Morgantown, West Virginia – Flashback to 2019. Dana Holgorsen just announced that he was leaving West Virginia University for the head coaching position at Houston University. After a thorough search, West Virginia’s director of athletics interviewed three candidates for the vacant job in Morgantown.
Former Mountaineers co-defensive coordinator Tony Gibson was a long-shot for the position. He lacked head coaching experience and although he is a proud West Virginian and an outstanding recruiter, he just didn’t have the credentials to lead a program.
Neal Brown was fresh off three straight double-digit win seasons and a 35-16 record overall, and he was one of the hottest young coaches in college football at the time.
And Luke Fickell, the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, had just finished an 11-2. Before that, he served as the Ohio State Buckeyes defensive coordinator for eleven seasons.
West Virginia’s President, E. Gordon Gee, was Ohio State’s president in 2011 when Fickell spent a season as interim head coach and it was reported that Gee preferred him for the job. Although Lyons was responsible for picking the new coach, Gee ultimately pushed hard for Fickell.
Gibson, Brown and Fickell were interviewed. Gibson and Brown expressed real, sincere interest in the job. Fickell declined and decided to stay at Cincinnati. Not only that, he didn’t use West Virginia’s overtures as leverage for more money or a contract extension at Cincinnati, a very rare thing in college athletics.
Instead of agreeing to coach the Mountaineers, he built Cincinnati into a legitimate powerhouse college football program, finishing 11-3, 9-1 and 12-0 in the last three seasons. That’s a 32-4 record in three seasons and the Bearcats just knocked off Houston in the American Athletic Conference Championship game, earning Cincinnati a likely trip to the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Fickell is a real program-changer and although West Virginia was his first real suitor, the Mountaineers were certainly not his last. Fickell’s name is mentioned virtually every major opening in college football. However, he continues to turn the the offers and keeps on winning big at Cincinnati.
At the same time Neal Brown has gone 17-17 in three seasons at West Virginia while fans are asked to “trust the climb”, Luke Fickell has his team climbing to the very top of college football.
So close, yet so far away.