Why Wisconsin football coach Luke Fickell finds former head coaches on staff invaluable

Luke Fickell twice went against his gut this offseason when filling out his coaching staff.
Obviously, the University of Wisconsin football coach trusted and believed the men he hired would benefit his players and be valuable recruiters. But two of his choices fell into a class of coaches he’s less keen on hiring as assistants: former head coaches.
“I just think sometimes we get out of touch with some things with as much as we're doing outside of actual coaching,” Fickell said when describing why he’s not typically looking for coaches to shift back to an assistant’s rank.
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Cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes and outside linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Matt Mitchell were the ones to get Fickell to break his soft rule. Fickell and Haynes’ friendship dates to high school — both starred on the field at St. Francis DeSales in Columbus, Ohio, though Haynes was a few years removed from school once Fickell ascended the ranks.
A majority of Haynes’ coaching career has been as a defensive backs coach, including a seven-year stint at Ohio State while Fickell was either co-defensive coordinator or interim coach. Haynes was the coach at his alma mater Kent State from 2013-17 before coaching under now-UW defensive coordinator Mike Tressel at Michigan.
Mitchell had a 12-year run going at Division II power Grand Valley State, amassing a 117-31 record and making the D-II playoffs in seven of those seasons. He, too, has a history with Tressel — they were teammates at D-III Cornell (Iowa) and coached together early in their careers at D-III Wartburg (Iowa).
Still, Fickell had reservations hiring Mitchell, the last of the 10 assistants to join the staff.
“I probably would have been one of those guys that said, “Ah, I don’t know,” until we actually went and interviewed him and saw his passion, saw his ability to teach and what it is that he has done there,” Fickell said, “because I was ignorant to know what exactly he did at Grand Valley. And he's been another one of those things that has exceeded my expectations.”
Mitchell had explored opportunities to make the jump to D-I coaching, but he didn’t see those chances as better than the program he’d help build at Grand Valley State. The offer from UW was the right one at the right time, he said.
“I was never driven about level,” Mitchell said. “I was driven about being in a spot that had a chance to compete for championships, and being around people, players and coaches, that were high-character people that I could align with. And that's the opportunity that, in my opinion, exists here at Wisconsin.
“So far, you can tell by the coaching staff and the players, you have a lot of high-character people here. When you're surrounded by that — because sometimes there's adversity, things don't go well — you don't want to be surrounded by people with low character, that’s when stuff goes bad. So my decisions are always driven by that, not by level. Clearly this is the highest level of college football, so I'm not going to deny that, but I wasn't jumping at anything. And if I would have, I wouldn’t have been there for 13 years as the head coach.”
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Both Haynes and Mitchell are being asked to lead position groups that got makeovers this offseason. The cornerback room lost three players to the transfer portal after spring practices but added two back this summer. The outside linebackers lost first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American Nick Herbig to the NFL, and added a transfer in Jeff Pietrowski to add depth to the rotation.
But their tasks have an additional layer in they’re sounding boards for Fickell. Haynes believes Fickell is unique in the way he empowers and bonds with his assistants.
“He's just a blue-collar, hardworking and just normal type of guy,” Haynes said. “That's where I think, if people didn't know him and they came around the office, they probably wouldn't know who's the head coach and who was the assistant coaches just because of how he just interacts with everyone.”
Fickell and Haynes’ history allows for openness and honesty between them. But both Haynes and Mitchell know firsthand the challenges Fickell faces in his first season being the top man in a program. They know how Fickell’s decisions have program-wide effects.
“I think the biggest thing is big-picture thinking,” Haynes said. “I think when you are an assistant coach, you worry about that position. When you're a coordinator, you worry about that side. Until you sit in that chair and you have to deal with everything and every kid and every situation, it's hard to be a big-picture thinker. And I think when the head coach makes a decision about something, where a lot of assistants are like, ‘Why are we doing that?’ You kind of get it because it's what's big picture and what's best for the team instead of just the offense, defense, whatever position-wise.”
Fickell echoed that sentiment, and said he appreciates having others in the coaches’ offices that know the added responsibilities his role carries.
“They understand a lot of times where you're coming from,” Fickell said. “It’s nice to have them in those rooms as you leave, because there's things that happen, and things you put pressure on and then walk out. I think they've got a better understanding and grasp as to why things are done that way and why they need to be done that way. So I think it does give those guys within your staff some perspective, because we all know at times the head guy says some things or does some things or mandates some things and then walks out, and I'm sure they’re like, ‘What in the hell is going on?’ And it's nice to know that there's guys in there that are like, ‘This is a challenge. We've all been there, believe me, this is a part of it.’
And so I think both for the staff, I think it's a good thing, and then eventually for me, not having a bunch of other buddies that you can call on the phone that have been head coaches and things like that, it'll give me some opportunities to even sit down one-on-one and kind of, you know, I say let go, but get some suggestions on different things.”

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