‘You’ve got to be real’: Fickell acknowledges challenges, excitement in taking over Badgers football program

MADISON, Wis. — New Wisconsin Badgers head coach Luke Fickell had a whirlwind first day in Madison on Monday, touring Camp Randall Stadium with his family, meeting with university officials and donors, and answering a lot of questions about what’s next for the program.

“It’s a momentous day for our program,” Wisconsin Athletic Director Chris McIntosh said to local reporters before introducing Fickell. “(I) couldn’t be more excited to introduce the 31st head football coach at the University of Wisconsin — excited for our fan base, excited for our university, but most excited for the players in our program present and in the future. The future is bright.”

Fickell said ahead of the media blitz, he spent a good portion of the day talking with current players on the team — many of whom have expressed disappointment that interim head coach and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard did not get the job.

“I spent four or five hours today visiting with as many kids on the team as I could, and that’s what I’ll continue to do. (I’ve) got a lot of work to do with doing that and (am) excited about it,” Fickell said. “You’ve just got to be yourself, you’ve got to be authentic, you’ve got to be real, and it takes time.”

Fickell found himself in a similar position as Leonhard more than 10 years ago, when he was the interim head coach at his alma mater of Ohio State and ultimately saw Urban Meyer hired instead of him. Despite the disappointment, Fickell stayed on Meyer’s staff as an assistant coach before taking the head coaching job at Cincinnati.

“The unique thing that I think I got is I was in the position and I had a great relationship with probably a lot of guys just like Jim has, and I think what we do understand is while kids are emotional young men, they also are resilient,” Fickell said. “I’ve got the utmost respect for however things continue to move forward, that whatever is best for them that they’ll do and I know that, you know, building a relationship is a big deal, it’s not trying to overtake somebody else’s relationship, which I’m not trying to do.”

McIntosh praised the work Leonhard did as interim head coach, including handling the team’s emotions after the sudden firing of Paul Chryst and the tragedy of former teammate Devin Chandler being killed in a shooting in Virginia earlier this month. McIntosh also disputed the notion that he went in a different direction after a tough conclusion to the season on the field that saw the team lose games to Iowa and Minnesota, although the Badgers did keep their bowl-eligible streak alive with a 6-6 record.

“Obviously Jimmy, first and foremost, did an incredible job for the program, stepped into a circumstance that was incredibly difficult and over-delivered,” McIntosh said. “There’s been a lot spoken about wins and losses and I just want to be clear that’s not at all what it was about. Jim’s ability to step into the program after an incredibly difficult transition and inspire this team to play with passion and with heart the way they did throughout the season was incredible and we owe him for that.”

McIntosh said he gave “very strong” consideration to Leonhard for the permanent role, but ultimately grew more comfortable with Fickell’s vision.

“As the process went along and as we got more comfortable with what opportunities may exist in terms of leadership for the program, and as Luke and I spent more time together and got to understand each other more — got to build the beginning of a relationship — it became clear that we see the world in a very similar way,” McIntosh said. “We see the potential in a program like ours in a very similar way and we have the same expectations – championship-level expectations.”

Ultimately, McIntosh indicated it was the fact that Fickell has shown his vision for a program can work by taking Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff after an undefeated 2021 season.

“It became evident that Luke and his experience and his belief system and his approach and his process – which was proven – does align with what we believe here was the way that I felt we should go and was the way that I felt best-positioned our program for long-term success,” McIntosh said.

Both McIntosh and Fickell spoke highly of Leonhard, although it is still unknown whether he will remain on staff, as Fickell did when he was passed over for the Ohio State job. Fickell said he spoke with Leonhard at length on Sunday about the future of the program, and the two are scheduled to meet again on Wednesday.

Fickell said he was “very open” to keeping Leonhard on his staff, but having been in a similar situation before, said he told Leonhard to do some “soul searching” about what he wants to accomplish in the next 5 or 10 years and the best way to get there. Fickell said that Leonhard will ultimately know what is best for him, the team, and the program.

“I know it’s not an easy situation and it takes a special situation to get over it, and while I struggled, it helped me,” Fickell said.

McIntosh said he struggled with the decision not to go with Leonhard full-time.

“The starting point for me was making the decision that’s best for this program, and that’s the start and end to it,” McIntosh said. “I think the toughest thing for me throughout this entire process was decisions that affect people who I love and care about and I respect, and clearly Jimmy is squarely in that category, but our entire staff. I mean, I have teammates on the staff, and it’s not lost upon me the impact that that has on those families.”

McIntosh also said he recognizes the decisions he made this year may have made the situation even harder on current members of the team.

“Perhaps the most difficult part of this process has been the hardship that it has created for the kids that I care about and love so much, that I’ve tried to support in my time here and as I think about what my experience was as a football player here, as a student-athlete here in this program, you know, the experience that these kids on this team had this year, it isn’t one I would wish on anyone,” McIntosh said.

Fickell said it is too early to tell who will be on the sidelines for the Badgers’ eventual bowl game, which has yet to be announced, but said he will be involved in helping coach the practices leading up to the game as a way to help build a relationship with the current group of players.

During the press conference, McIntosh said Fickell’s contract is for a total of seven years, paying him a total of $7.5 million in the first year and averaging about $7.8 million over the course of the contract.

Ahead of the press conference, the athletic department held a welcome event for Fickell that included an additional Q&A session, which you can watch below.