As Fickell steps in as coach, task of healing at Wisconsin looms large

MADISON, Wis. — Not long after Luke Fickell arrived in Madison on Sunday night, Wisconsin’s 31st head football coach met with his new team.

That meant Fickell had a captive audience of dozens of players, most of whom were openly rooting to see Jim Leonhard promoted from interim head coach to full-time head coach.

Fickell, who recently completed his sixth season at Cincinnati, understood he needed to start the bonding process by being open and honest.

‘You’ve just got to be yourself,’ he said Monday during his introductory news conference. ‘You’ve got to be authentic. You’ve got to be real. It takes time.’

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Fickell was Ohio State’s interim head coach for the 2011 season. After the Buckeyes finished 3-5 in the Big Ten and 6-7 overall, Urban Meyer was hired as the full-time head coach. Fickell remained on the staff as the co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach.

‘The unique thing I’ve got is that I was in the position,’ he said. ‘I had a great relationship with a lot of the guys, just like Jim has.

‘What we do understand is while young men are emotional, they also are resilient. Whatever is best for them they will do. Building a relationship is a big deal. (But) it’s not trying to overtake somebody else’s relationship, which I’m not trying to do.”

Fickell, who compiled a 63-25 record at Cincinnati, has much work to do before the Badgers open the 2023 season Sept. 2 against visiting Buffalo.

He must put together his coaching staff, convince any of the current players pondering transferring that they should be patient and remain at Wisconsin and find a way to build up a recruiting class that is down to nine committed players.

The 2023 class is composed of one quarterback, two running backs, three defensive backs, one offensive lineman, one linebacker and one defensive end.

Wisconsin officials on Monday posted five job openings. Both coordinator positions have been posted, as well as an assistant coaching position, the head of strength and conditioning and an assistant strength and conditioning position.

All five postings are to remain open through 11:55 p.m. on Dec. 5.

Fickell has met with Leonhard and spoken about the possibility of him returning to Wisconsin in 2023.

‘I told him: ‘You’ve got a lot of things to think about. You’ve got to figure out where you want to be in five years and where you want to be in 10 years. … That is going to help you to figure out where you want to be next year.’

‘That’s not easy. There’s a lot of things we all have to be able to get over. It takes a special person in some ways to get over a lot of those things.

‘I had a hard time with it. But I do believe it was the right thing for me and the way that I did it and went out about it and it helped me become who I am.

‘But my way is not always the right way. It’s not the way for everybody else. But that is what it really comes down to. What is in your heart and what is in your mind?’

Wisconsin, which finished the regular season 6-6 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten, should learn its bowl destination Sunday. Barring a change, Leonhard could remain as the interim head coach. However, Fickell noted Monday he will be coaching in some capacity and spending as much time around the team as possible.

Fickell needs to evaluate the personnel and also work on building relationships with the players.

‘That gives me a great opportunity to spend an inordinate amount of time diving into this entire program,’ he said, ‘every young man on the team, the guys who are here now as well as the recruiting moving forward.

‘I spent four or five hours today visiting with as many kids as I could. That is what I’ll continue to do. I’ve got a lot of work to do and I’m excited about it.

‘They don’t know me and there’s things that have to be done to build those bonds. They aren’t done overnight. They’re done with authenticity. They’re done with repeated actions over time.

‘And if I’m not around while they’re practicing during bowl practice, I’m losing an opportunity to really help develop that relationship.’

About two dozen players were in attendance Monday, though they were not available for interviews afterward.

Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh took time to salute the work Leonhard did as interim head coach, guiding the Badgers to a 4-3 mark after the firing of Paul Chryst.

‘Jimmy, first and foremost, did an incredible job for the program,’ McIntosh said. ‘Stepped into a circumstance that was incredibly difficult and over-delivered.

‘Jim’s ability to step into a 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.’

He also noted he offered a few words when Fickell met the team Sunday night.

‘When we met with them last night I recognized and apologized for any decisions I have made that have contributed to the problems this season. …

‘The experience that these kids and this team had this year isn’t one that I would wish on anyone. It has been extremely difficult.’

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