It's hard to remember where Cincinnati football was as recently as 2016.
The Bearcats took a big swing in hiring Tommy Tuberville away from Texas Tech. That an established name in SEC country would leave a Big 12 job to coach Cincinnati proved the Bearcats were going places -- and that place turned out to be the bottom of the standings. Tuberville led Cincinnati to a share of the American championship in 2014, but by 2016 UC had slipped to 1-7 in conference play and Tuberville was out.
Cincinnati replaced the fish-out-of-water Tuberville with lifelong Ohioan Luke Fickell, and to say the move has worked out would be an understatement.
After a 4-8 debut in 2017, Cincinnati leaped to 11-2 and a No. 24 AP finish in 2018. Their losses came at Temple in overtime and at undefeated UCF, with wins at UCLA in the opener and over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. This year, Cincinnati is 4-1 and back in the AP Top 25. The Bearcats opened the year by beating UCLA again, were then blown out by Ohio State (a 42-0 loss that doesn't look nearly as bad now as it did at the time), then followed it up with blowouts of Miami (Ohio) and Marshall.
That led into Friday night's showdown with No. 18 UCF, a test the Bearcats passed to the tune of a 27-24 win. The win lifted Cincinnati to 16-3 since the beginning of last season -- a record that matches UCF, who put together back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 2017-18. The lead the Knights had over Fickell and company has evaporated, as Cincinnati now essentially has a 2-game lead in the AAC East.
All this to say, for a 46-year-old coach with a decade and a half at Ohio State and now three successful seasons at Cincinnati, Fickell will be at the top of the list for Power 5 schools looking to make an upgrade this offseason, particularly schools in the Midwest.
And Fickell's contract won't scare any of them away.
Fickell is still on his original contract, signed on Feb. 20, 2017, that runs through Dec. 31, 2022. After making $1.9 million in 2017 and $2 million in 2018, Fickell will earn $2.3 million this year and $2.4 million for the final three years of the deal.
Cinicinnati would owe Fickell $4.8 million should the school fire him this year, but if Fickell were to leave he would owe the school a scant $2.5 million.
As a Columbus native, an Ohio State graduate, GA, position coach, coordinator and (interim) head coach, Fickell presumably had designs on returning to the homeland as Ohio State's head coach one day -- a plan that Ryan Day has taken off the table for now.
But if Michigan were to move on from Jim Harbaugh or Mark Dantonio were to walk away at Michigan State, the former Buckeye may be the best option for those schools to catch Ohio State. Another interested suitor could be Illinois, as rumor has it AD Josh Whitman has been sniffing around.
Either way, at his current rate Fickell will likely be working on a new contract at this time next year, either at Cincinnati or somewhere else.