Luke Fickell is heading to Madison, Wisconsin following his historic run at Cincinnati. The move to the Big Ten comes as a shocker to the college football world, especially after passing on high-profile jobs such as Michigan State in the past. The Bearcats are searching for a new head coach just a year after making the college football playoff and less than a year before entering the Big 12. Cincinnati is the top coaching vacancy as the program enters a power five conference and sits in the heart of a hot midwestern recruiting bed. Here are the leading candidates the Bearcats should target to replace Fickell.
Gino Guidugli, Offensive Coordinator at UC
If Cincinnati decides to hire internally, Gino Guidugli will be the guy. This became apparent with the announcement that defensive coordinator Mike Tressel is following Fickell to Wisconsin. Guidugli took over coordinator duties just a year ago and has already earned immense praise from the players. The 39-year-old is a former quarterback for the Bearcats and is in the university athletic hall of fame. He is an offensive mind that could thrive in the Big 12. Guidugli knows the area and has a strong reputation as a recruiter. He was the quarterback coach during the Desmond Ridder era which will give him credibility as a talent developer. Guidugli may be young but has the respect of the locker room and athletic department. Don’t be surprised if he is named the next Cincinnati head coach.
Jesse Minter, Defensive Coordinator at Michigan
Minter is a popular name in coaching searches after Michigan’s dominant victory at Ohio State and makes even more sense for Cincinnati. His father, Rick Minter, was the Bearcat head coach for nine years in the late 90s and early 2000s. The team went to six bowl games under his tenure. The younger Minter played college football at Mount St. Joseph University, in Hamilton County, Ohio. He also served as a graduate assistant for the Bearcats in 2007 and 2008. Minter has NFL ties, working with the Baltimore Ravens as a defensive assistant from 2017-2020. As a result, he is an inexperienced recruiter, but his ties to the region should benefit him. Overall, Minter makes a ton of sense for the Bearcats.
Sean Lewis, Head Coach at Kent State
Cincinnati fans may be underwhelmed by Sean Lewis’ 24-31 record at Kent State, but he has turned one of the worst FBS programs into a competitive program. Lewis is the architect of the Golden Flashes’ high-powered offense that ranked first in the country in total offense in 2020. He has recruited well during his Kent State tenure, churning out top-five classes in the MAC. In the last two seasons before Lewis arrived, the Flashes had the second-worst class in the conference. Lewis checks the boxes as a program builder, a young offensive mind, and a proven recruiter in the midwest.
Matt Campbell, Head Coach at Iowa State
Speculating that Matt Campbell will leave Iowa State for a new position is a yearly tradition at this point. Campbell was at once considered one of the biggest rising stars in the country. He missed out on the Ohio State and Notre Dame openings over the past few years, reported to be the two schools he had his eyes on. Would Campbell leave Ames, Iowa for a school like Cincinnati? The Ohio native has heavy ties to the area as he spent his entire coaching career before Iowa State at schools in the Buckeye state including a successful run as head coach at Toledo, and still recruits the region well.
On the surface, Cincinnati is not a major upgrade from Iowa State, although the two will be in the same conference. It is not unheard of for coaches to make moves that are not obvious upgrades. The two most prominent examples are Dana Holgerson going from West Virginia to Houston and Jimbo Fisher from Florida State to Texas A&M. Those two hires were highly influenced by money and it is uncertain if Cincinnati is able to back up the brinks truck enough to lure Campbell away from Iowa State. Ultimately it will come down to whether Campbell thinks he has a better chance to compete for the new 12-team College Football Playoff with the Bearcats or the Cyclones. UC certainly has an argument thanks to their recent playoff berth and strong recruiting classes.
Tony Alford, Running Backs Coach at Ohio State
Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford has been in the college football world for nearly 30 years, almost entirely spent in the midwest. He has coached NFL talent such as Ezekiel Elliot, JK Dobbins, and Michael Floyd during his time at Notre Dame and Ohio State. Alford recruits the area like no other and has a strong reputation in coaching circles. He has been targeted by group-of-five schools in coaching searches for several years despite his lack of coordinator experience. Ohio State assistants are always up for head coaching positions, and Alford is the strongest candidate, especially after Brian Hartline announced on Twitter that he does not plan on leaving Columbus this offseason. Cincinnati’s conference jump may hurt Alford’s chances of being hired, but he is certainly worthy of consideration.
Jason Candle, Head Coach at Toledo
The only Group of Five head coach on this list, Jason Candle has done an admirable job taking the reins from Matt Campbell. The Rockets have not had a losing season during his tenure and won the Mid-American Conference title in 2017. They have a chance to win the MAC again this year when they face Ohio University in the championship game on December 3. Candle has consistently put together strong recruiting classes, including the top MAC class in 2017. The Salem, Ohio native played college football and started his coaching career at Division III powerhouse Mount Union, an Ohio school. He does not have direct ties to the Cincinnati area, but his Ohio roots make him an intriguing choice for the job.
Garrett Riley, Offensive Coordinator at TCU
Lincoln Riley’s 33-year-old brother is one of the hottest names in coaching circles due to his success with undefeated TCU. Every team is looking for a young offensive guru, and Riley fits the mold. He has Big 12 roots that would help solidify Cincinnati as a power player in the conference. His relative inexperience and lack of midwest roots are not ideal for this specific job, but hiring Garrett Riley would be a swing-for-the-fences move from the Bearcats.
Mike Denbrock, Offensive Coordinator at LSU
A reunion with former offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock makes a lot of sense for the Bearcats. Denbrock helped develop Desmond Ridder into an NFL quarterback and led the offense during their college football playoff run in 2021. Denbrock has done an impressive job with Jayden Daniels and the LSU offense in his first season as offensive coordinator there. Denbrock would not be a flashy hire, but he would be a familiar face to the fanbase amidst all the uncertainty the Big 12 move will bring.
Alex Golesh, Offensive Coordinator at Tennessee
38-year-old Ohio State graduate Alex Golesh has had a meteoric rise in coaching circles this year while leading the best offense in college football at Tennessee. Golesh currently serves as the offensive coordinator under offensive guru Josh Heupel and has a decade-long track record as an assistant in the midwest. Golesh is an Ohio native and would bring a power-five conference pedigree to the Bearcats. It may be a little early to consider Golesh for high-profile positions like Cincinnati, but his success with the Volunteers and regional ties land him a spot on the shortlist.