Fickell leaves Cincinnati to take over as Wisconsin's coach
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By RALPH D. RUSSO
Wisconsin is bringing Cincinnati's Luke Fickell back to the Big Ten.
Athletic director Chris McIntosh announced Sunday that the Badgers had hired Fickell to take over their football program after his successful run with the Bearcats.
Fickell posted a 57-18 record in six seasons at Cincy and helped the Bearcats earn a College Football Playoff berth last year. The former Ohio State defensive lineman and longtime assistant went 6-7 as the Buckeyes' interim coach in 2011 after Jim Tressel's resignation.
"This is a destination job at a program that I have admired from afar for years," Fickell said in a statement released by the university. "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."
Fickell informed the Bearcats players earlier Sunday that he was leaving the school. Cincinnati named veteran assistant Kerry Coombs interim coach.
Fickell, 49, takes over for interim coach and former Badgers defensive back Jim Leonhard, who replaced Paul Chryst on Oct. 2.
Chryst went 67-26 in 7 1/2 seasons. He was fired one day after the Badgers lost 34-10 at home to an Illinois team led by former Badgers coach Bret Bielema.
"Luke is one of the top football coaches in the country. He is a proven winner, recruiter and developer of players," McIntosh said in a statement. "Equally as important, he shares our values. Coach Fickell is focused on giving our student-athletes the best opportunities possible 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 (6-6, 4-5 Big Ten) is awaiting its bowl assignment. A loss in the bowl game would cause the Badgers to finish below .500 for the first time since 2001.
Leonhard was promoted from defensive coordinator after Chryst's firing and led Wisconsin to a 4-3 record over the final seven games of the regular season. Leonhard said Saturday after the Badgers' 23-16 home loss to Minnesota that he had interviewed with McIntosh.
"We were able to sit down earlier this week and had a great conversation," Leonhard said. "I think that's between us, what was said, but hopefully there's decisions that are made soon in the best interests of this university."
Many Wisconsin players publicly called for Leonhard to get the job.
"I think whoever hires coaches is going to be an idiot if they don't hire coach Leonhard," safety John Torchio said after the Minnesota game. "I don't know if I should say that, but I'll say it."
The Badgers instead opted for Fickell, who led Cincinnati to the first CFP berth for any Group of Five school. Fickell won several national coach of the year awards last season for helping Cincinnati go 13-0 before losing to Alabama in a Cotton Bowl semifinal.
That 2021 Cincinnati team produced nine draft picks for the third-highest total of any school, behind only Georgia's 15 and LSU's 10. Five Cincinnati players were selected among the top 100 overall picks.
After replacing all that NFL talent, Cincinnati has gone 9-3 this season. The Bearcats didn't qualify for the American Athletic Conference championship game that takes place Saturday.
Fickell has been sought after for the last few years, most notably an offer from Michigan State after the 2019 season. But the Ohio native has been picky, knowing he had a good thing at Cincinnati.
"This was always going to be a family decision and he felt this was the right time for this decision to be made," Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham said.
Cunningham said he will move quickly to replace Fickell, considering both external and internal candidates.
Internally, offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli, a former Bearcats quarterback, would seem to be the most likely candidate.
The job is becoming even more appealing as Fickell leaves it. The Bearcats are switching conferences next year, moving up to the Big 12. The move will bring more revenue into the program, but also tougher competition.
"This is not a stepping-stone job," Cunningham said. "We can do everything we want to do at the University of Cincinnati."
Cincinnati went 4-8 in Fickell's debut season of 2017 but has gone 53-10 since.
Fickell's Cincinnati players also succeeded in the classroom. Heading into this season, Cincinnati had a 100% graduation rate among players who had stayed in the program for four years under Fickell.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.
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Updated November 28, 2022