CINCINNATI — We’re halfway through the week of Cincinnati’s search for a head football coach in the wake of Luke Fickel’s departure to Wisconsin on Sunday.
Bearcats athletic director John Cunningham spoke to the media Sunday night and vowed to work quickly and judiciously to find Fickel’s replacement. The sense from multiple sources with knowledge of either the internship search or candidates targeted by Cincinnati is that the process is moving forward with the hope that the candidate will be in place by the end of this weekend or early next week. These sources have been granted anonymity due to the nature of the training research.
Cunningham spent the first part of this week reaching out to coaches and agents to gauge the interest of several candidates around the country. It’s a similar method to the one Cunningham used in his search for the Cincinnati men’s basketball head coach in April 2021, when he started with an initial list of 20 names and worked his way down. This football search may not be quite as broad and a bit more effective. Cunningham has been scheduling in-depth Zoom interviews with up to a dozen candidates as a first step.
Interviews are expected to start this weekend. Multiple sources familiar with the research said Cincinnati would prefer the hire to be set by Sunday and no later than Monday or Tuesday.
It will track Cunningham’s desire to “move quickly but with some care and find the right person,” he said on Sunday. It would also align with the opening of the first 45-day transfer gate window on Monday, an area the Bearcats will likely be active as existing players enter the gate in light of the training change and new staff work to fill out the roster.
Cincinnati has already had two players announce intentions or signal plans to get into the gate — cornerback JQ Hardaway and receiver Jojo Bermudez — and has its 2023 recruiting class committing to bleed. Five prospects have relinquished commitment since Fickel’s departure, including four-star defensive backs Braden Moore and Amar Snowden, while others have reopened or are recruiting. He expressed his concerns.
the athlete Also reported to Cincinnati personnel are Mike Tressel (Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach), Colin Hetschler (Safety Coach and Co-Defensive Coordinator), Mike Brown (Wide Receives Coach and Passing Game Coordinator), Brady Collins (Strength and Conditioning Coordinator), Pat Lambert (Recruiting Director) and Max Steinker (Director of Recruitment Strategy) is expected to follow Fekle to Wisconsin.
As reported earlier this week on @tweetCincinnati assts Mike Tressel (DC/LB), Colin Hitschler (SAF/coDC) and Mike Brown (WR/PGC) are expected to follow Luke Fickell to Wisconsin, along with strength coach Brady Collins and recruiters Pat Lambert and Max Steinker.
– Justin Williams (@williams_justin) November 30, 2022
That’s why time is of the essence for the Cunninghams and Bearcats, as it is for hiring the best hire for a program receiver set to make it into the Big 12. It released a preliminary list of potential candidates this week, as did Athletic Chris Vanini and Bruce Feldman.
Below is an updated list of candidates based on coaches that I’ve heard have some degree of interest or interest in the Cincinnati job. That should not imply that this list is definitive or exhaustive, because as we’ve seen during Wes Miller’s research with basketball, Cunningham keeps it to measure. Admittedly, it didn’t look too different from my initial list. There are only a couple of new additions, but it’s not a wish list either. I also cut out a few names that I couldn’t figure out in the days that followed.
One name that Fanini, Feldman, and I all had on our rosters is Iowa head coach Matt Campbell, with the caveat that he might not be willing to leave the Hurricanes. Multiple sources familiar with the research confirmed that Cincinnati reached out to express interest in Campbell for the job, but Campbell declined to follow through.
Are there any other P5 coaches that the Bearcats could reasonably try, who might be looking for a change of scenery? Jeff Hafley at Boston College? Scott Satterfield of Louisville (who was a candidate in 2016)? None have surfaced yet, dividing the current options into three categories: G5 coaches, P5 assistants, and internal candidates.
Jason Candle, Toledo
A native of Ohio with experience at Mount Union and Toledo, Kandel worked under Campbell in Toledo before landing the major job in 2016. Kandel led the Rockets to the 2017 MAC Championship and his team returned to MAC play this weekend. He had no losing records in his eight seasons with the Rockets but won more than eight games only twice. It’s not Campbell, but the 43-year-old former offensive coordinator could be his next iteration.
Sean Lewis, Kent State (A new addition)
Lewis fits the scheme: The Illinois native played college ball at Wisconsin and spent time in Akron and Bowling Green before his five seasons at the helm at Kent State. He has never won more than seven games with the Golden Flash, with a record of 24-31 (19-17 MAC) but has led a historically struggling program to two bowl games and wins the MAC East Division in 2021.
Mo Linguist, Buffalo
The biggest gamble of this group would be as a sophomore coach who went 9-14 in two seasons in Buffalo without any apparent connections to Cincinnati or Ohio. But Linguist has something to do with Cunningham, as he crossed paths with him at Minnesota while Cunningham worked as a deputy AD and Linguist was the defensive backs coach under PJ Fleck.
Jim Leonard, Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator
That would lead to an odd deal of sorts, with Fickell being replaced by the interim head coach at Wisconsin that many assumed would get the Badgers job. On paper, Leonhard’s resume is very similar to that of Fickel before he got the Cincinnati job in 2016. Leonard played at Wisconsin and spent all seven of his seasons as a college assistant at Madison, but he’s young, considered a great defensive mind and obviously likable to a great many Badger players. During his tenure as interim coach. He’s also gained some valuable experience from that stretch, and the assistants he brings to Cincinnati could make it difficult for Leonard to stay on the staff at Wisconsin.
Brian Hartline, Ohio State receiving coach/pass game coordinator (A new addition)
Hartline is a rising star in the industry and is widely considered one of the best recruiting coaches in the country. The Canton and Ohio State graduate has been back with his alma mater for seven seasons and feels it’s only a matter of time before someone bails him out with a high-profile coordinator or even a head coach job. Buckeye Scoop mentioned it Hartline is set for an interview Which, based on the schedule above, would likely be an extended Zoom call. Are Cincinnati and Cunningham willing to give a 36-year-old assistant who was never a coordinator or called upon to play the car keys? There seems to be some level of interest at least.
Alex Golish, Tennessee offensive coordinator
Cincinnati could have brought it back with another Ohio State alumnus in Gulich, who has coached at Toledo, Illinois and Iowa (under Campbell). Growing up in Dublin, Ohio, he’s dynamic and charismatic and is familiar with the Bearcats from one season at UCF in 2020. He then followed Josh Hubbell to Tennessee, where he handled game-calling duties this season and emerged as a 2022 Broyles Award semi-finalist On top of one of the most explosive crimes in the country.
Al Dhahabi, Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator
Golden got a quick nod on my initial roster, but the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame got a lot more traction to start the week than I could have expected. He has a solid reputation in the business and had stints at Temple (2006-10) and Miami (2011-15). He also spent two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2020-21, and this season at Notre Dame marked his first appearance in the college ranks since being fired from Miami. After a sudden initial spurt, his name was really starting to cool, but there were enough early gossip that it felt worthwhile to include his name.
Kerry Combs, Cincinnati Special Teams Coordinator/Cornbacks Coach
Combs assumed the temporary role after Fickell took the Wisconsin job and is currently tasked with the difficult task of navigating Cincinnati’s roster and remaining staff through bowl practices and coaching transitions. Combs — who interviewed Cunningham on Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the research — has never been a head coach at the college level, but he has experience as a Power 5 coordinator and NFL assistant and has deep ties to Cincinnati, the Bearcats and the high school recruiting scene. If Combs doesn’t get the job, he could be a potential and important factor for the new coach.
Gino Guidogli, Cincinnati offensive coordinator
Guidugli appears to be the most likely internal candidate to have a legitimate chance at the job. Sources familiar with the research said Guidogly impressed Cunningham in his interview this week. In addition to his history and contribution to the region and to the Bearcats – as a talented player, recruit and developer – Guidugli enjoys growing support from current and former Bearcats players and employees, with a few players using Hashtag “#HARN8” on social media to express their support. Guidugli also has Fickell’s support to take over as his replacement, a sentiment expressed by Fickell the athlete earlier this year. Guidugli may have the best chance of maintaining roster stability and continuity for Cincinnati in the short term, but he’s also in just his first season as offensive coordinator and second as play caller. If he doesn’t get the job, Guidugli is another candidate to join Fickell in Wisconsin.
Cunningham’s search appears to focus on candidates with Ohio/Midwestern ancestry and a similar profile to coaches who have been successful at Cincinnati in the past. The most obvious questions are a) How far is Cunningham willing to go with an internal candidate? and b) how much of a premium does Cunningham place on head-training experience?
It’s not necessarily a flashy set of names in general. (Sorry guys, I don’t have concrete evidence that Cincinnati is in the Deion Sanders lottery, except This persistent presence at the UCLA men’s basketball game Wednesday night). But despite what some reviewers might suggest, there weren’t many who were very excited about hiring Fickell at the time it was done either.
So if the Bearcats can’t land a seated Power 5 compound — and at least for now, there don’t seem to be any viable options — would Cunningham prefer to go the Group of 5 coach route (Kandell, Lewis, linguist) or with a rookie assistant (Leonard Gulish, Heartline, Guidogly)? As intimidating or risky as it may sound entering the Big 12 with a head coach for the first time, the list of current first-time Power 5 coaches who have made the jump from a 5 group isn’t as long or impressive as it might be. Supposedly. In light of this, could the familiarity and potential stability Gidugli offer help separate him from others, whether or not they have coaching experience?
Beyond that, can Combs do enough temporarily to win the job? What triggered the initial payment by Golden? And as always with Cunningham, is there a secret list of shadow candidates that the Cincinnati ad hid? If his preferred schedule continues, we’ll find out soon enough.
(Photo by Sean Lewis: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)