As other coaches left, Luke Fickell stayed at Cincinnati to continue to build

Keith Jenkins
Cincinnati Enquirer

In December 2016, Luke Fickell signed on to be the 42nd head coach in the history of the University of Cincinnati football program. Five years later, Fickell has done the unthinkable, making the Bearcats the first Group of Five team to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The 48-year-old coach was rewarded for his work Tuesday, being named The Home Depot Coach of the Year. The award is presented annually to the top head coach in college football.

Fickell will receive the award during the 31st annual The Home Depot College Football Awards at 7 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.

Fickell is the second Cincinnati coach to win the award, joining former UC coach Brian Kelly (2009).

Playoff bound:Cincinnati at No. 4 becomes first Group of Five team to crack College Football Playoff

After leading the Bearcats to a 12-0 record that season, Kelly jilted Cincinnati before the Sugar Bowl to take over the program at Notre Dame. UC, under then-interim coach Jeff Quinn, lost to Florida in New Orleans, 51-24.

But unlike Kelly, Fickell stayed.

With notable vacancies at Notre Dame, USC, LSU and Oklahoma, the coaching carousel slowed down for Fickell. But, instead of ditching Cincinnati and hopping aboard, Fickell pushed the carousel aside and elected to finish what he started with the Bearcats.

More:Cincinnati Bearcats coach Luke Fickell on Notre Dame vacancy: 'There is no speculation'

"The decisions we make obviously make us, and we all have to make our own decisions for whatever's best for whatever it is we believe is the right thing," Fickell said. "To be in the place where we are, obviously to have the year that we've had and to have the opportunity we have, but to be able to spend it with those guys I think is that much more special."

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell raises the trophy of the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the Houston Cougars, 35-20.

UC Director of Athletics John Cunningham, who was hired three years after Fickell in December 2019, shined some light on why the Columbus native and father of six decided to stay put in Cincinnati.

"I think it speaks to him and his character," Cunningham said. "When he talks about the importance of that locker room and the relationships in that locker room, he really believes it and means it. That's family, and he talks about that a lot too. When you look at opportunities that he's had, and he's said, you know what, this family is more important right now than those other opportunities. He believes in this school, he believes in where it's going. Obviously, the Big 12 is a big piece to the puzzle because it takes away a potential glass ceiling that we maybe had going forward.

"But we continue to talk about growth, and he knows that's what I believe in. He knows that's what Dr. Pinto (UC President Neville G. Pinto) believes in with this program, that we shouldn't take a backseat to anybody and we can compete long term. Those are the conversations we have."

University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto and Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell embrace shortly before the trophy presentation of the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the Houston Cougars, 35-20.

After a 4-8 debut season at Cincinnati in 2017, Fickell is now 48-14 during his five-year tenure, including a 22-1 mark over the last two seasons.

The former Ohio State player and longtime Buckeyes assistant was named the American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year for the third time this season. Fickell also earned the honor in 2018 and 2020.

Since his first day on the job, Fickell has said his goal is to build Cincinnati into a "top-10 program" and "play for championships."

Fickell's Bearcats (13-0) are the only remaining undefeated team in the FBS after claiming their second straight AAC championship.

Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 4 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, will face top-ranked Alabama (12-1) in the Cotton Bowl at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 31 on ESPN. The winner will play either No. 2 Michigan (12-1) or No. 3 Georgia (12-1) for the national championship on Jan. 10, 2022.

"Alabama is one of the top-tier programs, and if we want to consider ourselves the best, we have to play against the best," UC senior quarterback Desmond Ridder said. "Coach Fick has talked about being a top-10 program over the past couple of years, and Alabama's been a top-10 program for as long as we can remember. So it's going to be fun to see how we stack up against the best of the best."