Better Hire: Matt Rhule or Luke Fickell?

A pair of Big Ten West jobs opened up in the middle of this college football season as Nebraska parted ways with Scott Frost and Wisconsin relieved Paul Chryst of his head coaching duties. The Cornhuskers let Mickey Joseph handle the remainder of the campaign, while Wisconsin went with former player and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in the interim. Shortly after the conclusion of the regular season, both positions were permanently filled when Nebraska hired Matt Rhule and Wisconsin poached Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell. These hires will inevitably be compared as the programs battle each other in the same league (and the same division).

So, which hire looks better right now?

Let’s evaluate each coach and how they fit in, beginning with Nebraska’s Matt Rhule.

Matt Rhule – Formerly of the Carolina Panthers, Baylor Bears, and Temple Owls

Matt Rhule is 47 years old and was born in New York before moving to State College, Pennsylvania. He attended Penn State University from 1994 to 1997 and walked on as a member of Joe Paterno’s football program. In 1998, he began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant for Penn State. He bounced around for several years, moving up the coaching ladder before eventually getting the call to lead the program at Temple University in December 2012.

The Owls struggled but were decent under Steve Addazio. Addazio had left to coach at Boston College, and Rhule inherited a solid but unspectacular roster. The Owls were 2-10 and then 6-6 in his first two years before things took off in 2015. Temple shocked Penn State 27-10 and eventually won its division in the American Athletic Conference, making the Boca Raton Bowl and finishing 10-4 on the season. In 2016, the Owls won the division again and ten games for the second straight season. Rhule was approached by several schools before eventually taking the head coaching job at Baylor. The Bears were in dire straights after a 1-11 campaign, and Rhule had to rebuild from the ground up. They went 1-11 in his first season before improving to 6-6 in year two and 11-1 in year three. That season included a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game (they lost) and a Sugar Bowl berth (they lost to Georgia). Rhule jumped at the opportunity to move to the NFL as the Carolina Panthers came calling. The Panthers went 5-11 in his debut season (2020), and after starting 3-0 in 2021, he was just 5-12 in year two. The third season was supposed to be better after the franchise traded for Baker Mayfield, but it quickly became apparent that it was not going to work. The Panthers fired Rhule on October 1, with the team at 1-4. 

Nebraska targeted Rhule as soon as he became available, and on November 26, he was announced as the hire. Rhule is viewed as a terrific developer of talent and a builder. He built Temple to a level of success they have not seen since and took Baylor from 1-11 to 11-1. While Rhule is not a terrific recruiter, he could hire an excellent recruiting staff, and NIL support at Nebraska is likely to assist with attracting talent to Lincoln.

A pessimist could look at Rhule’s career and say: Temple won a watered-down division with an easy schedule, and the win over Penn State was at a time when PSU was incredibly weak. At Baylor, his team benefited from down years for other conference contenders, and in his three seasons, his Bears never beat a single ranked team. He went to the NFL and lost big, going 11-27, and the Panthers have been better since firing him. 

Luke Fickell – Formerly of the University of Cincinnati

Luke Fickell, born in 1973 in Ohio, shocked many when he was announced as the primary target for the Wisconsin Badgers head coaching position. Fickell had turned down other power conference positions before, and with Cincinnati headed to the Big 12, most thought he would stay with the Bearcats until a true blue-blood position opened. The opportunity to get back into the Big 12 was too good to pass up, and on November 27, Fickell agreed to make the move to Madison. Fickell was a nose guard at Ohio State in the 1990s and stayed with the Buckeyes as a graduate assistant in 1999. He was the defensive line coach at Akron in 2000 and 2001 before returning to Ohio State for 15 years, where he served in various capacities. Most notably, Fickell was the interim head coach in 2011 during the scandal involving Jim Tressel. He went 6-6 in that incredibly difficult and awkward one-year stint before returning to his role as co-defensive coordinator under new head coach Urban Meyer.

In 2017, he became the head coach for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Cincinnati was always a solid program, but Fickell, after a 4-8 first season, took the program to new heights. The Bearcats won 11 games in 2018 and 2019 and went 9-1 in 2020, with the lone loss coming in the Peach Bowl. They followed that up by going 13-0 in the regular season and AAC Championship Game, becoming the first non-Power Five team to make the College Football Playoff. The 2022 team lost a lot of players to the NFL Draft but still managed to go 9-3.

For the first time in a long time, Wisconsin has gone outside the “family.” Fickell has ties to the Big Ten and the Midwest but not to Wisconsin. That is interesting, especially since they chose him ahead of the personification of Wisconsin football, Jim Leonhard. That might be a negative if the university and boosters don’t accept him, but I don’t think that will be the case.

What’s the number one job for a college football head coach? Winning games.

Fickell has done that at a remarkable level. He is 57-18 as a head coach and took a Group of Five team to the College Football Playoff. He has a lot of experience recruiting within the Big Ten footprint and has developed NFL talent. And, unlike Matt Rhule, he has beaten several ranked teams as a head coach. 

Which Hire is Better?

Only time will tell who was the better hire, so we cannot give a definitive answer before either has coached a game at Nebraska or Wisconsin. However, on paper, Luke Fickell is the better hire. He is one of the 10-15 best coaches in college football and has proven over multiple years that he can lead a program to elite levels of winning. Matt Rhule makes sense for Nebraska and should do well to stabilize that program, but Fickell is the more sure thing with a ceiling near the top of the sport.