Processing Luke Fickell As The New Wisconsin Head Football Coach
By: Owen Riese
Well, Luke Fickell, not Jim Leonhard, is the new Head Coach of the University of Wisconsin football team.
Okay. Let’s have discourse. I’m essentially going to use this as an inner-monologue written out, and discuss things as they come up as a way to try to parse out all of the things that went into this pretty ground-breaking decision by Chris McIntosh, Wisconsin’s Athletic Director.
A lot of you guys know this about me, but I try to be as rational most of the time as I can be. I attempt to remove any fanaticism (thank you, Jake Kocorowski) from my analysis, and as a college football coach, I feel as though I have a different appreciation for the topic than most, so I’m not here to celebrate the hiring or firing of anyone.
Discussing the Decision
So, let’s start with the big one. Jim Leonhard didn’t get the job.
A day after the Badgers let a 4th quarter lead slip away and allowed the Fighting P.J. Flecks to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 3rd time in 4 years, what was widely expected to be Jim Leonhard named as the new head coach, wasn’t, as Luke Fickell was announced. There are 300 articles citing Fickell’s background, so I won’t here in this piece, but as it took a second to sink in, there are a few things to consider:
First, Luke Fickell, head-to-head against Jim Leonhard, objectively has a lot more merit to be named the head coach. He has a proven track record at Cincinnati, including taking a team full of 3* recruits to the CFP last season. He built the program, along with a talented staff that’s already lost Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame prior to last season, and a sustainable power in the Group of 5.
Then, there came the actual hire itself, or moreso not hiring Leonhard. The Badger fan base is nothing if not extremely prideful of the heritage and history of the program. Obviously, Leonhard is one of the best players to ever play for the program, and it was a point of pride for the program, University, and fan base that one of their home state boys and the poster boy of everything the program stands for had come back home after a successful professional career and was coordinating one ofo the top defenses in the country year after year.
So the initial shock and sentiment, was to me at least, a bit of a “this feels like a kick in the groin to Leonhard”. However, this will be a fascinating experiment in the Badgers’ fan base’s ability to self-assess and critically evaluate their feelings on the matter. As I mentioned, Wisconsin fans are very proud of the identity the program has taken, however over the past couple of season as the football team has accomplished some impressive feats, but seemingly reached their ceiling as a team that CAN be very good, but can’t win the big game against the more talented teams in the critical moments. Fans have voiced their displeasure with the conservative nature of Paul Chryst, and the seemingly limited ceiling in recruiting, the lack of an ability to develop quarterbacks to their liking, the lack of development at the receiver position, among other things. While we don’t know what Jim Leonhard would have done with his offensive staff, taking a step back, it is very fair to question why another in-house option, something that was a nail in the coffin of Chryst, would be allowed for Leonhard.
While I understand most of the angst with the decision not being the home-grown boy, there is some legitimacy to questioning why, when it’s been hinted at during low times that maybe an outside option should be considered, that this wouldn’t be the appropriate action.
So What Is Being Asked of Fickell?
While this is likely very wishful thinking, my immediate thoughts went to: “Well, is there any chance they’re able to hold onto Leonhard?”
We don’t know how that will turn out yet, but obviously, Leonhard is as good of a defensive coach as there is in the country, and Fickell’s history is as a defensive coordinator. While admittedly there would likely be some awkward conversations to be had - it’s theoretically not out of the realm of possibilities for Leonhard to be asked to stay as the DC. After all, Fickell was the interim head coach at Ohio State in 2011, and decided to come back under Urban Meyer as the DC until he left for the Cincinnati job after a few more years in Columbus.
However, this is where we’ll see how the direction of the program is altered, as it’ll be interesting to see what role they’re bringing Fickell in to be. Are they bringing him in to be the CEO and Program “Builder”, really constructing the vision of the new Wisconsin Badgers, and being more of a game supervisor, allowing the coordinators to run their respective units? Or, will Fickell be asked to come in and use his background as a successful defensive coach, and essentially act as the defensive coordinator as well as the head coach?
We saw at times how Paul Chryst was seemingly half-assing multiple tasks while being the Head Coach and play caller, even if not the “offensive coordinator”, and you’d think that’s something that Fickell would be avoided the potential hardship of, but we shall see.
While realistically, none of this will matter in the slightest if they win, the fact of the matter is, as we’ve mentioned earlier, some of the fan base and even some former players feel as though this is a slight towards Leonhard and deviance from the Wisconsin tradition and way.
Burning bridges— BCal (@brian_calhoun2) November 27, 2022
after Fickell was announced as the new head cheese. Troy Fumagalli tweeted that “Losing Jim Leonard will go down as one of the biggest losses in Wisconsin football history. His knowledge/feel for the game along with being able to relate to players was the best I’ve ever seen.”
Even former tight end Owen Daniels, and friend of B5Q and former college roommate and teammate of Leonhard, Joel Nellis, voiced their displeasure with the decision and some sour feelings towards the program at the moment.
Now, this is the stuff that we as a public aren’t privy to - if the inference was, after Leonhard was named interim, that the job was his to lose and that anything short of a massive failure would ensure he was named the head coach full time, then I would agree, that’s a poor look for the Athletic Department and football program. However, we don’t know that.
It’s entirely possible, that McIntosh was going to stick with Leonhard, but the same type of meltdown and embarrassing loss that led to the dismissal of Chryst happened on Saturday, in the Badger's most important game of the year, and that was the final straw, as the Badgers turned a 1st and Goal from the 5 with 30 seconds left, to a 4th and Goal from the 27.
This situation was less than ideal to truly evaluate Leonhard as a head coach, with an erratic at best offense, struggling to keep up with above-average defense. A first-time play caller and offensive coordinator to pair with Leonhard in his first meaningful time as a game manager, as well as a defensive play caller, was hardly an advantageous situation for the former Badgers’ safety.
The reality of the situation, until it comes to light publicly, is the question as to whether Paul Chryst was dismissed mid-season in order to give Leonhard a legitimate audition to take over as the head coach - OR if he was simply the right guy to finish out a failed season, and that falsely aligned with the wishes of a fanbase who was looking to root for their hometown boy to lead the program like the theoretical prophecy would have foretold?
Coaching Isn’t Always Linear
This isn’t necessarily a shot at Jim Leonhard, because I would argue he hasn’t been given a real opportunity to show whether or not he can really do these things or not.
But the normal football fan’s thought is that: “This coach is a really good coordinator, his next step is to be a head coach,”. And while this is often the case, it’s not necessarily. We’ve seen it with Rex Ryan, and Nathaniel Hackett, to name a couple off of the top of my head. They’re both excellent coordinators, but the skill set of being an elite coordinator, and the skill set of being a successful head coach aren’t always one in the same.
Again, this is not a slight at Leonhard, but the assumption that he deserved the head coaching opportunity because he’s an elite defensive coordinator, is flawed logic, in my opinion.
Was This The Right Move?
Ultimately, we won’t know this for a while. Clearly, there are those deeply involved and passionate about the University of Wisconsin who feels as though this is the wrong decision.
It may be. It might not be.
But I am willing to give Athletic Director Chris McIntosh credit for taking a big leap of faith and clearly making a difficult and unpopular decision. For a football program that has lived in the “top 15 football team perennially who can beat any team in the country on any given weekend but just can’t quite consistently get over the hump”, this might be the necessary decision.
Not one person in the country would have second-guessed the decision to name Leonhard as the head coach. However, the Wisconsin program has gotten to where it is by trusting who they are, for the most part, promoting internally and building from within. And realistically, if as an athletic department, you were fine with being in that B-tier of football programs, nationally respected who just lacked that little bit of juice or dynamism, then Leonhard would have been the hire 3 weeks ago.
However, for a fan base who has voiced their frustrations with an athletic department seemingly unwilling to shell out money for high paid assistants, and an overall lack of public declaration of a willingness to do whatever it takes to get Wisconsin into the upper echelon of college football programs, this is McIntosh putting his money where his mouth is.
They’re forking over money for a coach who was widely seen as the “next” head coach at a legitimate program when the opportunity presented itself. It’s not the Wisconsin way. It’s not traditional. It’s rubbing some people the wrong way. It is a splash hire.
Ultimately, we’ll be able to say in 4-5 years if this was truly the correct decision or not, but the willingness to do something different, and potentially take the next jump, as opposed to doing the expected or comfortable, could provide huge dividends for Wisconsin.
The Sky Isn’t Falling
This is the reality now. All feelings and sentiments aside - Wisconsin has a legitimate and proven head coach at the helm. Luke Fickell is widely respected and considered as one of the best head coaches in all of college football. He has a track record of winning and winning a lot, everywhere he’s been. He has had success winning in the midwest, at multiple different difficulty levels.
We don’t know who he’ll bring in as an offensive staff. We don’t know exactly what the team will look like.
What we do know, is a guy who has won at every stop he’s been at in his career, is now in charge of a program that hasn’t had a losing season in 21 years. Fickell has shown success in recruiting (Cincinnati was currently 27th in the 247 rankings for 2023 at the time of the hire), and will have a plan, and seemingly all of the administrative support he could ask for or need that the school can realistically provide for him.
We don’t know. We’ll see. But ultimately this actually impacts about 1% of the people who are reading this. College football is a big, dumb, beautiful, stupid sport and I don’t love anything in this world more.
Remove yourself from the moment. None of this matters. Nothing matters. Eat at Arby’s. On Wisconsin.