Gophers’ Big Ten West rivals get an extreme coaching makeover

One week from their Aug. 31 season opener, the Gophers are part of a Big Ten West Division in transition.

Their first opponent, Nebraska, hasn't had a winning season or earned a bowl berth since 2016. The Cornhuskers haven't won more than three Big Ten games in any season during that same span. Therefore, Matt Rhule knows exactly why he's in Lincoln.

"There was a time when Nebraska football was feared," the first-year Huskers coach said, "and we certainly want to get back to that."

Roughly 481 miles to the northeast, Luke Fickell can relate. The first-year Wisconsin coach is tasked to return the Badgers to the dominance that saw them win the West four times from 2014-19. Last year in that division, they finished fifth.

"We have one objective and that's to play for a championship," Fickell said. "I don't think that will ever change, whether it's Year One, Year Two, Three, Four or Five."

Rhule and Fickell are the two headliners of the changing of the coaching guard in the Big Ten West. Four of the seven teams have new head coaches for 2023. Former Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters took over at defending West champ Purdue when Jeff Brohm left for alma mater Louisville. Northwestern promoted defensive coordinator David Braun to interim head coach in the wake of Pat Fitzgerald's firing.

The moves by Nebraska and Wisconsin were made, at least in part, in reaction to teams such as the Gophers either passing or catching them in the West's recent pecking order. The Huskers are 5-7 against Minnesota since joining the Big Ten and have lost five of six games, including four in a row, against the Gophers with P.J. Fleck as coach. The Badgers beat the Gophers in Fleck's debut season in 2017 to extend their winning streak over their border rival to 14 games. Since then, the Gophers have won three of five, including the past two.

Will all the changes, especially at Nebraska and Wisconsin, lead to immediate turnarounds? That will play out beginning with the Gophers-Nebraska game and Wisconsin's lid-lifter two days later against Buffalo. But the bold moves by Huskers athletic director Trev Alberts and his Badgers counterpart Chris McIntosh turned heads in the college football world.

Rebuilding with a nod to the past

Rhule, a former Penn State walk-on linebacker and volunteer assistant, worked his way through seven coaching stops before becoming head coach at Temple, where he improved from 2-10 in his debut season in 2013 to posting 10-win campaigns in his third and fourth years. That led to his job at Baylor, where he rebuilt the scandal-ridden Bears from 1-11 to 11-3 in three years. While Rhule was fired by the Carolina Panthers after going 11-27 in two-plus seasons as head coach, his college football chops aren't questioned.

Rhule, coaching where names such as Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne are legend, is drawing upon Nebraska's past to improve its future.

"I want people to respect when they see that white helmet with that red 'N' on it," he said. "I want our fans to respect us when they pay their money to come to watch us play. And I want our opponents to respect us. … This season for me is all about us, not just earning, but taking back respect and bringing back respect to Nebraska football."

Rhule has stressed attention to detail and accountability as the Huskers try to emerge from the mistake-ridden Scott Frost era. And the new coach knows he has Nebraska history on which to lean.

"I'd be a fool if I didn't ask Coach Osborne what the blueprint is," Rhule said. "He doesn't talk about plays; he talks about the way they practice, first and foremost."

Madison makeover

Fickell, who led Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff in 2021, inherits a program with a successful history, starting with Barry Alvarez leading the Badgers to three Rose Bowl wins and continuing with Bret Bielema's teams making two appearances in Pasadena.

"It felt like something that would be really, really in my wheelhouse," said Fickell, a former Ohio State player, assistant coach and interim head coach. "That's why I said it's exceeded my expectations in just the way I believe I fit, and we fit, and the things we've been able to do."

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The Badgers have been a run-first, bludgeon-the-opponent-to-death team since early in the Alvarez days through Paul Chryst's seven-plus-year run. Fickell, however, has revamped the offense, turning the reins over to pass-focused coordinator Phil Longo and quarterback Tanner Mordecai, a transfer from SMU, throwing to wide receiver C.J. Williams, a transfer from USC.

"Yes, it's going to look different — whether it's two tight ends, three tight ends, two backs in there — than maybe the tradition of what Wisconsin has been and been really successful with," Fickell said.

Though these won't necessarily resemble your father's Badgers, Fickell said he believes the success that the program's fan base demands can happen quickly.

"Success looks like when you play your best ball at the end of the year," he said. "When you play your best ball at the end of the year, you have an opportunity, and we will have an opportunity, to play for a championship."