Since Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst on Oct. 2, signs have pointed toward Jim Leonhard being elevated to the full-time job.
Now things have changed.
Wisconsin announced Sunday evening that it has hired Luke Fickell as its next head coach. Fickell has been the head coach at Cincinnati for the past six seasons, accumulating a 57-18 record during that span.
Eight of those 18 losses came during Fickell’s first season at UC. In the five seasons since, the Bearcats have gone a combined 53-10 with two undefeated regular seasons, two American Athletic Conference titles and, of course, a trip to the College Football Playoff in 2021. The Bearcats became the first Group of Five program to reach the playoff.
"I am incredibly excited to announce Luke Fickell as our new head football coach and to welcome his entire family to Madison," Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh said. "Luke is one of the top football coaches in the country. He is a proven winner, recruiter and developer of players."
Cincinnati closed out the 2022 regular season with a loss to Tulane on Saturday. A trip to the AAC title game was on the line, but the Bearcats lost 27-24 to finish 9-3.
A day later, Fickell is on the move to Madison.
"My family and I are thrilled to join the Wisconsin family," Fickell said. "This is a destination job at a program that I have admired from afar for years. I am in total alignment with Chris McIntosh's vision for this program. There is a tremendous foundation here that I can't wait to build upon."
Wisconsin went 4-3 under interim Jim Leonhard
Wisconsin closed out the regular season 6-6 with a 23-16 home loss to rival Minnesota on Saturday. The school fired Chryst after a 2-3 start and named Leonhard as the interim. Under Leonhard’s watch, the Badgers went 4-3 to get bowl eligible but closed out the year by losing at Iowa, eking out a one-point win over Nebraska and then losing at home to Minnesota.
Still, Leonhard was long been viewed as the favorite for the job. Leonhard is a Wisconsin native and a UW football alum who had a long NFL career. Leonhard began his coaching career at Wisconsin as defensive backs coach in 2016 and was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2017. He held onto that role until he was given the interim head coach tag following Chryst’s dismissal.
Leonhard has been regarded as one of the best coordinators in the country and a potential candidate for head-coaching jobs. He also once notably turned down the opportunity to be the defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers.
In the end, the school went in a different direction.
Luke Fickell brings talent development to Wisconsin
Fickell has a proven track record as a head coach, and Wisconsin — a program that aspires to win Big Ten championships — was able to lure him from his perch in Cincinnati. Fickell has significant Big Ten experience. Before going to Cincinnati, he was an assistant coach at Ohio State from 2002 to 2016 and had a stint as OSU's interim head coach back in 2011.
Fickell is known for his ability to identify, recruit and develop talent, as evidenced by last year’s NFL draft. There were nine Cincinnati players selected in the 2022 draft, third behind Georgia (15) and LSU (10). Included in that group was cornerback Sauce Gardner, who was selected No. 4 overall by the New York Jets.
At Wisconsin, Fickell inherits a program that has won at a high level but has regressed in recent seasons. Chryst went 67-26 at Wisconsin with three Big Ten West titles, but the Badgers began to dip in 2020. Over the past three seasons, Wisconsin is 19-13 overall with a 13-11 mark in Big Ten play. There were recruiting issues in the program and a lack of imagination on offense.
The Badgers tried to “modernize” their offense to an extent this season, but they still look like a relic with fullbacks and tight ends galore, and plenty of under-center runs. The lack of development for star quarterback recruit Graham Mertz has also been a major disappointment.
"Coach Fickell is focused on giving our student-athletes the best opportunities possible and is attuned to the changing landscape of college athletics," McIntosh said. "I have every confidence that he will respect and honor the foundation that has been set for our football program over the years while embracing the exciting opportunities ahead."
The Badgers have always done more with less, developing under-the-radar recruits into all-conference players and NFL draft picks. McIntosh is hoping Fickell can build off the program’s history of success and raise the Badgers’ play to a new level.
"This world-class university, athletic department and passionately loyal fan base all have a strong commitment to success and I can't wait to be a part of it," Fickell said.