Luke Fickell checked all the same boxes for Michigan State that Mark Dantonio did for 13 seasons in East Lansing.
Former Ohio State defensive coordinator. Cincinnati coach. Understands the in-state rivalry with Michigan. Unafraid to trade verbal jabs with Jim Harbaugh. Fickell was the perfect match for Michigan State. But the Spartans weren't the perfect match for Fickell. That says more about the state of the Spartans' program than it does Fickell, who turned down the job offer and opted to stay at Cincinnati.
He's not the only one. Iowa State's Matt Campbell, Pitt's Pat Narduzzi and Colorado's Mel Tucker also made it clear they were staying put instead of heading to East Lansing. There have been no indications San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is interested, perhaps because he's not far off from a NFL head coaching job.
Now the real coaching search begins, and it won't be easy. Think about the bar Dantonio set for the next coach: He won a share of a Big Ten title and two outright championships. The Spartans made the College Football Playoff in 2015, the only team from the Big Ten other than Ohio State to do it. Dantonio had an 8-5 record vs. Michigan, 6-4 record vs. Penn State and 3-8 record vs. Ohio State (more than any other school since 2011).
The next coach faces those challenges. Ohio State is nearly untouchable in the Big Ten East. Penn State and Michigan are up and running. Michigan State slipped the last two seasons, and their recruiting is not on the same level as the Buckeyes, Wolverines or Nittany Lions. Dantonio mastered getting three-star prospects — such as Kirk Cousins, Le'Veon Bell and Darqueze Dennard — to play above their heads.
Can the next coach do that? Who is a realistic candidate to be that next coach now?
When you reset the coaching search, it looks like this:
Bret Bielema, New York Giants
The Athletic's Bruce Feldman mentioned Bielema as a possibility to take over Dantonio.
Wouldn't be surprised if #MichiganState made a run at #Giants assistant Bret Bielema. He's a proven winner at the Big Ten level (won 40 games in his last 4 years at Wisconsin).. Has a big presence and would re-energize that fan base in a hurry.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) February 10, 2020
Bielema, a former Iowa defensive lineman who was an assistant under Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz, would be a much better fit at Michigan State than he was at Arkansas. He was 37-19 in Big Ten play in seven seasons as head coach at Wisconsin. His teams play with a physical style that fits the brand. Bielema was 6-10 against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan during those seven seasons, however, and just took an assistant coaching job with the Giants. He has been in the NFL for the last two seasons. Sometimes it's hard to pull those guys back.
Butch Jones, Alabama
Jones has spent the last two seasons as an offensive analyst on Alabama's coaching staff, but the Saugatuck, Mich., native also fits the profile. Tennessee fans can make all the jokes about Jones they want. He's the only Vols coach to beat Florida in the last 15 seasons. Jones has an 84-54 record as a head coach in three stops, and chances are he has learned a few things from Nick Saban that would make him a better coach the fourth time around.
This would generate a lot of memes, but it would be a solid hire, given the situation.
Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
Creighton's name pops up quite a bit on social media, and it would be a better hire than what registers nationally. Creighton took an Eastern Michigan team that almost ended its football program to three bowl games the last four seasons, compiling a 25-26 record in that span.
He has been in the Mitten State for the last six seasons. Buffalo's Lance Leipold and Toledo's Jason Candle also are possibilities from the MAC, but Creighton is the best fit of the three.
That's the best of what the board looks like now for Michigan State, and none of those coaches checks all the boxes like Fickell did. And this job is a tough one. Ask John L. Smith or Bobby Williams, who combined to go 38-43. Ask Saban, who was 34-24-1. It's tough to win and even tougher to rebuild, and this program needs someone who isn't afraid to take on the big three programs in the Big Ten East.
Dantonio could do that, but he was also 1-5 against those teams the last two seasons. Michigan State is at best fourth in the Big Ten East pecking order. That's the state of the program now, and the first step toward the future will be accepting that the next candidate might not be the next Dantonio. At this point, they need to find somebody who wants this job.
And they'll have to leave a few boxes unchecked.