Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell has decided to stay with the program, according to sources familiar with the situation. Fickell interviewed with Michigan State officials at his home on Sunday morning and has widely been considered the favorite to replace his mentor, Mark Dantonio, as the Spartans’ head coach.
Fickell was never formally offered the job. But when State officials left the meeting near noontime on Sunday, there was an understanding that if Fickell wanted the job, it was his.
MSU officials flew back to East Lansing on Sunday facing a search that’s appearing to be destined to be defined by who they’ve missed out on. So far, those known to have declined interest in the job include Colorado’s Mel Tucker, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and now Fickell. This doesn’t count the high-profile candidates that outside search firm executive Glenn Sugiyama, who is running the search, reached out to early on and who declined interest.
The timing leaves Michigan State at a compelling crossroads. Dantonio’s decision to step down in early February has complicated Michigan State’s search. Compounding the terrible timing is a bad roster with no quarterback, the specter of potential NCAA issues from the Larry Nassar scandal and uncertainty with Michigan State’s athletic department leadership.
Part of the issue here is athletic director Bill Beekman’s inexperience. Despite Michigan State removing the interim tag from Beekman in 2018, his place there is still viewed within the industry as interim in feel. He came to the athletic department as the secretary of the board of trustees in the wake of the Nassar scandal. It made sense to bring in someone to help clean things up, but his glaring lack of experience in athletics has been exposed in this search.
Michigan’s State’s inability to get to Fickell soon, the public rejections by Tucker and Saleh, and the lack of ability to move covertly has left the search flailing. Don’t be surprised if Michigan State attempts to reach back out to candidates that have turned them down, perhaps with a more attractive financial package to lure them. Michigan State has money, and the likely result will be them spending a lot of it.
Interim coach Mike Tressel becomes an increasingly more attractive option. There are other decent names that MSU could conceivably chase – former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, Cal’s Justin Wilcox and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops among them. But Michigan State’s clunky, public and un-focused search has backed it into a corner where anyone who takes it knows he wasn’t close to the top choice. That gives any sitting coach or coordinator tremendous financial leverage if Michigan State does call.
For Cincinnati, Fickell’s decision to stay is a boon for the school, which has long aspired to rise from the Group of Five to the riches and brighter lights of a power league. Fickell has been a boon for the Bearcats, who have gone 22-5 the past two seasons and return at least 15 starters from Cincy’s 11-3 season in 2019. Cincinnati just lured the best recruiting class in school history, and Fickell has long pointed to this season as his best team.
The Bearcats play at Nebraska next season in a game they could well end up being favored in. They also host defending American Athletic Conference champion Memphis in what projects as one of the biggest games in the brief history of the AAC.
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