(You can watch the full interview here)
As announced this past fall, the University of Cincinnati will soon be making a move from the AAC to the Big 12, potentially as early as 2023. And recently, UC’s Board of Trustees approved a contract extension for head coach Luke Fickell through 2028. Fickell will now be making $5 million per year, which amounts to a $1.6 million annual increase from previous terms. Cincinnati will also be increase the staff pool for assistants to $5.2 million, up from the previous $3.8 million.
Fickell led the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff this season, helping them become the first Group of 5 school to accomplish that feat. With the coach seeming like he will remain at Cincinnati for a while and with the school getting ready to move to the Big 12, we thought it would be interesting to learn a bit more about Baylor’s future conference rival. So, I had a chat with Brent Young from the Bearcat Journal, the 247sports affiliate covering Cincinnati sports.
Here are some of the insights Brent provided about Cincinnati football, Fickell’s contract extension, and the future of the Big 12:
1. On his confidence in Fickell staying through the entirety of the contract:
background: The last time it seemed like Cincinnati could turn into a powerhouse was in the late 2000s, with Brian Kelly as their head coach. Kelly coached at Cincinnati from 2006 to 2009. In his final season, the Bearcats went 12-1 and finished at No. 8 in the AP Poll, with their only loss coming to a co-SEC champion Florida team in the Sugar Bowl. Immediately after that season, Kelly took off to Notre Dame. Cincinnati would go 4-8 the next year.
The main thing about Luke is that he’s a man of his word. And he constantly says, “everything I want to accomplish? I think I can accomplish it here at Cincinnati.”
To be honest, I’m confident. I was confident even when the USC and LSU and Notre Dame jobs came up. † † Now, part of the contract is the reassurance that a football only facility, practice facility and everything, so it will be built. And that’s already underway. Funding and everything for that is underway. It’s just kind of the building blocks of each thing.
He’s having the ability to stay at a location with a big family that his family loves being at, his son plays on the team. There’s just so many factors that are tied into the fact that he mentions how much he loves Cincinnati, he love being here, he recruits unbelievably well here. The players believe him, the recruits believe him, so he has not given me any other reason not to be confident.
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2. On if Fickell would take the Ohio State job if it opens up:
background: Fickell played at Ohio State and was an assistant coach there for 14 seasons.
If Ohio State opens up, I consider that in that small pool of dream schools. He went there, huge ties there, he’s an Ohio guy through and through. He has a Buckeye “O” tattooed on his calf. Yes, he’s an Ohio guy. It’s a situation where he’ll take a step back, look at both options, and really weigh the pros and cons. If he thinks it’s best for his family and everything he has going on, to go to Ohio State, then I think he’ll go
But if he does take a step back and say, “I’m building something massive here and I want to keep riding with this.” And if he likes the feel that Cincinnati brings, in a bigger city with professional teams and all that that brings along with it, there are certain things that just might sway him to stay. I also think [moving to the Big 12] is massive, because it gives Luke the feel that it’s big-time football from here on out.
3. On the impact of the staff pool increase on helping Cincinnati retain and hire assistant coaches:
background: Cincinnati lost a few big name assistant coaches over the past couple seasons. Last year, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman went to Notre Dame to take the same position (he’s now their head coach). This year, cornerbacks coach Perry Eliano went to Ohio State to become the Buckeyes’ new safeties coach. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock also took off, for the OC position at LSU (under the same Brian Kelly†
there’s no doubt [that it helps]† † † What Luke preaches is just having that core of coaching and that unit that’s able to carry over from year to year. So what the additional money in the staff pool does is, not only does it give the ability to talk to coaches within the program already and say, “hey, we’re gonna bump your salary up a little bit.” Just like this past season, he gave a couple of titles to different coaches. Colin Hitschler, his co-defensive coordinator, you have Mike Brown, his wide receivers coach, but he’s also the passing-game coordinator. Kind of just titles that give them the ability to probably take in a little bit more money.
It’s huge in the fact that once a coach does decide, maybe a huge opportunity opens up for one of the coaches and it’s very hard to pass up, they ended up taking it, they do leave. Now, you have a little bit more money to after a bigger name and say, “Hey, come join us. We can pay you just as much as or in the same ballpark of these other big programs.
So that assistant pool is massive, especially because Luke said he wants to take care of his assistants first, before himself. Another situation where Luke’s one of a kind when it comes to that, he wants to have his assistants be happy before he even worries about himself. He knows he’s going to get it all squared away for him. Once his assistants are happy, he’s able to build that unity and that bond among the core of them. That’s how he’s been able to keep a lot of the coaches that he has currently on the staff.
4. On how moving to the Big 12 and Fickell’s extension will impact Cincinnati recruiting?
background: In four of the last five seasons, even without Power-5 resources, Cincinnati’s recruiting classes would have finished as fourth or fifth best of all New Big 12 teams.
It’s huge. [Now other teams] don’t have the ability to say, “Look, [Fickell]’s going to leave.” Because right now, Luke’s kept his word to all the recruits, telling them that he’s going to stay.
That piece of it is just another additional part to coming off a College Football Playoff appearance, going through the Big 12, everything that comes with going into the Big 12. It just all ties into what’s already been a strong recruiting push with the past few season. They set records for greatest recruiting class in program history, year after year after year. And it just seems like it’s going to continue that way.
Look at Sauce Gardner, who came in as a 3-star or Desmond Ridder, who came in as a low-rated 3-star, 2-star by some. See what we were able to do with them, how we were able to build them and develop them. And so imagine if you come in a highly ranked 4-star or mid 4-star, or a highly rated 3-star, if we can develop you into what we were able to do with them. You’ve already got a leg up as far as, you were great and you evaluate great, but we can push you to that next level, push you to the NFL.
5. On what the flurry of recent “New Big 12” coaching extensions (including Baylor head coach Dave Aranda and Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen) mean for the conference going forward:
All of a sudden, you see these big-name coaches, turning down Miami, turning down these other talks that they were supposedly in the mix for, staying with these schools. † † for a bit [Iowa State head coach] Matt Campbell, I would say he’s had numerous opportunities to take a look somewhere else that might be able to give him a little bit more money, better location, or things of that sort. It’s just kind of that commitment to the New Big 12. The commitment that it’s going to be not only a fantastic basketball conference, but it’s going to be a top of the line football conference.
Adding these teams with coaches that are already fully locked in, fully engaged, it’s going to be huge. I think it’s just a buy-in from all sorts and I think it’s just going to be a continuation of what the Big 12 has been up to until this point, just a really good football conference. That’s only going to get better when you add in these teams and their coaches that are locked in as well.
6. On Cincinnati’s outlook for the immediate future:
background: Cincinnati has a number of key players from the past two seasons entering the NFL draft, including cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryantquarterback Desmond Ridderand defensive end Myjai Sanders†
It’ll be interesting because for the first time in Fickell’s tenure, you’ve got question marks as far as leadership and who’s going to step up. † † Now you’ve got young players who have a lot of promise, but they’re going to come in and you’re replacing two [cornerbacks]† Cornerback’s a hard position to play.
Of course, it all goes back to quarterback. [Redshirt sophomore QB] Evan Prater is the highest rated recruit in program history, but he has not taken any meaningful snaps. They did bring back Ben Bryant, who was the backup for Dez Ridder in Ridder’s first three seasons. So he was at Eastern Michigan, he transferred back and he’s going to bring a lot of competition for Prater during spring practice.
That’ll be really the biggest time, spring practice. Seeing who rises up to the occasion, who wants to make a name for themselves, because there’s a lot of opportunity for these players that were some of the highest rated recruits in program history. So there’s a lot of talent there. It’s just getting them ready.
Arkansas is week one, we’ll know a lot by then after the trip to Arkansas. I’m optimistic they have a chance to win the AAC again, I have no reason to think they don’t. † † Anytime that Luke Fickell is in the room and he’s got all these high level players that are now hungry to prove themselves after all these really talented, now future NFL players, are out of the way. I think it’s going to be a good season.