Wisconsin Pulls a Stunner, Naming Luke Fickell as Football Coach
MADISON, Wis. – Luke Fickell - who rebuilt Cincinnati and lead the Bearcats to the College Football Playoffs in 2021 - has been tasked with rebuilding the University of Wisconsin football program.
Fickell was named the 31st head coach in program history on Sunday, the first major hire by first-year Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh.
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"I am incredibly excited to announce Luke Fickell as our new head football coach and to welcome his entire family to Madison," McIntosh said in a release. "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 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."
The choice is a stunning turn of events for Wisconsin, which appeared all in on interim head coach Jim Leonhard early in the week after the Badgers became bowl eligible on November 19. It is the 21st consecutive season Wisconsin has qualified for a bowl game.
Leonhard assumed the role on October 2 in place of Paul Chryst, who was surprisingly fired by McIntosh after an embarrassing 34-10 home loss to Illinois the day before, dropping the Badgers to 2-3 on the season without a victory against a Power-Five opponent.
Leonhard navigated the Badgers threw constant choppy waters in his two months, including dealing with the firing of Chryst (who had a .720 winning percentage five games into his eighth season) and the murder of former UW receiver Devin Chandler earlier this month in Virginia.
Having to work with a deeply flawed roster, however, the Badgers did not show consistent improvement and went just 4-3 under Leonhard, including an underwhelming 23-16 defeat to Minnesota Saturday that saw the defense get exposed for 319 yards by a redshirt freshman backup quarterback. The same issues that have been present all season offensively were again on display with missed throws and an interception by Graham Mertz and an embarrassing display on the game's final drive.
That apparently reopened interest in Fickell, who was one of three candidates the Badgers reportedly vetted in addition to Leonhard - joining Baylor head coach Dave Aranda (who was Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator from 2013-15) and Kansas head coach Lance Leipold (who was a UW graduate assistant from 1991-93).
Leonhard was seen as the safe hire, a three-time All-American who understood the Wisconsin culture as both a player and a coach. However, McIntosh - a former UW student-athlete himself - felt that an outside voice was needed to shake up a program that had steadily declined the previous three seasons.
Fickell, 49, a native of Columbus, Ohio, played for Ohio State from 1993-96 and coached there from 2002-16. He served as interim head coach in 2011 and saw the Buckeyes upset a Russell-Wilson-led Wisconsin team in Columbus.
"My family and I are thrilled to join the Wisconsin family," Fickell said in the same release. "This is a destination job at a program that I have admired from afar for years. 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. 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."
Finishing 6-7 that season, Ohio State hired Urban Meyer over Fickell, who agreed to stay on as co-defensive coordinator and was on the staff that won the 2014 national championship.
He took the head coaching job at Cincinnati in 2017, inheriting a program that went 4-8 and missed a bowl appearance for the first time since 2010. After going 4-8 his first season, the Bearcats went 11-2 in 2018, won a bowl game, and saw Fickell named the conference's coach of the year.
Cincinnati has gone 53-10 the last five seasons with three American Athletic Conference championships and became the only Group of Five schools to qualify for the College Football Playoffs. The Badgers have yet to appear in the four-team playoff in nine seasons.
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