INDIANAPOLIS — Luke Fickell got his first taste of leading a Big Ten program as Ohio State's interim coach in 2011. This fall, he's back with the more traditional title of head coach — at Wisconsin.
Former Baylor coach Matt Rhule is back in the college fray, too, this time at Nebraska.
They are the highest-profile members of the Big Ten's four new coaches, all of whom took jobs with West Division teams in a league they revere.
“We could take the whole time on ‘why Wisconsin,'” Fickell said on the second and final day of the Big Ten's annual football kickoff in Indianapolis. “It has a lot to do with being back in the Big Ten. It has to do with the respect I’ve always had playing against and preparing for Wisconsin, understanding and recognizing what I assumed the culture was like from afar. It felt like something that would be really, really in my wheelhouse.”
The Badgers certainly believe Fickell is the perfect fit to complete the mission Barry Alvarez started way back when Fickell was a highly-coveted football and wrestling prep star in Ohio.
While the number of new coaches hired is hardly an aberration in major college football, the journeys these men made are strikingly different.
Fickell became a star at Ohio State, making a record 50 consecutive starts at nose guard before logging one injury-plagued NFL season. He returned to his alma mater in 1999 as a graduate assistant and then spent two years at Akron before returning to Ohio State in 2002. He stayed there until Cincinnati took a swing at the former Buckeyes interim coach, who eventually led the Bearcats to the CFP Playoffs.
Now, on Oct. 28, Fickell will welcome those same Buckeyes to his new home in Madison.
“I know there will be storylines and things like that,” he said. “All I can say is that I hope we can be in a position to make it as big a game as it can be, and I think that's a driving force for me and for us.”
Rhule was an NFL darling four years ago after turning around the Temple and Baylor programs, but was fired by the Carolina Panthers after five games last season. He finished with an 11-27 record.
Still, Cornhuskers athletic director Trev Alberts was impressed enough with the resume to give Rhule another shot, just like Nebraska's experiment with Bill Callahan in 2004.
While Rhule's goal is to restore the prestige to a program that hasn't played in a bowl game since 2016, he believes the NFL experience has made him become a better coach.
“I think for me on a personal note, every job I've taken before it worked out, so you kind of always think it's going to work out,” Rhule said. “I learned a lot about leadership by leading in tough times. It's easy to lead when things are going well, but when you're about to get fired and the whole stadium is going ‘Fire Sipple, Fire Sipple’. You know what I learned? I'm tough and my family is tough.”
Nobody is in a tougher or more unexpected spot than Northwestern interim coach David Braun. The two-time national championship winning defensive coordinator was hired by Pat Fitzgerald in January and promoted earlier this month when Fitzgerald was fired in the midst of a hazing scandal.
Braun, who grew up in Wisconsin, is a first-time head coach and he and his wife, Kristin, are expecting their third child this weekend as the start of camp looms. His job is keeping him busy, too.
“If this was January, we would hire a defensive coordinator immediately,” Braun said Wednesday. “But I plan on calling the defense because I want to make sure as many people as possible can stay in their positions. I plan on hiring a defensive assistant, but it's going to take a special person who is going to say, 'I'm going to leave my job and run into the fire.'”
Ryan Walters, meanwhile, has taken the most traditional route.
The former quarterback was moved to safety at Colorado and immediately began working his way through the assistant ranks when his playing career ended in 2008. After finishing the 2009 season as a student assistant with the Buffaloes, he made stops at Arizona, Oklahoma, North Texas, Memphis and Missouri before Illinois coach Bret Bielema hired him as defensive coordinator in 2021.
Now he's heading across the state line to take over defending Big Ten West champ Purdue with a new quarterback and new staff in a league he knows well. And, he can't wait to get started.
“It wasn't like I got a job and I'm trying to figure it out,” he said. “It was I got a job and and I'm executing a plan. So to have a plan in place and to have it be executed in real time and exceed your expectations has been really gratifying.”