The Wisconsin Badgers and its fans are in somewhat uncharted waters. For the first time since 2014 — a lifetime ago in today’s whirlwind college football coaching cycle — the football program is led by a new full-time head coach: former Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell.
The hiring was a bit of a shock to Wisconsin fans, many of whom may have expected the job to remain in the hands of interim coach and Badger legend Jim Leonhard. However, Wisconsin fans should be pleasantly surprised and intrigued by this hire.
Simply put, the football program seemed to be in need of a pretty drastic shakeup. After all, the team is coming off its worst full season since 2001. Wisconsin was unable to compete for a Big Ten West Division title despite the winner being 8-4 Purdue, a team the Badgers dominated in October.
Back-to-back seasons full of disappointing losses to rivals like Minnesota, Michigan and Penn State forced Wisconsin and Athletic Director Chris McIntosh to look in the mirror. A 6-6 record is not acceptable for a program with as proud a heritage as Wisconsin, and barely extending their now 21-year bowl streak was not enough to look past the many issues surrounding the team.
This tumultuous moment in Wisconsin football’s history required a bold, outside-the-box hiring, and McIntosh and co. hit a home run with the hiring of Fickell. The AD issued a congratulatory statement shortly after the hiring.
“Luke is one of the top football coaches in the country,” the statement read. “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.”
Fickell has a long history of success and strong ties to the Big Ten dating back to his many years with Ohio State. The 49-year-old began as a nose guard for the Buckeyes, and even set a school record by making 50 consecutive starts.
Fickell got his coaching experience as a defensive line coach with Akron, but also by spending a staggering 15 years coaching for his alma mater. Fickell served in a variety of roles at OSU, mostly as the co-defensive coordinator. He was also tapped to be Ohio State’s interim coach in 2011, a year they only finished 6-7. While a losing record at Ohio State is rare, it’s more justifiable when considering the present disasters. There were a flurry of suspensions and transfers as a result of a scandal that saw head coach Jim Tressel resign in May of 2011.
Overall, Fickell was constantly surrounded by a winning culture during his many years in Columbus. As a player and coach, he won nine Big Ten championships, two national championships and participated in 15 postseason games. When Fickell was last a defensive coordinator, he led the Buckeyes to the ninth best total defense in the nation in 2016, which was the best in the Big Ten other than the team he now coaches.
From 2012-16, Fickell was a part of Ohio State teams that finished with an absurd 61-5 record, including a national championship victory in 2014. From his tenure at OSU alone, it’s clear that Fickell was ingrained in a winning culture.
The most encouraging reality, however, is that he constructed his own winning culture when he took the reins at Cincinnati in 2016. The Bearcats were reeling, coming off of a 4-8 record in a year ending with the resignation of head coach Tommy Tuberville.
In just a couple of seasons, Fickell took Cincy from the doldrums to one of the top programs in the country. His Cincinnati squads consistently posted strong records, starting with back-to-back 11 win seasons in 2018 and 2019. He then led the Bearcats to a 9-0 regular season mark in 2020, punctuated by an American Athletic Conference title and an appearance in the Peach Bowl. Though they narrowly lost to the Georgia Bulldogs, the mere inclusion in a New Year’s Six bowl game represented a bright trajectory for Cincinnati.
They followed 2020 with a magical, storybook 2021 season, which saw UC go 13-0, repeat as conference champions and earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. This marked the first time a school from outside college football’s Power Five conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12) made an appearance in college football’s premier tournament. Of all of Fickell’s numerous accomplishments, this is by far his most impressive. Fickell guided the Bearcats to an undefeated season, including a road win against #9 Notre Dame in South Bend. While their season ended with a 27-6 loss to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, Fickell had led Cincinnati to a historic and improbable milestone.
Cincinnati wasn’t as impressive this season, finishing 9-3, but part of that can be explained by another success of Fickell’s — NFL Draft picks. Nine Cincinnati players were drafted in 2022, which was a school record, and overall 16 players were drafted during Fickell’s time at Cincinnati. Those numbers, particularly the 2022 total, are especially impressive considering Cincinnati was not a member of college football’s biggest conferences and wasn’t often raking in high-level recruiting classes.
All in all, Fickell’s time in charge of the Bearcats was a smashing success. Discounting his first season in charge when Cincinnati went 4-8, UC would go 53-10 in his last five years at the helm. That record is even more monumental considering five of those losses came against college football powerhouses like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, as well as American Athletic Conference stalwarts UCF and Memphis.
Fickell racked up all the accolades at Cincy, including the AAC Coach of the Year award three times and numerous national coach of the year awards after his stellar season in 2021.
It is clear that the new head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers comes from years of successful cultures, taking part in championship games almost annually. Fickell not only experienced a strong culture at Ohio State, but more importantly built his own at Cincinnati. He will certainly have his work cut out for him in an expanding Big Ten that is set to add USC and UCLA soon. However, in order to keep up in their conference, Wisconsin needed to go outside of its program and hire a coach with a new and bold vision. If Fickell’s body of work tells us anything, Wisconsin fans should have high expectations for the future.