Luke Fickell won more games at the University of Cincinnati than any other head football coach in the program's 135-season history.
Now, Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham must find someone to replace him.
Fickell, who flirted with Michigan State in 2020, and whose name was linked to vacancies at USC, LSU, Notre Dame, and even Oklahoma last season, informed Cunningham Sunday morning and the Cincinnati players Sunday afternoon that he was leaving to take the vacancy at Wisconsin. The Badgers announced the hire about 15 minutes before Cunningham took the podium Sunday night.
"I want to thank Coach Fickell," Cunningham said. "I want to thank Amy (Fickell's wife). I want to thank his whole entire family. I think I speak for all Bearcats when I say that we wish him nothing but the best. What he has done for this program in his time here has been remarkable. It has set us up to be extremely strong going forward in all aspects of our program. And obviously, with the Big 12 right around the corner, this is a very desirable job with a lot of things going for us. A lot of that has to do with his leadership and his guidance."
With Cincinnati scheduled to leave the American Athletic Conference and join the Big 12 Conference on July 1, 2023, Cunningham knows he needs a home-run hire that will help lead the Bearcats into a new era.
Cunningham said he and a search committee are "going to move fast" as they conduct a "nationwide search" that will include both external and internal candidates.
"We're going to need somebody that can recruit at a really high level," Cunningham said. "We're going to need somebody that understands the NIL (name, image and likeness) space and fully grasp that. That's going to be really, really important. We're going to need somebody that can build a tremendous staff and somebody that understands the level of play and the dynamic offenses and defenses that you're going to see in the Big 12."
Here is our list of top candidates to replace Fickell, the three-time AAC Coach of the Year and the 2021 consensus National Coach of the Year:
Kerry Coombs, Cincinnati cornerbacks coach/special teams coordinator
Coombs will wear the interim tag while Cunningham searches for Fickell's replacement. But the 61-year-old Coombs could be the answer for the Bearcats. The former Ohio State defensive coordinator and Tennessee Titans assistant is more than familiar with the Cincinnati program and has a firm grasp on the recruiting trail in and around Cincinnati, having been a successful head coach at his alma mater, Colerain High School. If Cunningham wants to stay close to home, there's no one closer than Coombs.
Mike Tressel, Cincinnati defensive coordinator
Tressel would be another familiar option for Cunningham. Tressel, who Fickell handpicked from Michigan State to replace Marcus Freeman when Freeman moved on to Notre Dame after the 2020 season, knows the Midwestern recruiting trails well. He also has seen the transformation of the Cincinnati program firsthand, having been a Bearcats assistant from 2004-06 under then-head coach Mark Dantonio.
Jesse Minter, Michigan defensive coordinator
Minter is one of the hottest names in college football. He inherited a Michigan defense that led the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff last season and restored it to a unit that will likely lead Michigan to a second straight playoff berth this year. The 39-year-old also knows the area and the program well. He's the son of former Cincinnati head coach Rick Minter (1994-2003), who was the winningest coach in the history of the Bearcats program before Fickell supplanted him this season.
Deion Sanders, Jackson State head coach
While Sanders, 55, would be a far-from-home hire for Cunningham, it would be a home-run shot for the program's recruiting efforts. Recent reports have the Pro Football Hall of Famer and current Jackson State head coach linked to the Colorado vacancy, but Cunningham could try to lure Sanders to the Queen City, where he played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1990s and 2000s, with the promise of updated facilities and an influx in resources with the upcoming Big 12 move.
Kevin Wilson, Ohio State offensive coordinator
Former Cincinnati athletic director MIke Bohn, who's now at USC, plucked Fickell from Ohio State following the 2016 season. Cunningham could also dip into Columbus by bringing in Wilson. The 61-year-old coach spent several years across the way as an assistant at Miami University before working his way up the ladder.
Urban Meyer, former Ohio State and Jacksonville Jaguars head coach
This one might be a stretch, but it could be worth it for Cunningham. Meyer's son, Nate, played for Fickell at Cincinnati, while Meyer's sister is a vice provost at the university. Meyer’s on-field resume is about as good as it gets, with three national championships under his belt at Ohio State and Florida. But the 58-year-old's off-the-field resume leaves a lot to be desired, to say the least. Meyer might be a non-starter for many university administrators, but If Cunningham and Cincinnati President Neville G. Pinto want a coach who wins and has ties to the Bearcats, Meyer is that.
“There isn’t a better leader than John Cunningham to direct the search for our next head football coach," Pinto said. "I have full confidence that John will find the right fit to continue our winning culture on and off the field and capitalize on the upward momentum of our institution. The University of Cincinnati and this community have all the ingredients needed for success, and I’m confident we’ll find a candidate who can make Cincinnati proud.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Who might replace Luke Fickell as Cincinnati football head coach?