Inside Luke Fickell’s move to Wisconsin, why he decided to leave Cincinnati now

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

Fickell leaves Cincinnati as the program’s all-time winningest coach with a final record of 57-18 in his six seasons at the helm, including 53-10 during the past five years. He led the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff in 2021 as Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 school to reach the four-team Playoff, and he collected 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 consistent, legitimate force on the field and in the local recruiting scene, helping deliver the Bearcats to a Power 5 conference. Cincinnati made three straight American Athletic Conference Championship Game appearances from 2019 to 2021, winning the last two and earning back-to-back New Year’s Six bids to 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 Cincinnati’s program told The Athletic on Sunday that high-ranking administrators within the athletic department have been aware and prepared for the possibility of Fickell’s departure for a couple of weeks, with Nebraska and Wisconsin showing interest. A source familiar with the negotiations also told The Athletic that Fickell’s wife, Amy, visited Madison, Wis., this month to explore the Badgers’ interest in Fickell for the head coaching position.

Sources close to Cincinnati said The Athletic that Bearcats administrators have been in conversation with Fickell in recent weeks about what could be done to keep him at Cincinnati, including a willingness to increase the assistant salary pool, among other things, but that when the Wisconsin offer ultimately came, Fickell felt this was the right time and 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 officially was eliminated from the conference title game Saturday evening.

Asked Friday evening after the Tulane loss how he will approach the potential of an additional week of hiring rumors and his name being mentioned on the coaching carousel, Fickell said: “It’s too hard to think about. Hopefully there are some things that can happen, and we still have a chance to play, so you don’t know. It’s not the time to think about those kinds of things. We have to get back up there and take care of those seniors in particular, make sure their heads are up and they’re ready to roll whatever is thrown our way this next week or two.”

Fickell informed Bearcats administrators of his decision to accept the Wisconsin job Sunday morning and then met with Cincinnati players and staff. There was a previously scheduled team meeting set for 4:30 pm Sunday, but that was moved up to 1:15 pm, and Fickell delivered the news to the team. Bearcats special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs has been named the interim head coach, sources said The Athletic. Athletic director John Cunningham is scheduled to hold a news conference at 6:15 pm Sunday on campus.


Kerry Coombs is back home in Cincinnati

The question for many Bearcats faithful in the wake of Fickell’s departure is: Why now? After a decade spent in realignment wilderness, Cincinnati is set to finally join the Big 12 and a Power 5 conference in a matter of months, in no small part due to the sustained success Fickell achieved on the field. He signed a new contract extension in February through the 2028 season that paid him $5 million a year, increased his annual salary pool to $5.2 million and included promises of a new permanent indoor practice facility, those last two being top priorities for Fickell. The practice facility, which is slated to be built on the existing footprint of Cincinnati’s current Sheakley Athletics Center practice field, has been estimated at a total cost of $100 million and is in the planning stages. Cincinnati’s program has long been a stepping-stone job, dating to Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. But so many of the resources and benefits Bearcats head coaches have long sought, Fickell included, finally were available.

There’s also the fact Fickell either deferred or declined interest and offers from numerous Power 5 programs during his six years at Cincinnati, starting with West Virginia after the Bearcats’ surprising 2018 campaign, as well as Florida State, Baylor and, most notably, Michigan State after the 2019 season. The same for interest from USC and Notre Dame last year, the latter being a job always believed to be coveted by Fickell and one of the few that might be able to pry him away from a comfortable fit and situation at Cincinnati. But Fickell wouldn’t entertain other jobs while the Bearcats were in the hunt for a spot in the Playoff last season, and Notre Dame wound up hiring former Fickell assistant and mentee Marcus Freeman.

The sense among numerous sources close to Fickell is that the experience with Notre Dame last year, along with other previous coaching opportunities, had an impact on his decision to be more proactive as the carousel ramped up this year and led to his taking the Wisconsin job .

The culture, evaluation and development shepherded by Fickell at Cincinnati elevated the Bearcats to the four-team Playoff and garnered a Big 12 invite, as well as increased resources, season ticket sales and general investment from the university and community. But the team also felt the impact of losing nine NFL Draft picks off of last season’s Playoff roster, including four-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder and first-team All-Americans Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant. The Bearcats have continued to recruit at a power-conference level, and even have seen an uptick with the impending move to the Big 12, yet the athletic department has been slightly behind in terms of establishing and fostering NIL avenues. (Cincy Reigns, an all-sports collective intending to benefit Bearcats athletes, was launched and announced last week after being in the works for months.) Fickell, who has been hesitant to embrace NIL as a recruiting tool, has been frustrated by numerous decommitments and lost recruiting battles due to NIL in recent months, sources said The Athletic.

Even as Fickell stayed at Cincinnati despite constant and considerable outside interest, he has had to deal with regular churn 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-tier Power 5 positions or the NFL.

In the end, the sense among sources familiar with the process and Fickell’s decision is that there was no singular issue or topic that instigated his departure from Cincinnati. The latest contract extension, Big 12 move, upcoming practice facility, new NIL collective, offers for an increased salary pool and other resources were not enough to offset the money, resources and infrastructure in place at Wisconsin and in the Big Ten, a conference Fickell is extremely familiar with and fond of from his playing days and coaching career at Ohio State.

The addition of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, and anticipated move away from divisions, no doubt will make it more difficult for the Badgers to be perennial contenders alongside Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC and others. But Fickell always has been drawn to the culture- and program-building aspects of college coaching. As the Playoff is set to expand to 12 teams, and as the Big Ten and SEC further separate financially from the other Power 5 conferences, Fickell viewed the opportunity to build something at Wisconsin — where winning a national championship is at least on the list of potential possibilities, perhaps more readily than Cincinnati — as too good to pass up.

The other obvious and immediate question for the Bearcats is who will be tabbed to 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 displayed during the search for men’s basketball coach Wes Miller, he is known for keeping things tight-lipped and is not afraid to go for an off -the-radar candidate.

Whoever becomes the next head coach of Cincinnati football will assume a mix of significant challenges, advantages and aspirations. As painful as Fickell’s departure will be for Bearcats stakeholders, the truth is that he stayed for six seasons — an eternity in Clifton — and lifted the program from rock bottom to unexpected, unprecedented and celestial heights.

During the past few seasons, so many of the great players who came through under Fickell have talked about leaving the program better than they found it. There’s no denying Fickell did that, to an extraordinary degree. The next head coach will be tasked with doing the same. It will be a much different and more attractive challenge than the one Fickell inherited, but with far greater scrutiny and expectations.

(Photo: Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)


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