CINCINNATI — Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell will become Wisconsin’s next head coach, sources confirmed the athlete On Sunday. Fickell notified Cincinnati Sunday morning that he was leaving to take the new job.
Fickell exits Cincinnati as the program’s all-time leading coach 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 2021 College Football Playoffs when Cincinnati became the first Group 5 school to reach the four-team playoff, collecting numerous Coach of the Year awards along the way.
Fickell revitalized a sunken program when he took over ahead of the 2017 season, establishing Cincinnati as a consistent, legitimate force on the field and local recruiting scene, and helping bring the Bearcats to a Power 5 conference. Cincinnati played the American Athletic Conference Championship Game three straight years from 2019 to 2021, winning the last two and earning back-to-back New Year’s Six bids for 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 third in the AAC and will officially compete in the Big 12 Conference next summer ahead of the 2023 season.
Sources close to the Cincinnati program said so the athlete on Sunday that senior administrators within the athletic department have known and been prepared for the possibility of Fickell’s departure for a few weeks, with Nebraska and Wisconsin showing interest. A source familiar with the negotiations also said so the athlete that Fickell’s wife, Amy, was visiting Madison, Wisconsin, this month to explore the Badgers’ interest in Fickell for the head coaching position.
Sources near Cincinnati said the athlete that Bearcats administrators have been in talks with Fickell in recent weeks about what could be done to keep him in Cincinnati, including a willingness to increase the assistants’ salary pool among other things, but that Fickell felt like the Wisconsin -Offer finally came the right time and situation for him to move on.
The Bearcats lost their regular season finale to Tulane 27-24 on Friday and missed an opportunity to host a third straight AAC championship game on Saturday. Cincinnati was officially eliminated from the conference title game on Saturday night.
When asked Friday night after Tulane’s loss how he’ll deal with the potential of another week of hiring rumors and his name being mentioned in the coaching carousel, Fickel said, “It’s too hard to think about. Hopefully some things can happen and we still have a chance to play so you don’t know. It’s not the time to think about such things. We need to get back up there and take extra care of these seniors, make sure their heads are up and they’re ready to roll whatever’s thrown our way over the next week or two.
Fickell briefed Bearcats administrators on his decision to take the Wisconsin job Sunday morning and then met with Cincinnati players and staff. There was a previously scheduled team meeting scheduled for Sunday at 4:30pm but that was pushed back to 1:15pm and Fickell broke the news to the team. Bearcats special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs has been named interim head coach, sources said the athlete. Athletic director John Cunningham is scheduled to hold a press conference on campus at 6:15 p.m. Sunday.
Kerry Coombs is back home in Cincinnati
The question for many loyal Bearcats following Fickell’s departure is why now? After a decade in the wilderness of realignment, Cincinnati will finally join the Big 12 and a Power 5 conference in a few short months, in no small part due to the continued success Fickell has achieved on the field. He signed a new contract extension in February through the 2028 season, which paid him $5 million a year, increased his annual salary to $5.2 million, and included a promise of a new permanent indoor practice facility, the last two being for Fickell had top priority. The practice facility, to be built on the existing footprint of the current Sheakley Athletics Center practice facility in Cincinnati, is estimated to total $100 million and is in the planning phase. Cincinnati’s program has long been a springboard for Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. But so many of the resources and benefits Bearcats head coaches have long sought, including Fickell, were finally available.
There’s also the fact that during his six years in Cincinnati, starting with West Virginia after the Bearcats’ surprise campaign in 2018, as well as Florida State, Baylor and especially Michigan, Fickell either deferred interest and offers from numerous Power 5 programs or has declined state after the 2019 season. The same can be said for interest from USC and Notre Dame over the past year, the latter being a job thought to always be coveted by Fickell and one of the few that might get him from a comfortable fit and situation in Cincinnati. But Fickell didn’t want to take other jobs while the Bearcats were in the hunt for a playoff spot last season, and Notre Dame eventually hired former Fickell assistant and mentee Marcus Freeman.
According to numerous sources close to Fickel, last year’s Notre Dame experience, along with other previous coaching opportunities, influenced his decision to be more proactive as the carousel ramped up this year, leading to, that he took the job in Wisconsin.
The culture, evaluation, and development driven by Fickell at Cincinnati propelled the Bearcats into the four-team playoffs and earned a Big 12 invitation, as well as increased resources, season ticket sales, and general investment from the university and community. But the team also felt the effects of losing nine NFL draft picks from last season’s playoff roster, including four-year-old quarterback Desmond Ridder and first-team All-Americans Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant. The Bearcats continue to recruit at the power conference level and have even seen an upswing with the upcoming move to the Big 12, but the athletic department has lagged a bit when it comes to establishing and promoting NIL avenues. (Cincy Reigns, an all-sports collective designed to benefit Bearcats athletes, was formed and announced last week after months in the works.) Fickell, hesitant to embrace NIL as a recruiting tool, was frustrated by numerous cancellations and lost recruitment battles due to NIL in recent months, sources said the athlete.
Even as Fickell remained in Cincinnati despite constant and considerable outside interest, he had to deal with regular brain drain among his assistants and support staff. Freeman joined Notre Dame as defensive coordinator after 2020, and four assistants left the post last offseason to take on senior Power 5 positions or the NFL.
Ultimately, the impression among sources familiar with the process and Fickell’s decision is that there was no single issue or issue that prompted him to leave Cincinnati. The recent contract renewal, Big 12 relocation, upcoming practice facility, new NIL collective, offers of an increased salary pool and other resources were not enough to offset the money, resources and infrastructure needed in Wisconsin and in the Big Ten, a conference fickell, is very familiar and dear to him from his playing days and coaching career at Ohio State.
The addition of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten and the expected move away from divisions will no doubt make it harder for the Badgers to be alongside Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC and other perennial contenders. 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 with the Big Ten and SEC continuing to divest themselves financially of the other Power 5 conferences, Fickell saw an opportunity to build something in Wisconsin — where winning a national championship is at least on the list of potential Possibilities, perhaps easier than Cincinnati – as too good to pass up.
The other obvious and immediate question for the Bearcats is who will replace Fickell and the sizable shadow he leaves behind. Coombs and offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli, a former Bearcats quarterback, are two likely internal candidates, but as Cunningham showed when trying to find men’s basketball coach Wes Miller, he’s known for keeping things secret and not afraid about to take a break -the radar candidate.
Whoever becomes the next head coach of Cincinnati football expects a mix of significant challenges, benefits and aspirations. As painful as Fickell’s departure will be for those involved with the Bearcats, the truth is that he stayed at Clifton for six seasons – an eternity – and has taken the program from rock bottom to unexpected, unprecedented and heavenly heights.
Over the past few seasons, so many of the great players who have come through under Fickell have spoken of leaving the program better than they thought it was. There’s no denying that Fickell has done so on an extraordinary scale. The next head coach is tasked with doing the same. It will be a much different and more attractive challenge than the one Fickell inherited, but with much greater control and expectation.
(Photo Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)