A week ago, Cincinnati fans were preparing for another edition of the same story they’ve read before.
First, it was Mark Dantonio leaving after three seasons. Then, it was Brian Kelly leaving after three seasons. Butch Jones followed this by departing after three seasons.
Notice the trend.
Each of those coaches left for “bigger” programs. Dantonio was tasked to build a powerhouse in the Big 10 at Michigan State, and he did. Brian Kelly was lured away by his dream job at Notre Dame and has since pinned the Fighting Irish as a perennial playoff contender. Butch Jones didn’t see the same successes as Dantonio and Kelly, but is still another coach plucked by a Power-5 school away from UC.
What these coaches did at UC was what you expect from a “stepping stone” program in college football. They were coaches rising through the ranks and Cincinnati wasn’t the end goal: it was just another step along the way.
So, when Dantonio announced his retirement and rumors of Michigan State’s affection for current Bearcat coach Luke Fickell swirled, it was easy for UC fans to assume what was about to happen.
This is Fickell’s first full-time gig. He served as the interim coach at Ohio State in 2011 during very turbulent times in Columbus, but UC is the school that gave him the keys to the program. With a school of Cincinnati’s size, it was never going to be easy to walk away from what he built for another endeavor. Cincinnati isn’t like other Group-5 schools; it has a legitimate case for entrance in to the Power-5 club.
When Luke Fickell decided to turn down Michigan State, it was another point for the University of Cincinnati football program. Not in the sense that it wouldn’t have to go through another coaching change, but because it showed it has grown to the point where the on-field success is beginning to have real substance.
If we use Mel Tucker’s contract as a reference, Fickell turned down double his salary. I don’t know about you, but if someone came to me and offered a job that paid over double my current wage/salary, it’d be hard to convince me not to take it. When you put yourself in a coach’s shoes, being offered that kind of money puts you in a tough position. However, Fickell still said no to this proposition.
Fickell stayed because of family, but what he’s built at UC points to the beginning of a successful era. Two consecutive 11-win seasons, two straight bowl wins and the highest rated recruiting class in program history means Fickell has done something right already. With the incoming class, he’s laying the foundation for sustained success. That’s something that kept him to remain as the Bearcats’ guy.
He’d have to totally rebuild at Michigan State. Of course he could do it, but Cincinnati has a real chance to plant its foot in the upper echelon of college football, and Fickell sees that. When 4-star recruits turn down Power-5 opportunities to play at UC, they see the potential of the program, too.
In short, the program’s current on-field product and immense potential makes it worth turning down millions of dollars.
Fickell staying gives UC fans a chance to breathe. They can still call him “Coach,” and he’s still proud of it. He doesn’t just talk up the program as great, he continues to prove why it’s great.
Coaches have talked about how great a school is, only to leave soon after. Fickell turning down Michigan State points to the growth of UC football. He’s comfortable with the success he’s had and the potential the Bearcats hold, and he wants to see it out until it’s time to move on.