Takeaways from Luke Fickell’s introductory press conference
MADISON — A whirlwind courtship became official Sunday when Wisconsin hired Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell as its new head football coach. Monday brought the first day on the job for the 49-year-old, which was spent touring the facilities, meeting with the current players, getting introduced to important alumni and facing the media for the first time. Here are some of the biggest things we learned from Fickell’s first 36 hours as the Badgers new leader.
Jim Leonhard could stick around
It still seems unlikely but there is a chance that defensive coordinator and interim coach Jim Leonhard could stay around even after being passed over for the full-time job. Fickell said he and Leonhard spoke for an hour on Sunday on a number of different topics and will meet again Wednesday.
“He loves this place. He is a die hard, so there is a lot of options that are open,” Fickell said. “I think we’re very similar in a lot of ways. Jim will know what is best for him. Jim will know what is best for the program. Jim will know what is best for this team. And I respect that and we’ll continue to talk about what the future looks like, but we don’t know what that is right now.”
Leonhard’s love for the school and the program could overcome his disappointment in not earning the job, though the way the process played out may have soured him on the thought of staying. Fickell was in a similar situation a decade ago when he served as the interim coach at Ohio State in 2011 only to resume his coordinator role in 2012 when Urban Meyer was hired.
“I know that it’s not an easy situation and it takes a special person in some ways to get over a lot of those things,” Fickell said. “I had a hard time with it, but I do believe it was the right thing for me. And the way that I did it went about it, it helped me be who I am. But my way is not always the right way. It is not the way for everybody else. But I think that’s where it really comes down to what’s in your heart, what’s in your mind.”
Fickell did not dive into things with Leonhard too deeply but did leave him with some things to think about as he looks to the future of his coaching career.
“You’ve got to, in your mind, figure out where you want to be in five years, where you want to be in 10 years,” Fickell said of his message for Leonhard. “If you can figure out and say where you want to be in five years, and where you want to be in 10 years, it’s going to help you a lot better to figure out where you want to be next year. And that’s not easy.”
Getting Leonhard back would be significant on a number of levels. He is one of the top young defensive minds in college football and has proven himself repeatedly in that respect. But he was also very popular among the players in a locker room that desperately wanted him as its coach.
Speaking of Leonhard not being the coach…
Athletic director Chris McIntosh made what appears to be a great hire in Fickell. The process of getting there, though, ruffled a few feathers among the current players. So much so that McIntosh took the time to apologize to them when he met with the team on Sunday night.
“The experience that these kids on this team had this year isn’t one that I would wish on anyone. It has been extremely difficult,” McIntosh said. “I recognize and I apologize for the decisions that I have made that have contributed to the challenges of this season. That just can’t be overlooked and it has been the hardest part for me. It’s clearly been hard on these student athletes.”
Making it more difficult was the belief the next coach would be Leonhard, only for Fickell to come out of nowhere at the last minute and accept the job. Yet, if you are to take McIntosh at his word, he certainly considered Leonhard and met with him for nearly two hours last week to give him a chance to lay out his vision for the program.
“It was after that, that I was forced with making a really tough, but important decision,” McIntosh said. “It was at that time that I realized Luke was the guy.”
McIntosh said he gave Leonhard serious consideration and that his decision wasn’t based on wins and losses. He admired the way the former All-American safety dealt with the transition from Paul Chryst and the impact of on and off the field problems and situations that popped up. Yet, at the end of the day, Fickell’s ability to connect with McIntosh and his experience won out.
“It became clear that we see the world in a very similar way and we see the potential in a program like ours in a very similar way,” McIntosh said of him and Fickell. “We have the same expectations, championship level expectations. It became evident that Luke in his experience, and his belief system and his approach and his process, which was proven and does align with what we believe here, was the way that I felt we should go and was the way that I felt best positioned our program for long term success.”
The first order(s) of business
Fickell made clear that he has several priorities as he tries to hit the ground running. The first is getting out on the recruiting trail to lock in Wisconsin’s 2023 class, which stands at just nine players after several players decommitted on Sunday. The early signing period is just three weeks away and he has got some work to do.
Part of that process is getting the recruiting department up and running as quickly as possible. Fickell said he will bring at least two of his guys from Cincinnati with him (reportedly director of recruiting Pat Lambert and director of recruiting strategy Max Steinecker), along with head strength and conditioning coach Brady Collins.
“There’s nothing to me that is more important to get in house and as soon as possible, as what we’re going to do in the strength program and what we’re going to do in the recruiting program,” Fickell said. “Because to me, those two are the lifeblood to how we’ve built things and how I believe that future needs to continue to grow.”
Fickell also gave a hint of what his recruiting territory might look. While admitting he needs to become more familiar with where Wisconsin has excelled nationally, he believes the core of the roster will come from within 300 miles of Madison, which includes the state of Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana. He figures to also hit the state of Ohio hard, seeing as it where he has spent his entire coaching career.
What kind of defense will Fickell employ?
Wisconsin has had a ton of success running a base 3-4 defense for the last 10 seasons, routinely ranking in the top-10 in the country. Fickell, a defensive-minded head coach, has played different styles in his career, but most recently ran a 3-5-5 in the last couple years at Cincinnati.
“If you really study us for what we have done, we’ve adapted and adjusted to whatever we need to do,” Fickell said. “I think what I’ve learned, as much as anything over my time, is the ability to adapt and adjust not just to your guys, but also to what you need to do to be successful.”
As was the case with Dave Aranda, Justin Wilcox, and Leonhard, it’s worth remembering that Wisconsin’s base 3-4 defense was not what was on the field a majority of the time. A 2-4-5 — with two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs — has proven to be used more than anything else. Whatever way Fickell decides to go, he made clear he will not blow things up and get away from what has made the Badgers successful.
“We’ll definitely be a group that can go multiple in different ways. But they have done a phenomenal job and we would be out of our minds to think that you come in and just completely scrap and change something just like a culture, just like an environment,” Fickell said. “I mean, they’ve done an unbelievable job in what’s been created here. And what our job is to do is to come in here, adapt, adjust, enhance what it is that we’ve got and we’ll do that.”
Who coaches the bowl game?
Wisconsin will play in a bowl game, likely in Detroit, New York or in Phoenix next month. Who exactly will be the coach of that team remains undecided. One that thing is clear: Fickell will be a part of it.
“I sat down with Jim (Leonhard) yesterday for a good while and we’re trying to kind of map out how this whole thing would look,” Fickell said. “I’ll be coaching in some way, shape or form. We’ll figure out what that means.”
The bottom line
McIntosh fired a coach that won more than 70% percent of his games and took the Badgers to three Big Ten title games while going 6-1 in bowl games. He passed over a coach that is considered one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, that had coordinator offers from some of the premier programs in college football and was even courted by the Green Bay Packers to coach its defense a few years ago.
He then went and paid a coach more than $2.5 million more per year than Wisconsin has ever paid a coach. You do not do that without lofty goals of competing for championships, both in the division, conference and nationally. While Fickell would not make any grand predictions of what is to come for the program, he and McIntosh are on the same page regarding expectations.
“We’ve got one objective — one goal — play for a championship,” Fickell said. “That is open ended, but it gives you a lot of flexibility. You have an opportunity in this league, if you are playing for a championship, amazing things can happen. I think you just got to stay focused and know that’s what it comes down to.”