Wisconsin's Luke Fickell embraces The Varsity Collective after hire

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry12/12/22


Wisconsin hired former Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell on a Sunday. Fickell’s introductory press conference was the next day. Then on Wednesday, the Wisconsin-focused NIL collective, The Varsity Collective, hosted a Zoom call with Fickell, Wisconsin Director of Athletics Chris McIntosh and Wisconsin alumni.

It’s another item that will be on the agenda for newly hired coaches in 2022 and future years.

“He was literally, like, 36 hours in,” The Varsity Collective Executive Chair Rob Master told On3 in a phone interview.

Fickell joined The Varsity Collective “to discuss the critical role that donors play in the NIL era,” according to The Varsity Collective’s inaugural newsletter that it sent supporters the next day.

“The No. 1 priority is our players, and NIL gives us a chance to make more opportunities for our players,” Fickell said. “They all deserve NIL support because of the way they work.”

Master described the event as a meet and greet.

“Part of it was just hearing and sharing his vision, obviously, like 48 hours in and talking broadly about this whole student development concept,” Master said. “He looks at the entire student-athlete, which is very much — you look at, like, our mission, our vision, that’s what we’re all about. We talk about there’s two components of Varsity Collective. One is to maximize the NIL opportunities for student-athletes today through education, through community service, engagement, philanthropy and that kind of stuff.

“The second is around how do we invest in that student-athlete in preparing them for not just like a four-year experience but frankly a 40-year experience?”

Fickell will soon join The Varsity Collective and its supporters for another virtual event that will take place in early 2023. “You’ll hear a rundown on his recruitment strategy, vision for the football program and more,” The Varsity Collective’s newsletter stated.

Luke Fickell’s perspective on NIL: ‘It’s clear he gets it’

For the second time in as many weeks, Luke Fickell acclimated to a new collective. Six days before Wisconsin hired him, Cincy Reigns launched to support NIL opportunities for athletes at Cincinnati.

“It’s clear he gets it,” Master said.

The Varsity Collective launched in September, following what Master described as a “teaser” in June.

Master referenced Fickell’s playing and coaching experience at Ohio State as the foundation for Fickell’s understanding of the Big Ten.

“To have the ability to be around John Cooper, to be around Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, and I’d throw Lee Owens in two years at the University of Akron, that’s what has helped shape me into the coach and leader I am today,” Fickell said at his introductory press conference.

Master said there have been some follow-up conversations since Fickell joined The Varsity Collective on the Zoom call a few days after he was hired.

However, Master said there hasn’t yet been a conversation between members of The Varsity Collective and Fickell about the NIL landscape within the Big Ten, where last offseason Ohio State coach Ryan Day said his players needed $13 million in NIL opportunities for the Buckeyes to retain their roster.

At Big Ten Football Media Days, other Big Ten coaches provided a wide range of reactions to Day’s declaration. Penn State‘s James Franklin said, “We must be willing to do similar things,” and Northwestern‘s Pat Fitzgerald laughed and said, “Good luck.”

“He’s just getting up to speed,” Master said of Fickell. “We’re just now kind of sharing the vision and mission of the collective. The good news is his more holistic view of the student-athlete is exactly what we’re driving. That first meeting was just kind of like, a little about his perspective on football, 48 hours in, how he thinks about coaching, how he thinks about developing kids.

“Then we talked about the collective in that context of like it’s part of the experience but it’s just part of it.”

‘Football is certainly an anchor’ of The Varsity Collective

Master contrasted the alignment between Wisconsin and The Varsity Collective with other universities whose athletes are supported by multiple collectives or where administrators aren’t supportive of a collective.

“I think The Varsity Collective, as a collective, is a reflection of the university,” he said.

Master said The Varsity Collective is focused on building a sustainable brand.

Leaders of NIL collectives shared with On3 approaches they believe will lead to sustainable fundraising in a crowded landscape with more than 200 collectives nationally, plus donors who have preexisting financial commitments to universities and athletic departments.

“When you have someone like Coach Fickell enter the scene, I think it just gives us enormous momentum in everything that we’re doing,” Master said. “We kind of have this plan around, whether it be fundraising, whether it be promotional programming, whether it be content development — we have our various pillars — our student development programming, a coach like Luke Fickell I think just gives us added momentum and excitement behind everything that we’re doing.

“The one thing that’s interesting is this collective — which I don’t want to say it’s unique because there are other collectives that are doing this, but certainly not all of them — The Varsity Collective is actually accessible to all 23 sports and serves all 800-plus athletes at Wisconsin. So while certainly football gets a lot of attention… we have all these terrific teams.”

Football programs are often referred to as the “front porch” of a university. They can serve the same role for broad-based collectives.

“I think of course football is certainly an anchor and the Coach Fickell hire I think is going to be fantastic in driving the momentum for the entire collective,” Master said.