Luke Fickell has taken the University of Cincinnati to the verge of the College Football Playoff. He also has placed himself squarely on the radar of NFL teams -- even before this year.
The Detroit Lions quietly spoke with Fickell about their head coaching vacancy last year before they hired Dan Campbell, sources say, and the expectation within the league is Fickell will be in the mix for NFL jobs again in the upcoming hiring cycle, if he's interested.
Fickell, 48, spent one season on injured reserve as a player with the New Orleans Saints in 1997. He has never coached in the NFL. But his excellent reputation as a leader of men during 15 years on staff at Ohio State and the past five years with the upstart Bearcats makes him intriguing, in much the same way Titans coach Mike Vrabel rose from the same Buckeyes staff.
Would it make sense for Fickell to leave for the pros if he can practically pick his next college stop?
Massive money is flying at the college level now, with Brian Kelly most recently getting a 10-year, $100 million pact to leave Notre Dame for LSU. Michigan State's Mel Tucker ($95 million) and Penn State's James Franklin ($85 million) also cashed in recently on 10-year deals. That changes the calculus for college coaches who have drawn NFL interest, such as Lincoln Riley, who recently left Oklahoma for his own nine-figure contract at USC, and Iowa State's Matt Campbell, who has spoken in recent years with the Lions and New York Jets and drawn interest from high-powered college programs as well.
Matt Rhule's seven-year, $60 million contract with the Panthers is believed to be the longest and richest for a first-time NFL head coach coming from the college ranks. Several NFL coaches are believed to make over $10 million a year (a list that includes the Patriots' Bill Belichick, the Saints' Sean Payton and the Seahawks' Pete Carroll, among others). But none of the coaches hired in last year's cycle are close to that number and none of their contracts are longer than six years, though the terms of Urban Meyer's contract with the Jaguars remain unknown.
Other college coaches who have drawn NFL interest in the past include Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Stanford's David Shaw.