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In a Week of Blockbuster Coaching Moves, Luke Fickell’s Commitment to Cincinnati Stands Out

This year the Bearcats coach immersed himself in the finest season in program history, bypassing a ride on the most lucrative coaching carousel in history.

In September, the USC coaching job opened. In October, it was LSU. On Nov. 21, Florida joined the mix. And then, in stunning late-November succession, here came vacancies at Oklahoma and Notre Dame.

Five elite college football coaching jobs have opened in one season. Four have since closed, or are closing. And Luke Fickell is still the coach at Cincinnati.

Talk about bucking the market trend.

In a business where coaches commonly lie about how happy and committed they are to their current school, Fickell really might mean it. In a sea of shifting loyalties, he’s the Rock of Gibraltar. He had opportunities with more than one of those blueblood programs that went coach shopping, and he didn’t even engage. (Oklahoma, the one elite job that hasn’t been filled or is on the verge of being filled, should be the last viable suitor — and may only come into play if the Bearcats are excluded from the College Football Playoff field.)

Given the moves of this past week, with coaches who seemed entrenched at Oklahoma and Notre Dame just up and vanishing, Fickell’s fidelity to striver Cincinnati stands out in stark relief. Maybe it wavers as early as Sunday, if his Bearcats don’t make the College Football Playoff and his monomaniacal focus on this special season wanes. Maybe it changes when the NFL hire-and-fire cycle commences a few weeks down the road, because he could be a desired commodity there as well.

But maybe Fickell’s commitment doesn’t change, at least not this year. Maybe the single biggest winner of the wildest coaching carousel college football has ever seen is Cincinnati, long accustomed to being Stairstep University for gifted coaches on their way to something bigger. Wouldn’t that be something?

Cincinnati football coach Luke Fickell with his Bearcats team.

Mark Dantonio went from Cincy to Michigan State. Butch Jones went from Cincy to Tennessee. And in between those two, Brian Kelly went from Cincy to Notre Dame. It was Kelly’s abrupt departure from South Bend on Monday that left Bearcats fans bracing for losing another highly successful coach—their best one yet, really.

Instead, that job is passing to a different branch on the Fickell Tree. Marcus Freeman was targeted as the next head coach of the Fighting Irish, a rising star at age 35. It is expected to be official this week, pending results of the school’s vetting process. If Notre Dame couldn’t get Fickell, it could get his protege and close friend.

Fickell was the Ohio State assistant who helped recruit Freeman to Columbus; was his position coach there; helped him enter the coaching profession as a graduate assistant who worked under him; and hired Freeman at Cincinnati as his defensive coordinator. They went 45–14 together in four seasons before Freeman moved on to be the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame this year.

In October 2019, Luke and Amy Fickell became godparents to Marcus and Joanna Freeman’s son, Rocco. Both the Fickells and Freemans have six kids. They are 13 years apart in age and now work in different places, but in many ways are joined at the hip.

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Their career paths now remain intertwined. More than a few people predicted that the Notre Dame vacancy would be the one to lure Fickell away from Cincy. More than the other blueblood vacancies, this one fit the devout Catholic and lifelong Midwesterner. That, in turn, would lead to Freeman replacing Fickell as the head coach at Cincinnati.

Instead, they both stay where they are. (Again, for now.) And you know who wins? College football as a whole. For two reasons.

First: A sport with a sketchy track record in hiring Black head coaches has a new one at one of its most storied addresses. Now we’ll see whether Freeman is given more time to prove himself than many other Black head coaches have gotten, including Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame earlier this century. It’s important to note that Freeman does not come into this job typecast as a “recruiter,” but also someone with deep scheme knowledge and player development skills. He is considered the total package.

Freeman is promoted with the enthusiastic endorsement of the current Notre Dame players, but also with continuity in the staff around him. The school is deftly cutting off Kelly’s coattails, stopping the flow of staff to Baton Rouge; instead, they’re staying with Freeman in South Bend. That includes highly regarded offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, strength coach Matt Balis and defensive line coach Mike Elston. The core outside Kelly is remaining intact, which should help solidify a tremendous 2022 recruiting class, and that will give Freeman a great chance to sustain Notre Dame’s success.

College football also wins with Fickell staying (for now) and further legitimizing a program that has arisen within a system designed to keep it down. Everyone loved Butler’s college basketball run under Brad Stevens, but there is less opportunity (or support) for such a thing in football. The Butler of the gridiron is an earn-it place, and its place among the elite has greater staying power the longer it can keep a great coach.

Fickell (for now) is the Chris Petersen of the Midwest, willing to ignore all the people telling him he should be somewhere bigger and better. Petersen worked five seasons as offensive coordinator at Boise State and then stayed eight more as head coach, building an improbable powerhouse on the blue turf.

The foundation had been laid by Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins before him, but Petersen took it to a new level before finally departing for Washington. Similarly, Fickell benefited from the program-building work by Dantonio, Kelly and Jones before taking it a notch higher. And like Petersen, staying for now isn’t the same as staying forever—if Ohio State opens, his bags figure to be packed in 15 minutes or less.

But unlike Boise, where the progress was roadblocked by conference affiliation and geography, Cincinnati has more sustainability. It sits on a football talent hotbed. Commitments are being made to add the final facilities pieces. And membership in the Big 12—part of The Power 5 Club—beckons in 2024. Imagine a program that has won 33 of its last 39 games getting better. There is a lot to like about being the coach of the Bearcats.

Fickell showed he was different last year, when he turned down Michigan State. (Which led to Mel Tucker taking the job and trying to hire none other than Marcus Freeman as his DC. He chose to stay with Fickell for one more season at Cincy, then again chose wisely by moving to Notre Dame instead of boarding the Ed Orgeron ghost ship at LSU.) This year, he’s immersed himself in the finest season in Cincinnati history, bypassing a ride on the most lucrative coaching carousel in history.

Luke Fickell listens to his own career advice. It has served him well so far. And it has made Cincinnati the biggest winner of the hiring cycle, the part of the sport where it historically loses.

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