Winning breeds success. After winning 35 games over the past 4 seasons, the Bearcats had their first major shake-up in the coaching staff. A few staff departures had the Bearcats hunting for some new faces. We’ll examine the ramifications of the coaching shake-ups on Coach Fickell’s staff.
As Bearcat fans, we all suffer a bit of PTSD at the end of every season. In December, we all feel that pain in the pit of our stomach, is this going to be the year we have to do another head coaching search. Despite a lot of outside interest, the closest we’ve had to any concern with Coach Fickell, was answering a house call from Michigan State, which Coach turned into a raise, and further investment in his coaching staff. Fickell is heading into year 5 as Bearcat’s Head Coach with sky high expectations.
Going into Fickell’s fourth season, it was surprising to most that he was able to keep his Offensive Coordinator and Defensive Coordinator under him, for every season he’s been at Cincinnati. For a program who had won 11 games the previous two seasons, it was a big shock. Offensive Coordinator Mike Denbrock had some interest before last season and Coach Freeman had interviewed for a job with the Tennessee Titans. Coach was able to put them together for one last special season, but going into 2021, Coach Denbrock and Coach Freeman both interviewed at Autonomous Five schools, who have far greater financial flexibility. Ultimately, Coach Denbrock turned down the overtures from Vanderbilt and decided to return to Cincinnati. Coach Freeman on the other hand, was a much hotter commodity.
Marcus Freeman and Luke Fickell are great friends, which had to make Freeman’s decision even tougher. In fact, over this past Summer the Freeman clan was living in the Fickell’s basement while they were getting their house renovated, a sign that Coach Freeman was planning to stick around for a while. Marcus Freeman was a recruit for Luke Fickell at Ohio State, playing for him from 2005-2008 racking up 264 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. He had a cup of coffee in the NFL, before coming back to work under Coach Fickell as a Graduate Assistant in 2010. Coach Freeman had some success, ultimately becoming a Co-Defensive Coordinator at Purdue University in 2016, a year in which the Bearcats went to Lafayette and won 38-20 and developed my relationship with the Republic in the RV Lots. Despite that defense not playing particularly well, Coach Fickell brought on a young Marcus Freeman as his Defensive Coordinator after rumors swirled of Tennesee Titans Head Coach Mike Vrabel joining Fickell’s staff. The rest was history. Coach Fickell and Coach Freeman were 1a and 1b in terms of importance to this team, like how they preached a 1a and 1b approach to their depth chart. Coach Freeman was one of the hottest Defensive Coordinator in the country, winning multiple awards after the 2020 campaign. After a lot of interest over the past two off seasons, Coach Freeman decided it was time to move on. He interviewed with LSU and Notre Dame and it was looking like he was going to Baton Rouge to join the Tigers staff before a bombshell dropped on a Friday afternoon and he was going northwest to South Bend. A big match-up between friends looms on October 2nd.
Joining Coach Freeman in South Bend is Recruiting Coordinator Chad Bowden. Bowden was instrumental in developing UC’s recruiting approach. Bowden was the brainchild developing multiple events over the past several years, such as the Bearcats Golden Ticket event right before Covid-19 destroyed 2020 for most people, he also developed on field virtual visits this season, to keep recruiting interest high. If you want to read more about these type of recruiting events, I suggest Justin Williams from The Athletic, who covered Bowden and his recruiting approach.
Also leaving this off-season, was running backs coach Dan Enos. Enos was only with the Bearcats for 1 season after the departure of former Running Back Coach Doug Phillips to become Head Coach of Youngstown State. Enos had previously been with the Bearcats as a QB Coach in 2004 and 2005. Enos has moved on to be the Offensive Coordinator at Maryland.
Fickell has had to deal with a myriad of staff changes since joining Cincinnati, but the hardest to replace was always going to be Marcus Freeman. Rumors were swirling for what felt like weeks about who Coach Fickell was going to pursue to replace Freeman. Players who had the opportunity to leave for the NFL Draft were coming back, this upcoming season has high expectations and it was extremely important to hire the right guy to replace Freeman. Ultimately, Coach Fickell went with someone who he had experience with and who had experience in Cincinnati. Mike Tressel was announced as Cincinnati’s next Defensive Coordinator on 1/27/21. Tressel was on Ohio State’s staff under his uncle Jim in 2002 and 2003 with Coach Freeman. Tressel then joined Mark Dantonio on Cincinnati’s staff as a Linebackers/Special Teams Coach from 2004 to 2006 before leaving the Lindner Center in a blaze of glory to head to Michigan State with Dantonio. Tressel was instrumental in Michigan State’s stout defense, fighting his way up to Co-Defensive Coordinator and ultimately Defensive Coordinator in 2018 and 2019. Tressel’s defenses were always highly rated and the 2014 Spartans even made it to the College Football Playoff, a goal the Bearcats have in sight.
Pat Lambert was promoted to Recruiting Coordinator to replace the departure of Chad Bowden. Lambert was a former Bearcats player from 2009 to 2012 and has been on the recruiting team for the past few years. Promoting from within, should have the Bearcats continuing to hum along on the recruiting front.
Replacing Coach Enos was a total wild card as our new Running Backs Coach. Darren Paige, a WR Coach, from Eastern Michigan University is currently linked to become the Bearcats RB Coach. It was almost a forgone conclusion, that Princeton High School Head Coach, Mike Daniels, would coach RBs on the Bearcats. Daniels, a former Bearcat WR and RB, has interviewed for multiple positions over the past couple years, but continues to miss the boat. Paige was said to be very impressive in his interview and you can see a video from Stony Brook below that he has a lot of Marcus Freeman vibes.
Freeman was the biggest loss, but Tressel should be able to step in and compete right away and take the Bearcats into the College Football Invitation discussions. Coach Paige should be able to step in for Enos and hopefully give our Running Backs group some fresh perspective in a year where there’s some uncertainty about the depth of that group. Pat Lambert will continue to push the Recruiting front and I have no doubt he’ll be successful.