CINCINNATI — Shortly after 1 p.m. on Monday, Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham and president Neville Pinto walked into Fifth Third Arena with the pep band striking up the school’s fight song. Trailing close behind was Scott Satterfield, the new football head coach of the Bearcats.
In the wake of Luke Fickell’s unexpected departure for Wisconsin on Nov. 27, Cunningham embarked on a self-directed, coast-to-coast coaching search that Cincinnati’s AD was committed to keeping as discreet as possible. Less than 10 days later, that national search ended roughly 100 miles south on Interstate 71 with Satterfield, the head coach at Louisville.
“I told (the players) I thought it would take a week, but it was going to feel like a month, and boy did it,” Cunningham said Monday.
The hire checked a number of boxes for Cunningham, who valued head-coaching experience as the Bearcats prepare to enter the Big 12 with a new staff and what likely will be considerable roster turnover. Poaching a sitting Power 5 coach was going to be a difficult task for a brand-new Power 5 program — even one that went to the College Football Playoff last season — but Satterfield has nine seasons of head coaching experience, the past four at Louisville in the ACC.
That was important to Cunningham, as was bolstering his hire with increased resources, including the forthcoming $100-million indoor practice facility and a program-record $7.25 million in annual assistant salary pool.
“(Satterfield) recognized the investment,” Cunningham said. “That was our plan going into this. We need to be able to scheme at a really high level in the Big 12. On the offensive side of the ball, you have to score. On the defensive side of the ball, you’re going to see a lot of different types of offenses, and you’re going to have to be able to scheme and put your student-athletes in the right position. Part of that is making sure you have the best coordinators out there.”
An embrace of the transfer portal and a focus on the evolving NIL landscape were additional priorities for Cunningham in this decision and areas he felt Satterfield was well-equipped to handle. Louisville has made significant NIL in-roads during the past year-plus, helping compile a 2023 recruiting class that ranked in the top 20 nationally prior to Satterfield’s departure.
“The importance of NIL, understanding that in order to be successful you have to get out in the community and help push NIL and raise money for NIL, that has to be part of the game,” Cunningham said. “I just wanted a coach who understood the landscape and how important it was, which most of the coaches we talked to did, including Scott.”
All of it added up to a hire that will attract a fair amount of scrutiny on both Cunningham and Satterfield. In the end, Cunningham felt he had the right coach and best fit to replace Fickell and lead the Bearcats into the Big 12.
“There is a lot of outside noise that takes place during these situations,” Cunningham said Monday. “One week and one day ago, I walked into the football team room and looked at the faces of our young men and told them I was going to do everything possible to find the best football coach for them.”
What follows is an in-depth, inside look at how a closed-door, tight-lipped coaching search unfolded, including candidates who were pursued, finalists who emerged and how Cunningham attempted to block out that outside noise and pick Satterfield as the next coach of the Bearcats.
Sunday, Nov. 27
At 11:13 a.m. ET, ESPN’s Pete Thamel tweeted that Wisconsin had targeted Fickell for its head coaching position. Fickell informed Bearcats administrators that morning he was taking the Wisconsin job, and a previously scheduled team meeting for 4:30 p.m. was moved up to shortly after 1 p.m., which is when Fickell informed his Cincinnati players of his departure.
Luke Fickell will be the next head football coach at Wisconsin, sources confirm to @TheAthletic. Fickell informed University of Cincinnati he is leaving to take the new job.
This process has been reported by multiple outlets today. @PeteThamel was first to break news of pursuit.
— Justin Williams (@Williams_Justin) November 27, 2022
At 6:15 p.m., Cunningham held a news conference in the Fifth Third Arena media room to discuss the news, confirm Kerry Coombs as the team’s interim head coach and state his intentions for the days ahead.
“We have a tremendous job here at the University of Cincinnati. We’re going to go find the very best coach in the country to coach the Bearcats going forward,” Cunningham said. “I’m ready. We’re ready. We’re going to find a coach that is going to lead this program and win championships.”
That night, Cunningham went to work on an already prepared list of potential replacements.
“We started making phone calls immediately,” Cunningham said. “And it’s not just phone calls to the people we wanted to talk to, but you start calling everybody you know to vet out candidates.”
Early last week
Even after the fact, Cunningham remained guarded about the search process, electing not to go into detail about the timeline of how the week unfolded and declining to speak about candidates other than Satterfield. Asked how many total names he had on his initial list to start the search, the most specific he got was a begrudging acknowledgment that it was fewer than two dozen.
“Yeah, I think that’s fair,” he said Monday after Satterfield was introduced.
Initial contact was made in some fashion by Cunningham, whether with the coaches themselves, their agents and representatives or to trusted confidants with Cunningham seeking advice or insight into the level of interest candidates might have or how they would fit at Cincinnati.
“You start big, and you vet down pretty quickly, and sometimes you’re having very informal conversations,” said Cunningham, who did much of it holed up in his home basement. “Sometimes it’s just kicking the tires a little bit, and the response is very clear. Then the immediate question after that is, ‘Who do you know? Who would be a great fit?’ And then you start digging in. So maybe 10-15 phone calls and going from there. A lot of those weren’t serious candidates, they were just phone calls you were making.”
Similar to his hiring process for men’s basketball head coach Wes Miller in April 2021, Cunningham elected not to use a search firm.
“I did not,” he confirmed.
Instead, he handled much of it himself, while also working with an inner circle that included CFO John Daniel, director of health and wellness Brad Pike and deputy AD and senior woman administrator Maggie McKinley. Daniel and Pike are both administrative hires made by Cunningham in the calendar year as part of the department staffing up for the Big 12. McKinley has been on the staff since 2001.
“To be honest, for me, with the timeframe you’re under and how quickly I want to move on these, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense (to use a search firm),” Cunningham said. “I felt like I had a really strong list, I felt like I have great contacts in the business, and I really trusted the staff I had around me to evaluate it, and that’s how we decided to do it.”
That initial culling occurred largely during Nov. 28 and Nov. 29, again ranging from basic feelers and toe dips to longer, more extensive conversations with candidates. The Athletic previously reported on Dec. 1 that Cincinnati reached out to Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell — a name on seemingly every hot board when the UC position opened up — but that Campbell declined interest. Gino Guidugli, the Bearcats’ offensive coordinator, had a Zoom interview with Cunningham on the morning of Nov. 29.
Again, Cunningham wouldn’t speak on other candidates, but he did confirm that Satterfield was one of those early names.
“He was on my list from the very beginning,” Cunningham said.
Middle of last week
By the middle portion of the week, Cunningham and his inner circle really started digging in and doing their homework on a trimmed-down list, including a number of lengthier phone or Zoom interviews with more serious targets.
“We started most of the actual phone calls Wednesday and Thursday,” said Cunningham, who noted that Satterfield was among that group as well. “He and I connected at some point in the middle of the week. It was really the same timeframe as the others.”
In addition to his conversation with Guidugli on Nov. 29, Cunningham had an extended discussion with Coombs on Nov. 30.
“We had serious internal candidates and external candidates,” Cunningham said. “We looked at (the internal candidates) very seriously.”
Beyond Guidugli, Coombs and Satterfield, the other targets spanned a broad spectrum: young, up-and-coming assistants and coordinators; sitting Group of 5 head coaches; former head coaches and other seasoned veterans of the industry and current Power 5 head coaches. Numerous sources familiar with the search, all of whom were granted anonymity due to the nature of the process, confirmed there was at least some degree of interest expressed in each of these coaches: UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, Toledo head coach Jason Candle, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden, Wisconsin defensive coordinator/interim head coach Jim Leonhard, Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh and Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline.
By no means is that an exhaustive list, and the levels of interest and engagement were varied. In some cases, the coaches withdrew from consideration. In others, Cincinnati decided to go in a different direction.
Regardless, by the week’s end, a trio of finalists had emerged: Satterfield, Kent State head coach Sean Lewis and Buffalo head coach Mo Linguist. Sources familiar with the search told The Athletic they were the three candidates who received in-person interviews.
Friday and Saturday
Cunningham kept Pinto apprised of the search and his progress throughout the week but didn’t fully immerse him until it came time for those in-person discussions.
“We would talk about all candidates, but I wouldn’t bring (Pinto) in until it was time to have a face-to-face with somebody,” Cunningham said. “We did some phone calls and Zoom calls, got our list down to two or three (finalists), and then Dr. Pinto met with those two or three.”
One of the three was the 36-year-old Lewis, who just wrapped up his fifth season as the head coach at Kent State. A former player for Wisconsin, Lewis worked as an assistant under head coach Dino Babers at Syracuse from 2016-17. Cunningham was part of the administration under athletic director Mark Coyle that hired Babers at Syracuse in 2016.
Lewis went just 24-31 (19-17 MAC) in his five years at Kent, regarded as one of the most difficult head-coaching jobs in FBS, but he also has the reputation for possessing a stellar offensive mind, something Cunningham preferred in his next head coach despite it being a deviation from Fickell’s defensive background.
Lewis conducted his in-person interview with Cincinnati on Friday. At 12:32 p.m. ET that same day, The Athletic reported that the Bearcats would face Louisville in the Wasabi Fenway Bowl on Dec. 17, reviving the Keg of Nails rivalry.
Cincinnati will play Louisville in the Wasabi Fenway Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 17 at Fenway Park in Boston, sources tell @TheAthleticCFB.
Return of the Keg of Nails. Kickoff is at 11 am EST. #Bearcats
— Justin Williams (@Williams_Justin) December 2, 2022
Linguist had his in-person interview on Saturday, one day after his Buffalo Bulls defeated Akron in a makeup game that originally was postponed due to snow. Cunningham was familiar with Linguist from Linguist’s lone season as the defensive backs coach at Minnesota in 2017 under head coach P.J. Fleck and Cunningham’s time as an administrator with the Gophers. Linguist is currently in his second season as head coach at Buffalo, finishing 4-8 in 2021 before improving to 6-6 in 2022 and earning a bid to the Camellia Bowl with that final victory over Akron.
The odd makeup game on Friday, and Linguist’s required attention and presence in Buffalo leading up to, momentarily helped to shift any outside focus away from him as a potential candidate while Cincinnati’s search plowed on. But at 8:35 a.m. ET on Saturday, a CL60 twin-jet Canadair Challenger departed Lunken Airport, landing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport at 9:29 a.m. ET. The private aircraft is registered to Irish Air LLC, a Cincinnati-based aircraft charter and rental company. One of the owners and managing partners for Irish Air is Larry Sheakley, arguably the most prominent donor for the Bearcats’ football program and Cincinnati athletics.
While the rest of the college football world was taking in Championship Saturday, Cunningham and others flew to Buffalo to meet with Linguist. The plane landed back at Lunken Airport at 1:57 p.m. on Saturday. Later that night, The Athletic reported that Linguist was, in fact, still in the mix for the Cincinnati job and that he and Lewis had emerged as a pair of finalists — in no small part due to their head-coaching experience.
“It ended up being a premium in this search. Especially heading into the Big 12, having someone who had been on the sideline, making the tough calls and then also doing all the other things you need to do as a head coach,” Cunningham said Monday. “From donor relations to disciplinary issues to academics, media obligations — that takes time to fully understand, and I think it usually takes time to get a grasp on that. We know that we have a mountain to climb going into next year, so I didn’t feel we had a lot of time to have somebody adjust to that lifestyle.”
Even after Lewis and Linguist surfaced as finalists late Saturday night, there was an unshakeable feeling all along that this search would result in a mystery candidate, someone who slipped through the cracks, who Cunningham managed to keep off the radar until the very end.
That inkling proved true. Satterfield had his in-person interview Sunday, and he finished as the runner-up for the Cincinnati head-coaching job back in Dec. 2016. The Bearcats went with Fickell instead.
“They hired the right guy. That was a good hire, right? He did a tremendous job of taking this program to where he did,” Satterfield said shortly after his introductory news conference on Monday. “So for me to be able to have the opportunity when it came back around again, I thought this was pretty cool.”
Satterfield had the experience Cunningham coveted — and at a Power 5 level — and still had support and admirers among some of Cincinnati’s big-money boosters from the previous coaching search. The move made sense for Satterfield, who was on the hot seat in October before rebounding to a seven-win season with the Cardinals and who was set to enter Year 5 of a six-year deal without an extension. Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated reported on Monday that Satterfield met with Louisville AD Josh Heird on Nov. 27, one day after the Cardinals’ season-finale loss to Kentucky and the same day Fickell left for Wisconsin. Forde wrote that while Louisville intended to retain Satterfield for 2023, the extension the head coach was hoping for was not expected to materialize.
A week later, Satterfield sat down with Cincinnati.
“He was one of the finalists that President Pinto and I met with,” Cunningham said. “At that point, we sit down and talk about the people we had a chance to meet with face-to-face and then make a decision. I was looking for fit, and to me, (Satterfield) had tremendous values, great work ethic, cares a lot about the student-athlete. High level of recruiting. That was important.”
Meanwhile, things had gone quiet on Lewis and Linguist as hours ticked by without any tangible, public coaching news, striking a mixture of speculation and panic among many Bearcats fans. Rumors about Tulane head coach Willie Fritz and Troy head coach Jon Sumrall began to spread as Bearcats fans on social media and message boards pondered potential mystery candidates and tried to make sense of the silence.
The unknown truth at the time was that Cunningham and his team were hard at work on Satterfield, with the final decision and subsequent details all coming together Sunday afternoon and evening.
Satterfield admitted the deal “came together quickly and it happened very fast.” He said at his introductory news conference that he was watching the Bengals — who kicked off at 4:25 p.m. against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday — as he was traveling to Cincinnati.
“Once you get to a point where you hone in on your guy and there is mutual interest, then you start having conversations about the contract,” Cunningham said. “Sometimes that takes a little bit. It went smoothly. We had mutual ideas about commitment on both sides. Those came together pretty well and we were able to get it done.”
Negotiations between Cincinnati and Satterfield were finalized late Sunday night as news releases and plans for Monday’s introduction quietly began in earnest. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) detailing Satterfield’s six-year, $22.5-million contract with Cincinnati was obtained by The Athletic via a public records request. According to the timestamps from the digital signatures, Satterfield agreed to the deal at 11:50 p.m. ET on Sunday. Cunningham signed off 11 minutes later at 12:01 am ET on Monday.
At 11:26 p.m. ET on Sunday, roughly a half-hour before the MOU was signed, The Athletic received a two-word text message from a trusted source: “Hearing Satterfield.”
Just before 8 a.m. on Monday, news broke that Satterfield would be the Bearcats’ head coach. Cincinnati officially announced the hire on social media at 9:13 a.m. A few hours later, Satterfield donned a ceremonial C-Paw visor in front of media, fans and Bearcats staffers inside Fifth Third Arena and was introduced as the 43rd head football coach at Cincinnati.
“The reasons I wanted to come here were that it is a championship-caliber program, great leadership in the university and athletic department, the opportunity to take a program into a new conference — I like the challenge,” Satterfield said. “There are so many things here that align with what I want and what my family wants. … I’m just happy about this opportunity here.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Cincinnati Bearcats Athletics)