In 2006, after three seasons as Cincinnati Head Coach, Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State.
In 2009, after three seasons as Cincinnati Head Coach, Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame.
In 2012, after three seasons as Cincinnati Head Coach, Butch Jones left for Tennessee.
Here we are again. The year is 2019 and Luke Fickell is entering his third season as Head Coach of the University of Cincinnati. Based on the pattern above, would that mean it’s his last? Cincinnati fans have had this conversation before. And every time, fans find a reason to defend the coach and why he would stay. And every time, fans have been left disappointed and angry.
Fickell will definitely have offers if Cincinnati has another successful season. He is 15-10 after 2 years. For context, Butch Jones was 14-11 after his first two seasons and got the Tennessee job at the end of his third season (Cincinnati went 9-3 in regular season).
But compared to the previous three coaches, this time feels different (he says again). Luke Fickell is not like the rest of them (he’s said this before). There’s no way Fickell would leave us high and dry (denial is step 1). There’s at least 4 reasons he won’t leave (there’s been legit reasons every time).
1. Family man with local ties
Let’s start with the obvious. Luke and his wife have 6 children. Two years ago, they moved from Columbus to Cincinnati when Fickell left Ohio State for UC’s job. Moving or commuting two hours is one thing. But making a larger move out of state with that type of family is difficult for anyone. He was born and raised in Columbus. Went to DeSales High School and played football for the Buckeyes. Other than the 2000-2001 seasons where he coached Defensive Line at Akron, Fickell was part of the Ohio State coaching staff from 2002-2016, before accepting the Cincinnati job. Ohio is the only thing he knows.
I know money talks, but when you have a family with six kids and no connections out of state, money isn’t necessarily everything and won’t guarantee happiness.
2. No convenient jobs in 2019
You can be as mad as you want about the coaches that previously left Cincinnati, but there’s no denying that Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Tennessee are all special and a clear notch above Cincinnati. Will a job like that open up in 2019? Not likely.
The two biggest jobs that may come open are Auburn and USC. Others like Rutgers, Illinois, Boston College, Ole Miss, and maybe Virginia Tech or Florida State. USC and Auburn may have bigger fish in mind, and fish with ties to the SEC or the west coast, neither of which Fickell has. Those other jobs? FIckell reportedly turned down Louisville and West Virginia opportunities last year and those two jobs feel on par with the rest of the potential 2019 openings.
3. Special jobs may not be special to Fickell
Among the major jobs that would likely pique Fickell’s interest, would be one near or in Ohio and Big Ten ties.
The most obvious and least controversial job for Fickell to leave for is Ohio State. But Ryan Day is entering year one and barring a catastrophic NCAA violation, off-field incident, or a potential 0-12 season, he isn’t going to be fired anytime soon.
That leaves three primary jobs that come to mind, based on Fickell’s background and proximity to home - Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State.
Fickell is an Ohio man. Does he really want to coach Big Blue? Would they even want him? Fickell has recently thrown some shade at Michigan for the way the University handled James Hudson’s case for an immediate eligibility waiver. On top of that, Jim Harbaugh likely isn’t being fired any time soon, though another disappointing would certainly light up his seat a bit.
At Michigan State, Mark Dantonio is 62 yrs old. After a stretch of just five losses from 2013-2015, Spartans are 20-18 the last three years. Fickell is actually getting commits from players who have offers from Michigan State, proving he doesn’t need the Big Ten logo to recruit some of the best players.
Penn State is intriguing, but is it special enough to draw him out of Ohio? James Franklin is 45-21 in five years in Happy Valley and barring disaster, likely won’t be fired in 2019 or anytime soon.
With no west coast or southern background, and no elite mid-west jobs opening up in the distant future, where could Fickell even go?
4. Fruit of his labor
Right now, Cincinnati has the #46 recruiting class in 2020. They were ranked 79th in 2019, 46th in 2018, 63rd in 2017. That 2017 class was his first and those players are now redshirt sophomores or juniors and many of them were key contributors to an 11 win team in 2018. They had the third youngest roster in FBS last season. It seems like Fickell is just getting started. It would seem totally out of character for him to work so hard to put together the best possible roster and leave it for someone else to have success with.
Fickell’s year 3 class is a little higher than Brian Kelly (#56 in 2009) and Butch Jones (#51 in 2012), and he has created such strong relationships with local high schools and has consistently talked about “the state of Cincinnati”. Including the 2020 class, Fickell has received commitments from 9 local Cincinnati players. Would those bonds with high school coaches be broken if he left the city so soon after arriving?
Maybe this article will appear on Freezing Cold Takes in 4 months and look really stupid. But Luke Fickell just feels different. He feels real. He is who he is. He believes in what he preaches and he has shown genuine interest in his players and in the community. He isn’t the salesman Brian Kelly was or the walking catchphrase Butch Jones was.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for Luke Fickell. I’m sure Fickell will leave for a special job at some point and that will be okay. But for now, two things are clear - there will be teams interested in talking to Fickell in 2019 and he is only going to leave for a special opportunity which likely will not present itself for some time.