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Jim Polzin: Luke Fickell perfect choice for blowing up Wisconsin football program

"It's a holy-bleep hire and fits a bold plan that carries a great deal of risk but also a potentially large reward," writes Jim Polzin

NCAA Football: Navy at Cincinnati
Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell during the second half against the Navy Midshipmen on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fickell was named the new head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers football team on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.
Katie Stratman/USA TODAY Sports
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MADISON — There have been more than a few times over the past two months in which I've wondered to myself if University of Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh just should light a match, blow up this whole football program and start from scratch.

McIntosh poured the gasoline Oct. 2 with his shocking decision to fire Paul Chryst five games into his seventh season, proof that even a .720 winning percentage doesn't guarantee job security at UW. The only thing more stunning would have been following that move eight weeks later by naming anyone other than Jim Leonhard as the Badgers' next coach.

To that, McIntosh says: Ka-Boom! That smoke coming from 1440 Monroe St. on Sunday, Nov. 27, was UW blowing people's minds — including my own — by landing Cincinnati's Luke Fickell to lead the program.

It's a holy-bleep hire and fits a bold plan that carries a great deal of risk but also a potentially large reward.

Get someone from outside the Barry Alvarez family, someone with little or no history at this place, someone with fresh ideas and a different perspective, someone willing to slam his fist on a table and demand change. In other words, a much-needed reset for a program that has decayed to the point of needing a makeover.

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I kept those thoughts mostly to myself the last two months mainly because I thought it'd be unfair to Leonhard not to give him this opportunity after being placed in a brutal position in early October. He'd done nothing since then to disqualify himself from getting the job, unless you count going 4-3 while being handcuffed with an offensive scheme/staff/signal-caller that he didn't choose.

Was UW better in Game 12 than it was in Game 5? No, but did anybody really expect Leonhard to turn a clunker into a smooth-running machine without some serious time under the hood and an overhaul of parts?

Plus, I'd convinced myself there was a compromise that included Leonhard. Instead of pushing him out the door, here was a chance for him to be the solution instead of being viewed as part of the problem.

We never got to hear Leonhard's vision for the program, but I was convinced it'd be a good one. And that he'd have the confidence, the smarts, the passion, the moxie to look McIntosh in the eyes and tell him everything that was wrong with this program and everything he'd do to fix it with support from UW.

McIntosh instead chose new blood.

While this has to be disappointing for Leonhard, he'll land on his feet. It'd be great for continuity purposes if he'd stick around and be part of Fickell's staff, but that seems awkward and unrealistic.

Maybe Leonhard will be the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator in a couple months. Maybe Leonhard will do exactly what Fickell did after being passed over at his alma mater in 2011 following a 6-7 season as Ohio State's interim coach: Shake off the sadness, get back to work as an assistant and make the most of it when that chance to finally run his own program comes along.

If not Leonhard at UW, I also would have been onboard with Baylor's Dave Aranda or Kansas' Lance Leipold as the next coach. Fickell was so far off my radar that I hadn't even spent much time considering him as a candidate, but this is an impressive hire by McIntosh.

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Fickell went 57-18 in six seasons at Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff last season. He had nine players selected in the 2022 NFL draft, third only to Georgia (15) and LSU (10). That shows he can take players who aren't necessarily blue-chip prospects and develop them.

UW saw Nebraska's Matt Rhule hire and raised it with an even hotter commodity in Fickell. That's two victories over the Cornhuskers in a span of nine days for the Badgers.

Make no mistake — this is McIntosh pushing all his chips into the center of the table. If you're a Badgers fan, going all in has to be both thrilling and a little scary, too.

There's some irony here as well. UW didn't use an executive search firm in the spring of 2021 to find a replacement for Alvarez. The "search" predictably ended with his hand-picked choice as the successor.

That was a chance to blow up this thing on a bigger scale and bring in some fresh ideas from the outside. UW instead chose continuity and promoted McIntosh, the safe pick.

Now it's McIntosh, who played for the Badgers under Alvarez, delivering knockout blows to two fellow UW alums in the span of less than two months: An $11 million pink slip for Chryst on Oct. 2, a thanks-for-your service to Leonhard on Sunday.

Is this all McIntosh or does he have a boss whispering in his ear? New UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin is a bit of a mystery and we're still waiting to hear her views on what she expects from the athletic department. An interview request was placed with Mnookin's office on Oct. 20 and we were told it'd be "some time" before we'd hear back. The wait in that queue is now at five-plus weeks and counting.

Perhaps Mnookin has kept her nose out of McIntosh's business and this is his call alone.

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This could be the start of a glorious run for the Badgers under Fickell. A chance to jump back over rivals Iowa and Minnesota and rub elbows with the elite teams in the Big Ten and — let's dream big here — on a national level.

Or maybe Fickell wins 72% of his games over an extended stretch, with no playoff appearances, and UW is no better off than it was under Chryst ... or Gary Andersen ... or Bret Bielema ... or even Barry Alvarez.

Worse yet, what if one of UW's favorite sons goes somewhere else and Leonhard becomes the successful coach many of us believed he could be with the Badgers?

I understand what McIntosh did here, but a warning label needs to be attached to his decision to blow this thing to smithereens: Sometimes when you play with fire, you get burned.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal

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