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Luke Fickell Trades Success for Uncertainty

Photo Credit: Apyanac, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

“How come he don’t want me, man?” In one of the most memorable and moving moments in the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the typically cocky and self-assured Will Smith, playing a fictionalized version of himself, collapses in tears into his uncle’s arms after his father walks out on him once again. Now, someone’s dad leaving a child behind and a college football coach leaving a program for another job are hardly apples to apples - and yet, it’s a feeling that Cincinnati Bearcat fans have become far too accustomed to over the years.

Let me get something straight: I’m happy for Luke Fickell. He’s earned this opportunity. What he’s done at UC is nothing short of remarkable. He took a program teetering on obscurity and turned it into a viable contender. His legacy at UC is secure, and his future in college football is bright.

But cards on the table here: I did not see this one coming. Sure, there were some fleeting rumors about job openings here and there, but nothing that screamed “THIS IS THE ONE!” Besides, look at everything Fickell had accomplished since taking over as UC’s head coach in 2016:

  • Guided UC out of the nadir that was Tommy Tuberville’s disastrous tenure

  • Had three eleven-win seasons at UC when the program had only three eleven-win seasons in its entire history prior to Fickell’s arrival

  • Led UC to a perfect regular season in 2021, complete with a win over college football behemoth Notre Dame and a berth in the College Football Playoff, the first time a non-Power 5 conference team had accomplished the feat

  • Helped successfully navigate UC’s admission to the Big 12 Conference that will keep them nationally relevant for years to come

There’s two ways of looking at this: first, is that Fickell is bailing on Cincinnati right as things are about to get really, really good; second, is that Fickell has nothing left to accomplish at UC.

Let’s dig into the first idea. While Cincinnati is certainly not a traditional college football powerhouse, they’ve been in the mix for the last twenty years, at least. Ever since Mike Dantonio’s arrival in 2004, Cincinnati has slowly but surely advanced to become a top program among the lesser-heralded schools.

Now, with UC’s eventual move to the Big 12 and their staggering recent success on the field and in recruiting, it seemed like the future was brighter than ever. UC looked like it was on the rise. Instead, Fickell chose Wisconsin - and uncertainty.

At face value, it’s easy to understand why Fickell would take the Wisconsin job. The Big Ten is a more prestigious conference than the Big 12, especially with Big 12 powerhouses Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the SEC in 2025. Wisconsin is also a more prestigious program, with fourteen conference titles, 34 consensus All-Americans, and a long and storied tradition of football excellence. It’s a next-level jump, no doubt about it.

All things being equal, it stands to reason that Wisconsin will have more opportunities to reach the College Football Playoff than UC, even though the Bearcats reached the tournament last year, and the Badgers have yet to do so. But that’s a close call. Wisconsin could turn out to be an also-ran and UC could become the powerhouse. Wisconsin has been down recently, but this feels more like a temporary setback than a permanent state of affairs. Fickell is absolutely capable of turning that program around.

It’s hard, though, to imagine Fickell having more success at Wisconsin than he did at UC. Wisconsin will perpetually have to get through Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State just to win the Big Ten, let alone reach the College Football Playoff and defeat whichever mighty SEC champion inevitably awaits in the title game. With UC, the stakes are lower, sure, but that didn’t stop Fickell from turning a once-moribund program into one with lofty - yet attainable - expectations.

That’s what makes his departure so hard to come to terms with, especially for someone who roots for the Bearcats. In many ways, Cincinnati to Wisconsin appears to be a lateral move, at least in the short-term. If Fickell can continue to recruit and build a program in Wisconsin the same way he did in Cincinnati, then great, Wisconsin is in good hands. But for those Fickell left behind, it’s difficult to move past that familiar feeling of being left behind once again. Brian Kelly leaving UC for Notre Dame will always be the gold-standard for how not to leave a college football job, but Fickell’s departure cuts nearly as deep. How come he don’t want us, man?

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