harder for the Badgers to be perennial contenders alongside Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC and others. But Fickell has always been drawn to the culture and program building aspects of college coaching. With the playoffs set to expand to 12 teams, and the Big Ten and SEC further separating themselves financially from other Power 5 conferences, Fickell saw an opportunity to build something in Wisconsin — where winning a national championship is at less on the list of potential possibilities, perhaps more easily than Cincinnati – too good to pass up.

The other obvious and immediate question for the Bearcats is who will be named to replace Fickell and the considerable shadow he leaves behind. Coombs and offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli, a former Bearcats quarterback, are two likely insiders, but as Cunningham showed when looking for men’s basketball coach Wes Miller, he’s been known to keep discreet things and not afraid to leave. -the radar candidate.

Whoever becomes Cincinnati’s next football head coach will take on a mix of significant challenges, advantages and aspirations. As painful as Fickell’s departure was for Bearcats stakeholders, the truth is that he stayed six seasons – an eternity at Clifton – and took the program from low to unexpected, unprecedented and heavenly heights.

Over the past few seasons, so many great players who passed under Fickell have talked about leaving the program better than they found it. There is no denying that Fickell did, to an extraordinary degree. The next head coach will be tasked with doing the same. It will be a much different and more appealing challenge than the one Fickell inherited, but with much greater scrutiny and expectation.

(Picture: Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)


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