Different level: Can Luke Fickell help Cincinnati reach the Power Five?

·7 min read

In the spring of 2017, during his first season as Cincinnati’s head coach, Luke Fickell showed up uninvited to an Iowa State satellite camp in Cincinnati. To get into the camp at a local Division III school, Fickell brought his son, Landon, a lanky rising freshman who didn’t exactly cut the figure of a future Big 12 recruit. He paid the $25 camp fee to the staff at Mount St. Joseph and stood on the sideline to make a statement.

To be sure his message got heard at the Iowa State recruiting camp, Fickell invited four former Bearcat offensive linemen to stand with him. Fickell could only attend the camp through the loophole of attending with his son. Since his staff couldn’t come, Fickell courted four oversized recent graduate linemen to show up wearing the loudest Bearcat gear. “I didn’t get a whole lot of conversation,” Fickell said with a laugh about his interaction with the Iowa State staff that day.

Without saying much, Fickell put forth a message that’s come to sum up his tenure — any program recruiting the Cincinnati area will not pull talent from there unimpeded. (Iowa State had four players from the Cincinnati area on its roster back then, including Chicago Bears tailback David Montgomery.)

“That showed that we’re not going to let anyone come into the city of Cincinnati, no matter who it is, and let them take players without a fight,” Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman told Yahoo Sports.

Four years later, Fickell has turned Cincinnati into the Group of Five team that enters this 2020 season with the highest ceiling. And he’s done it by protecting his city’s home turf, doubling down on his relationships in the state and developing solid prospects into great players.

Cincinnati has gone 22-5 the past two seasons and finished both years in the Top 25. That stretch has included a pair of wins over UCLA, an upset of UCF and bowl wins over Virginia Tech and Boston College. Along the way, his no-nonsense style has endeared him to high school coaches.

“Luke is wired like we are,” said Mike Daniels, the coach at Princeton High School in Cincinnati. “He bleeds Ohio football. He’s tough. We see Luke as one of us. He’s not afraid to get in there and get his hands dirty.”

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell takes the field with his players before a game against Connecticut. (AP file photo)
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell takes the field with his players before a game against Connecticut. (AP file photo)

Fickell’s success at Cincinnati has established him as the Group of Five coach best positioned to be courted for an elite job. It’s a perch that was held by Mike Norvell (Memphis to Florida State) last season and previously by coaches like Scott Frost (UCF to Nebraska), Tom Herman (Houston to Texas) and Brian Kelly (Cincinnati to Notre Dame).

Anyone who thinks Fickell will just be jumping jobs for a raise and higher profile doesn’t know him all that well. He turned down the Michigan State job last year and signed a new deal this offseason that makes him the second-highest paid Group of Five coach at $3.4 million behind Houston’s Dana Holgorsen ($3.8M). (Fickell’s buyout to leave starts at $4 million.)

Understanding what could keep Fickell in town for the next few years involves understanding what makes Fickell tick. He spent 11 years as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator and one year as interim head coach, where he developed a reputation for turning down job interviews.

He’s never lived outside the state of Ohio, save for a cup of coffee with the Saints as a player. Hiring Fickell would mean he and his wife, Amy, relocating their six kids, who range in age from high school senior to twin kindergartners.

“Just because there’s a job open somewhere, doesn’t make it best for you or your family,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel, Fickell’s best friend, told Yahoo last year.

The family ties now go deeper. Landon Fickell, a senior at Archbishop Moeller, has evolved from the string bean that allowed his dad to ambush that Iowa State satellite camp into a 6-foot-5, 275-pound Bearcat offensive line commitment for the 2021 class.

He committed to Cincinnati in April, something he had to do twice because Luke Fickell didn’t think he was enthusiastic enough the first time, when Landon Fickell initially told his dad, “I think I want to be a Bearcat.”

“I can’t believe [he] said that,” Luke Fickell recalls, laughing. “If you’re not convicted about coming, I don’t want you. ‘You think you want?’ I ripped him.” Fickell pauses and adds: “That was a rough week in our house.”

Landon came back a week later with adequate conviction. And Luke Fickell’s conviction in coaching his son is rooted in the program’s culture.

“I really wanted him here,” Fickell said of his son, who had interest from schools like Pitt, Louisville and Boston College. “And it’s not because I want my son to be around me. The group of kids, especially in that [offensive line] room and with Coach [Ron] Crook and how close they are. I wanted him to have the same experience I had in college, having the best friends he’s going to have the rest of his life. We have those kinds of kids.”

Can Cincinnati continue to build on that foundation? Fickell doesn’t hesitate to say this is his best team on paper since arriving. After losing to Memphis in the AAC title game last season, Cincinnati was picked second in the league. The team has third-year starter Desmond Ridder at quarterback and elite safety James Wiggins, who projects as a strong NFL prospect, and returns the entire two-deep from a mauling defensive line.

Fickell’s vision for UC looms larger than league titles and top-25 finishes. When the school hired Tommy Tuberville in 2012, it did so with the idea that the former coach at Auburn and Texas Tech could position the school for a bid in a power conference. He proved a better politician than a coach, and fittingly is now a heavy favorite to win a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama.

Part of Tuberville’s failings at Cincinnati stemmed from alienating local high school coaches. Daniels recalls him taking a player from Princeton High School without “stepping foot in the school,” which is 12 miles away from campus. “That’s not good business,” Daniels said.

Fickell resisted quick fixes upon arrival by building strong roots locally. And his long-term vision included pushing Cincinnati back to the top of the list of Group of Five schools that could get pulled up to a power league in the next round of realignment.

“Some people build to win right away and have an opportunity to leave right away,” Fickell said. “We want to try and build this thing and create a program that can sustain over time and give us an opportunity to take this to a different place and a different level.”

Athletic director John Cunningham has the same vision. He graduated from TCU in 2001 and worked in the athletic department as Gary Patterson and former athletic director Chris Del Conte prepared that program for its jump to the Big 12.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Cunningham said. “Continue to build with Luke and work with him and our donors and move our program forward.”

No one can project when a Power Five league could call. But it’s impossible not to notice the progress Fickell has made at Cincinnati through four seasons.

Need more proof? Just check out Iowa State’s roster. There’s not a single contributor from Cincinnati, as satellite camps have disappeared and staying home has come en vogue.

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