Who Is Luke Fickell and How Did He Turn the Cincinnati Bearcats Into College Football’s Most Controversial Team?

Article highlights

  • Luke Fickell started his career at Ohio State
  • He took over at Cincinnati after Tommy Tuberville’s tumultuous tenure
  • Fickell has since turned the Bearcats into one of the most exciting teams in college football

If you’ve been paying attention to college football at all this season, you have likely noticed a specific program fighting for national respect and relevance: the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Blue bloods have essentially run college football for years, with programs like Alabama and Ohio State dominating season after season. But now Cincinnati, a school with little football success throughout its history, is hoping to play with the big boys, and head coach Luke Fickell is the main reason the Bearcats are in this position.

So, who is Fickell, and how has he turned Cincy into the most controversial team in the country?

Luke Fickell is an Ohio State guy

Former Ohio State and current Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell in 2011.
Luke Fickell of the Ohio State Buckeyes before a game against the Toledo Rockets in 2011. | David Dermer/ Diamond Images/ Getty Images

You may have heard Luke Fickell’s name well before Cincinnati hired him. He played nose guard for Ohio State from 1992 to 1996 and started 50 consecutive games for the Buckeyes, a school record at the time.

After working as a grad assistant at OSU in 1999 and a defensive line coach at Akron for a couple of seasons, Fickell began working under Jim Tressel at his alma mater in 2002 and started climbing through the ranks. In fact, in 2011, after a scandal that saw OSU players sell memorabilia, Tressel resigned, and Fickell became the interim head coach for that season.

The Buckeyes, however, went 6-7 to finish with a losing record for the first time since 1988, and the school then hired Urban Meyer as its next head coach. Fickell stayed on Meyer’s staff as defensive coordinator, though, and proved to be one of the best assistants in the country, even earning “top recruiter” recognition from Rivals and ESPN.

He replaced Tommy Tuberville as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats

Cincinnati Bearcats head football coach Luke Fickell in 2019.
Head coach Luke Fickell of the Cincinnati Bearcats during a game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Oct. 19, 2019. | Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The University of Cincinnati football program has had little success throughout its history.  It didn’t receive a single AP ranking from 1977 through 2006 until Brian Kelly took over as head coach.

Kelly helped turn things around, leading the Bearcats to a 12-1 season in 2009 and as high as a No. 4 ranking in the AP Poll. But he then went to Notre Dame the following year, and Butch Jones, who also had success at UC, took over. Jones recorded two 10-win seasons in Cincy.

In 2013, however, two-time SEC Coach of the Year at Ole Miss and Auburn, Tommy Tuberville, became the leader of the program, and he essentially ran it into the ground.

Cincinnati became a laughingstock under Tuberville, not earning a single AP ranking in his four years there and finishing 4-8 in 2016. He also had an infamous moment in his final season when he told a fan to “go to hell” and to “get a job,” per Sports Illustrated.

Then Fickell came along.

After UC parted ways with Tuberville following the 2016 season, the school hired Fickell. The 2017 campaign was his first year as head coach, and the Bearcats went 4-8, but he has since guided the program to the top of the college football universe.

Luke Fickell has made the Cincinnati Bearcats the most controversial team in college football


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Following the 4-8 campaign in 2017, Fickell led Cincinnati to 11-2 and 11-3 records in 2018 and 2019. He quickly turned things around by focusing on recruiting. The Bearcats’ 2016 recruiting class ranked 74th in the country and No. 6 in the American Athletic Conference, per 247 Sports. With Fickell, they currently have the 35th-ranked class in the country for 2022 and No. 12 for 2023.

His efforts have shown on the field the past couple of years. The Bearcats went 9-0 in the regular season in 2020 before losing to Georgia, the top-ranked team for most of 2021 so far, by three points in the Peach Bowl. They are now undefeated this season (as of Nov. 12) with a big top-10 win over Notre Dame.

But while they are certainly one of the most successful teams in college football, they are also one of the most controversial.

The AP Poll has Cincinnati ranked No. 2 overall for Week 9, and the Coaches Poll has the team at No. 3. However, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee ranked the Bearcats at No. 6 in its initial poll of the season in Week 8 and then moved them up to No. 5 for Week 9.

The biggest question with UC is its strength of schedule, as it plays in the AAC instead of the Big Ten or SEC. But its supporters point to its win over Notre Dame this year and its close loss to Georgia last year. Many of the teams ranked above or right below the Bearcats have also struggled against lesser competition this season, and most of them have yet to earn a top-10 win as well.

All in all, Cincinnati’s place in college football will likely be a hot topic of debate for the rest of this season and possibly in future seasons. But no one would even care about the Bearcats if it weren’t for Fickell. If he hadn’t taken what he learned at Ohio State and used it to essentially build a program from the ground up, UC wouldn’t be in this position.

But they are, and he has made them the hottest and most controversial team in college football.

Luke Fickell bio information courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics; Stats courtesy of Sports Reference