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B1G West Makes Big Coaching Moves: Does Luke Fickell Rhule?

Matt brings Big 12 experience; Luke clearly didn’t want any of that.

Who WOULD look happy coaching the Panthers?

So...what’s new?

Not content to let Michigan/Ohio State be the only thing the national press talks about In a sweaty attempt to immediately move forward from one of the biggest turds of a season a P5 division has had (no disrespect Purdue), Nebraska and Wisconsin have attempted to reset the #narrative with (fairly) splashy coaching hires.

Matt Rhule had previously indicated he was going to take a year off (yeah, right) and Luke Fickell had previously indicated he wasn’t interested in the UW job. But, you know. Fortunately everybody at THIS site is level-headed, non-spiteful, and ready to offer a well-considered assessment of each hire.

Matt Rhule turned Temple into AAC champions and won 11 games at Baylor two years after going 1-11 there. He was always destined for the NFL, but, without a QB, washed out pretty quickly. How the fit with Nebraska? What do you see in their future?

LPW: I think he’ll fall somewhere between the performance Pelini and Mike Riley. Maybe closer to Pelini than Riley. Honestly, it’s a crapshoot.

Kind of...: I think it’s a really good hire. Rhule might be biding time until the NFL comes calling again (MAKE SURE THE QB SITUATION IS SETTLED MATT), but he’s a proven commodity who seems to instantly raise the floor in Lincoln. This isn’t the 90s any more, and, honestly, most Nebraska fans I know DO understand that (even if it’s fun to pretend otherwise), but there really is no reason for Nebraska not to be bowling 80% of the time. Frost seemed like a great hire. He wasn’t. Rhule should be. We’ll see.

misdreavus79: Matt Rhule will do what he did at his previous stops, which is to take a moribund program and turn it into a competitive outfit in due time.

Now, because this is Nebraska in the Big Ten and not Temple in the AAC or Baylor in the Big 12, “competitive outfit” may not necessarily mean “winning the conference in three years” or “making the championship game in the same amount of time” like he did at Temple and Baylor, respectively.

Regardless, there should be zero doubt that Rhule can at least make Nebraska not the laughing stock of the conference anymore, and if all he ever accomplishes is Pelini levels of success, wouldn’t Nebraska fans be ecstatic to go back to that?

The biggest difference I see with Nebraska is that the cup isn’t as bare as it was at his previous two stops, plus NIL and the transfer portal are a complete game changer, both of which really emerged while he was off to the NFL, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t actually take a full three seasons to get Nebraska back to contention.

BoilerUp89: I think it’s a solid hire. But I don’t understand why you fire Scott Frost two weeks early to make this hire. Could have given that extra $7.5 million to Rhule’s NIL fund. Now, don’t get me wrong - I’m not complaining at all here. If Nebraska waits two weeks longer its possible that Mickey Joseph doesn’t have enough time to get Nebraska rolling for the Iowa game. So I think it’s $7.5 million well spent for Purdue. Thank you Nebraska boosters.

Dead Read: I like that he has turned around moribund programs. I like that he is a “development guy” and that he stresses line play. I like that he has recruiting contacts in the East and in Texas. I like that he comports himself as an adult, and seems to be treating the opportunity and place with respect.

I like a lot about this guy. Remember though, I liked the last hire, too.

From all accounts, the introductory presser went well.

Jesse: Look, I freely admit I get excited by each coach that gets hired at my school because as a fan, that’s sort of the thing you do. It’s worth noting that I definitely thought that the Buffalo Bills hiring Chan Gailey might actually work out. I - like many of you - am an idiot about my own team.

That in mind, Rhule basically fits the profile you want if you’re a rational Nebraska fan. He’s obviously not a terrible coach (generally speaking, to be a NFL coach, you can’t be a complete idiot... even if it goes poorly), his forte is probably program building which is sort of what we need, and he seems to not be leaning into the past / redemption narrative.

Oh, and as my friend Dead Read mentioned, he seems to be an adult. Like, he genuinely seems like a normal person who can run a program and will do the simple things right. Will I absolutely lose my mind the first time he does something dumb? YES ABSOLUTELY! But that comes with the territory. I think this is a good hire and I am just so so glad we didn’t hire Hugh Freeze. Sidenote: Hugh Freeze sucks.

BRT: I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about any hire at this point—not sure, something about being hurt in the past? But I’m not mad about Rhule. He’s experienced as an HC, which seems like a good move after the last hire. To my knowledge, he has refrained from any hoodie-based rants, so again, another good sign.

Will it work? Who knows! I know the popular narrative is that Husker fans are crazy, entitled, and unrealistic, and while there are certainly some who are, I think the last decade has been fairly chastening. There is a LOT of room for improvement as a program, and if Rhule can start checking off some of those much-missed boxes, he can certainly be deemed a success, even without ascending to the top of the conference.

And I’ll also echo Jesse—thank God it wasn’t Hugh Freeze. There are a lot of worse ways this hire could have gone, and he was probably the biggest.

Luke Fickell had been pretty choosy about job opportunities, turning down some pretty choice positions. While we don’t yet know the full story behind what changed his mind about the Wisconsin job, it’s a major move with significant reverberations (see below). For now, let’s stick with the bottom line for UW. Is Fickell a slam dunk? Just biding time until Harbz beats OSU again next year and Day gets cashiered?

LPW: I think Fickell is an upgrade from Leonhard. I mean, competing in OSU’s backyard and taking a group of six team to the playoffs is astounding! I know he’s a former OSU player and interim OSU head coach, but I just don’t see him taking the job in Madison to boot to Columbus in the future.

Kind of...: If Fickell ends up at OSU (or Notre Dame) in the next 2-5 years, well, okay, we all knew that could happen. Still, it should be obvious that UW had to make this move once it became clear it was possible. The fit is almost too exact. Fickell was all about developing solid, but not spectacular, recruiting classes, winning the trenches, and limiting mistakes. That’s everything Wisconsin wants to imagine it is about, too, but hasn’t been for the last few years. It really, really, should work. We’ll see.

misdreavus79: Luke Fickell took Cincinnati to the playoff when Cincinnati making a playoff run was a pipe dream. It doesn’t much matter whether Fickell sticks around or not. He’s a proven coach that has won plenty, and he should be able to continue to do so at Wisconsin. long as Barry Alvarez keeps his paws away from the program and allows Fickell to run the kind of team he wants to.

BoilerUp89: This makes no sense to me. Wisconsin hires a coach Purdue has beaten before? Does this mean the streak is ending? Fickell is fine but he’s very much in the mold of Jim Tressel - uber conservative with his play calling. Tressel was very successful, but here’s the key: at Ohio State. Fickell was very successful in the American doing what Tressel did in the B1G (out-talenting his opponents). Can he do that at Wisconsin? I’m pressing X to doubt. Fickell is a good coach - I’m not sure he’s worth the price tag here though.

Jesse: Nothing SUPER interesting to add except I remember that one time Luke Fickell was coach at Ohio State and then Nebraska actually got a win. I think that was actually Joe Bauserman’s fault, but I’m going to blame Fickell. None of this is relevant, but that was the last fun time I think I had watching Ohio State and Nebraska play.

BRT: Yes, can someone sneak in and add a Bauserman to his contract? I’d love that for Wisconsin.

This seems like a good hire. It’s a little surprising given all the early speculation that Chryst was unloaded early in order to secure Leonhard, but I guess the downside of doing that is that it gave Leonhard time to “under perform.” I feel kind of bad for him, but I guess that’s the career he’s chosen—ruthless.

MC ClapYoHandz: I mean, what a hire. I know Wisconsin fans were getting antsy with Chris McIntosh’s search process, but when you pull in a reigning NCOY it’s hard to argue. Wisconsin of course has kept hires like this largely within the family all the way down to assistants and GAs, and Jim Leonhard is just about the best of the bunch, but if you’re going to turn someone like Leonhard away then Luke Fickell is just about the best candidate to make that decision make sense. Wisconsin just doesn’t make moves like this and it’s beyond refreshing to see. Despite some uninspiring football over the last couple seasons, there’s buzz around this program locally and nationally. That should pay immediate dividends.

So, for the last seven weeks, most everybody had been operating under the assumption the the Wisconsin job was Jim Leonhard’s job to lose, an assumption that seemed pretty reasonable last Sunday when Wisconsin officially posted the job opening, a day after becoming bowl eligible. And know Leonhard, who has turned down NFL DC jobs because he wanted to be in Madison, will not be the next Badgers head coach. If you have serious thoughts about this, weigh in. If you don’t, just go ahead and give me the most horrifying (for me, a UW fan), but somewhat plausible, Jim Leonhard revenge story where this decision comes back to haunt UW.

LPW: here’s something devious: Something unspeakable happens in Iowa City that causes the Ferentz family to be dismissed. Leonhard takes over the Hawkeyes and makes it his mission to prove to the Wisconsin AD he made the wrong choice by consistently beating the Badgers.

Kind of...: As a Wisconsin fan, that sent chills down my spine, so good work LPW.

Like most UW fans, I feel bad for how this process played out for Leonhard. He’s as committed to the Badgers as it gets, and it really would’ve been awesome for him to be the face of the program and restore it to glory. But, well, he probably just wasn’t ready to do that. The offensive struggles aren’t totally on him, but UW kept making silly mistakes, and the last three games (loss to Iowa, a hard to replicate comeback victory over Nebraska, and a home loss to Minnesota) really soured things.

In a lot of respects, Leonhard reminds me of Luke Fickell...circa 2011. Given a near impossible job of being an interim coach on short notice at his alma mater with no previous HC experience. It becomes clear the interim guy probably needs a bit more seasoning, but his future remains bright. NFL DC or G5 HC seem like a next logical step for Leonhard. He is only 40 years old. I do think he’ll be a very good HC someday, maybe even at the NFL level (reports are that he didn’t really love recruiting all that much). It just isn’t going to be right now.

misdreavus79: Think about every Penn State game in recent memory where the Nittany Lions have had a lead in the fourth quarter and have gone on to give up that lead as the game closes out. Each of those times (with the exception of 2014, where it took two overtimes), some defensive lineman when HAM and destroyed the Lions’ dreams time and time again.

You know who coaches those defensive linemen? It’s Larry Johnson, the guy who spent two decades with Penn State, who, at some point was Penn State’s recruiting department, whose son ran for 2000 yards at Penn State, who interviewed for the job in 2012 and 2014, didn’t get it either time, then decided to go to the one place he knew would hurt.

That could be Jim Leonhard. Or he realizes he needs more head coaching experience, gets it at the group of five level, then comes back to Wisconsin when Fickell replaces Day in a year or two.

BRT: Leonhard buys a camper van to live in so that he can save the bulk of his paycheck over the next few years, and slowly starts buying up beloved Madison staples: The Old Fashioned, Mickie’s Dairy Bar, the cheesy bread stall at the farmer’s market. One by one, he turns them into McDonald’s franchises. Not even Culver’s. McDonald’s. His revenge is complete, and long-lasting.

MC: Paul Chryst was fired when Bert took over Illinois and, within two seasons, was able to go to Camp Randall and thoroughly out-Wisconsin Wisconsin. With the hiring of Fickell and a to-be-named OC, the Barry-ball era is likely at least half dead anyway, but the worst Jim Leonhard revenge story would be him spurning Wisconsin to join Bert’s staff and help develop a consistent winner there. It doesn’t sound like a ton on the surface, but in Bert they have who is still currently the most successful post-Alvarez coach Wisconsin has experienced, and Jim Leonhard is the ultimate Badger and universally loved in our world. To lose to two major defectors playing the type of football that has been synonymous with Wisconsin for decades would sting quite a bit. I did think Nebraska might try for him if this happened, but they of course had locked in Rhule before Wisconsin made their decision.

If I could bet on such things though, I’d put money on Leonhard either taking a role with Wisconsin a la young Luke Fickell, taking a Green Bay Packer DC job that better fucking open this offseason, or taking a year off to assess what he wants. Part of what has kept Leonhard in Wisconsin to this point has been the Madison community as well as a desire to keep his family from bouncing from gig to gig while he progresses through his coaching career. Can’t rule anything out but I think he would really need to come across a great opportunity to take on a surprising role.

Rank the current B1G West teams based on your predicted cumulative B1G record for each over the next five years.

Kind of: 1) Wisconsin, 2) Nebraska, 3) Iowa, 4) Minnesota, 5) Illinois, 6) Purdue, 7) Northwestern

misdreavus79: Disclaimer: There will be no “west” division starting in 2024, but let’s get into the exercise anyway.

  1. Nebraska
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Illinois
  4. Purdue
  5. Minnesota
  6. Iowa
  7. Northwestern

In my mind, three games separate one and seven.

BoilerUp89: Nebraska, Illinois, wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern

Jesse: You cannot force me to partake in this exercise. Until further notice, every Big Ten West team will have the same conference record. That’s the way of life.

BRT: Misdreavus, the B1G West is God’s gift to college football. We will always be “the West.” Long may it reign.

There’s no way I’m taking a stab at this, but I do like how most of my colleagues have completed this exercise—Nebraska near the top, Iowa down, down, down at the bottom. From your fingertips to God’s eyeballs.