Wisconsin has hired Luke Fickell as its next football coach, athletic director Chris McIntosh announced Sunday.
Fickell led Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff last season and had gone 57-18 in his six years there. His 2021 Bearcats team went 13-0 before losing to Alabama in the playoff semifinals as the first Group of 5 team to reach the CFP.
The hiring of Fickell marks one of the most eye-opening moves of the college football carousel, with Wisconsin luring the country's top Group of 5 coach who brings vast experience in the Big Ten's Midwestern footprint.
"This is a destination job at a program that I have admired from afar for years," Fickell said in a statement. "I am in total alignment with Chris McIntosh's vision for this program. There is a tremendous foundation here that I can't wait to build upon. This world-class university, athletic department and passionately loyal fan base all have a strong commitment to success and I can't wait to be a part of it."
Fickell has strong roots in the Big Ten, as he was a longtime assistant coach and coordinator at Ohio State and played there collegiately. He had been picky about jobs over the years as Cincinnati rose to the top of the Group of 5, being selective about the Midwestern footprint.
"He's a great fit for our program and our culture, for our style of play," McIntosh told ESPN. "As we went through the process, we became more and more comfortable with each other, and with the fit, and with what our university and the city of Madison have to offer. It came together that way. For them, based upon the opportunities he's had presented, they've been able to be choosy. I'm stoked for sure, but I feel real grateful we found somebody that sees the world a similar way."
Fickell is replacing Paul Chryst, who was fired in the middle of the season after going 67-26 in eight seasons. Jim Leonhard, the Badgers' defensive coordinator, had gone 4-3 as interim coach and was considered a candidate for the head-coaching job.
McIntosh said it wasn't easy telling Leonhard that he wouldn't be getting the permanent job.
"That was a very difficult conversation only because of how much I respect Jimmy, how much I care about Jimmy, how much Jimmy means to our program, everything he's done for our program as a player, as a coordinator, and then everything he did for us this year," McIntosh said. "That keeps adding to the storyline of how much he means to our program. I think more of Jimmy today than I ever have. It's important for people to know that. It was an incredibly difficult decision, but I felt like it was the right one for the long-term benefit of the program."
Fickell's attraction to the Badgers' brass, along with his record and roots in the league, is his ability to build a program. Fickell turned Cincinnati into one of the country's best development programs, taking modest recruits and consistently churning out strong teams.
The Bearcats had nine players picked in the 2022 NFL draft, which was third behind only Georgia (15) and LSU (10).
McIntosh said he and Fickell spent time discussing the transfer portal and name, image and likeness, and ways for Wisconsin to move forward and avoid complacency.
"I'm really excited to take our program forward with Luke," McIntosh said. "I'm excited about our potential, I'm excited about what this means for our program. I am excited about the message this sends to our fans and to our players, and to those kids who are interested in our program. It sends a strong signal that we are committed to our program being successful in the long term. As the world changes, we will change with it."
Special teams coach Kerry Coombs will serve as the Bearcats' interim head coach, the school announced.
Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham said he will move quickly to replace Fickell, considering both external and internal candidates, which could include offensive coordinator and former Bearcats quarterback Gino Guidugli.
The Cincinnati job is becoming even more appealing as Fickell leaves it. The Bearcats are switching conferences next year, moving from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12. The move will bring more revenue into the program but also tougher competition.
"This is not a stepping-stone job," Cunningham said. "We can do everything we want to do at the University of Cincinnati."
Fickell spent one season as an interim coach in the Big Ten, going 6-7 in 2011 in the wake of the firing of Jim Tressel at Ohio State. He stayed patient from there, working as the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer and winning a national championship in the 2014 season.
The Associated Press and ESPN's Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.