Alex Hickey: Luke Fickell hire a shocking reminder of Wisconsin's -- and the B1G's -- strength
Prior to this season, every football coach Wisconsin has hired since 1990 left his post on his own terms.
Barry Alvarez moved up to athletic director. Bret Bielema left for Arkansas, and Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State. Wisconsin is not a place where coaches are forced out.
And now it’s technically happened twice in 2 months.
After firing Paul Chryst midseason to give defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard a dress rehearsal for the head coaching position, Wisconsin decided to take a pass on Leonhard as well.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell will be the new head man in Madison.
On the surface, it’s as shocking as finding a vegan in Wisconsin.
Leonhard is Wisconsin’s golden boy: a former Badgers walk-on who became a 3-time All-American safety and spent 10 seasons in the NFL. Wisconsin’s best player, running back Braelon Allen, was among many loudly advocating for Leonhard to be promoted from interim to full-time head coach.
If Allen is to be taken at his word, his entering the transfer portal is fait accompli.
It’s surprising from Fickell’s end, too. He accomplished Herculean feats in the Queen City. The Bearcats were the first Group of 5 team to reach the College Football Playoff, and Fickell made the brand so strong that Cincinnati is joining the Big 12 next year.
You’d figure he’d at least stick around for that victory lap.
But when you pull back the lens, the shock wears off a bit.
Fickell’s interest in Wisconsin is a reminder of both the Badgers’ brand power and the Big Ten’s increasing financial muscle.
Why we shouldn’t be shocked
Wisconsin’s willingness to alienate Leonhard, one of the program’s favorite sons, is telling. It’s not the kind of thing you do unless you know you’re going to hit it out of the park.
Fickell does that for the program. Hiring him is a no-brainer, even at the cost of losing Leonhard forever.
But it also tells us how appealing the Wisconsin job is to Luke Fickell. He may have been pushing for this job even harder than the Badgers were pushing for him.
Fickell is the rare coach with the luxury of picking exactly where he wanted to land. He could have stayed at Cincinnati as long as he wanted. Or he could have taken any big paycheck sent to his bank account.
This was about finding the perfect fit, and Wisconsin is it.
A fixer-upper project like Nebraska clearly didn’t appeal to Fickell. He recognizes that the Badgers are in a position where sustained success shouldn’t be difficult to achieve because he doesn’t have to start from scratch.
Consistency in the passing game is pretty much the only thing keeping the Badgers from being the dominant program in the Big Ten West. This project requires a few tweaks; not a wrecking ball.
Wisconsin boldly moving into a new B1G era
Wisconsin’s aggressiveness to land Fickell represents a new era for the Badgers.
It’s been exactly a decade — December 2012 — since Bielema left the program for Arkansas because Wisconsin wasn’t willing to pay its assistant coaches more. Andersen lasted just 2 seasons before downgrading to Oregon State because he felt Wisconsin’s admissions standards were too difficult.
That’s what the perception of this program was among coaches.
Too cheap. Too many roadblocks to compete with Ohio State for a conference title. If you were going to be happy coaching at Wisconsin, you probably had to be a Badger in the first place — like Chryst and Leonhard.
Fickell breaks that mold.
So why is Wisconsin suddenly appealing to an outsider?
It’s probably the same reason every Big Ten coaching job is about to become more appealing to outsiders.
Beginning in 2024, every Big Ten school will make $75 million each from the league’s new media rights deal. Annually. And that’s on top of whatever revenues they’ll be making from everything else.
The days of coaches like Bielema and Andersen bolting the B1G for other conferences of their own volition are over. The money is big enough for the B1G to become college football’s premier coaching destination.
Even though he was going to become a Power 5 coach by merit of Cincinnati’s move to the Big 12, Fickell surely recognizes that reality.
And with Wisconsin, he isn’t taking just any old Big Ten job.
Since the league initially expanded to 12 teams in 2011, Ohio State is the only program with more wins than the Badgers. Wisconsin hasn’t missed a bowl game since 2001.
Wisconsin’s stability makes this is the best position available in the Big Ten behind Michigan and Ohio State.
Fickell won’t be the last high-profile coach to join the B1G in the next few years. With Nebraska hiring Matt Rhule, it’s clear you can expect splashes to be the norm.
But it’s unlikely any of those hires will be better positioned for both immediate and sustained success than Fickell, who found precisely what he was looking for.