Luke Fickell has earned the luxury of patience. He rebuilt Cincinnati football into something extraordinary, and so he can wait comfortably until an extraordinary opportunity is presented to him.
This does not mean it is an easy game to play. When Fickell said no at some point over the weekend to the nice people at Michigan State offering to make him even wealthier than he already is, he took a path many coaches with comparable talent and achievement were not bold enough to make.
He is betting on his own ability, on the advantages inherent at Cincinnati and what he has done — both to revive and enhance it — by passing on greater immediate wealth.
Now it is time for the university to do something bold, as well: to offer Fickell the kind of security that might delay his departure until only the best promotion becomes available to him. The Bearcats are never going to be able to afford Power 5 money unless they somehow end up in a Power 5 conference. They can, though, afford to pay Cincinnati money for a longer period of time — a decade, say — and give the current Bearcats football coach the security of knowing he’ll at least be the future Bearcats football coach.
That is one of the only fears of a coach in this situation: What if I turn down this money and I get a bad break or a bad boss and they fire me here? At least if I go there and get canned I’ll have made all that money.
That’s why there are so few Mark Fews.
Cincinnati has a new athletic director, John Cunningham, who would be wise not to make the same decisions as his predecessor. Fickell took over a program that had consistently ranked with the best in its league, even as it morphed from Conference USA to the Big East to the American, until Tommy Tuberville came to town and burned it all to the ground.
No, sorry. That’s not the best metaphor to use; burning it down would have required some effort.
Mark Dantonio built the foundation nearly 20 years ago with his recruiting. Then Brian Kelly made Cincinnatians care about the Bearcats through the force of his personality and the team’s success. It peaked a decade ago with a perfect regular season and Big East title.
Fickell restored that degree of success in just three seasons, with an appearance in the 2019 AAC championship game and Birmingham Bowl victory over Boston College. Most of the starters from that squad remain. That’s one reason Fickell does, too. He knows if this goes right, there will be more opportunities next winter.
Michigan State has been a fine football program, even playing in the 2015 College Football Playoff. Only a Spartan would deny, though, it is the fourth-best job in its own division. Life in the Big Ten East means not only trying to catch the Ohio State steam train — but having to rush past Penn State and Michigan to get there.
No one knows what college football head coaching jobs might open following the 2020 season. There might be several more advantaged than MSU. Or not. That’s another gamble Fickell is taking.
Cincinnati, though, should remain for him a sure thing. That’s where the longterm extension becomes a factor — not to guarantee he will remain a Bearcat for a decade, but to assure him that option remains.
Fickell should move on from Cincinnati when he wants to, not when he needs to. Establishing the difference may be up to the Cincinnati administration.