The University of Wisconsin football team has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past four months as first-year coach Luke Fickell makes changes on and off the field.
One group that's seen significant turnover is the Badgers assistant coaching staff, and it can be difficult to keep up with all the developments in Madison with so many new faces.
From their connections to Fickell and reasons for joining his staff to their new approaches to recruiting, training and gameday strategy, here are 10 things we've learned about UW's assistant coaches.
1. Rounding out the staff
After Fickell was tapped by UW athletic director Chris McIntosh in late November to lead the program, it took the former Cincinnati coach about three months to finalize the coaching staff for his first season at the helm.
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Fickell had finished building his staff in late January, but he had to find a new tight ends coach a few weeks later after Gino Guidugli left the role at UW to become Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach. Fickell tapped Nate Letton, who initially came to UW as a quality control coach after working under Fickell as the Bearcats' tight ends coach in 2022 following a stint as an offensive graduate assistant at UC from 2020-21.
Letton completed a staff that also includes offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Phil Longo, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Colin Hitschler, and position coaches Greg Scruggs (defensive line), Matt Mitchell (outside linebackers), Paul Haynes (cornerbacks), Jack Bicknell Jr. (offensive line), Devon Spalding (running backs), Mike Brown (wide receivers) and Letton (tight ends).
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2. Laying a foundation of trust
In addition to Letton, several of the other new assistants have previous experience working with Fickell. Brown, the Badgers’ associate head coach in addition to his role leading the receivers, had been on Fickell’s staff at Cincinnati since 2019 as receivers coach and advanced to passing game coordinator last season.
The connections to the Badgers' new coach aren't limited to the offensive side of the ball. Tressel, who Fickell has known for decades, was on his staff at Cincinnati the past two seasons, and a good chuck of Tressel's defense will be led by coaches with ties to Fickell.
Haynes, who joined UW after coaching Minnesota’s corners the past three seasons, worked with Fickell for seven seasons at Ohio State, serving as the defensive backs coach for the first six years and co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach in his final year in Columbus.
Hitschler, one of the first staffers Fickell brought with him to Madison and a key part of the recruiting process since late November, was with Fickell at Cincinnati for five seasons, starting as a quality control staffer before taking over the safety position and becoming co-defensive coordinator last season.
Scruggs, a Cincinnati native and Bearcats alum who got his start in coaching under Fickell at UC after playing five seasons in the NFL and winning Super Bowls with Seattle and New England, joined the Bearcats as the director of player development in 2018 before working his way up to defensive line coach for the Bearcats’ undefeated regular season in 2021, which ended in the College Football Playoff.
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3. Sweetening the deal
For Haynes, whose time working with Fickell predates the latter's stint at Cincinnati, the bonds he built with Fickell and other members of his staff outweighed any potential negatives to accepting a job that on paper was a demotion.
While Haynes did receive a pay raise after leaving the Badgers' border rival to join the staff in Madison, he was going from a role as Minnesota's co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach to only serving as cornerbacks coach at UW.
Entering his 30th season as a coach and with his personal connection with Fickell going back to both of them attending St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus, Ohio, the relationships Haynes developed over the years were too good to pass up.
“I've been in this profession for a long time,” Haynes said. “So who I'm working with and who I'm working for is a big part of why I do what I do. So that relationship runs super deep. And it was important to me.”
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4. Opening the books
With Fickell's staff complete, BadgerExtra has sought salary details for the newest staffers through open records requests, with the university so far having turned over contracts for eight of the 10 new hires.
The first batch of contracts UW released included Hitschler, who will make $550,000 this year, along with Mitchell ($350,000) and Spalding ($250,000), while Scruggs will make $400,000 this year and $425,000 next season. Haynes will earn $425,000 this year and $450,000 next.
The second set of contracts shared by the university included Tressel, who will earn $750,000 this year and $800,000 in 2024; Bicknell, who will make $550,000 this season and $650,000 next; and Brown, who will be paid $550,000.
UW still hasn't shared contract details for Longo and Letton, but Guidugli, who was hired by the Fighting Irish as quarterbacks coach last month, was set to make $600,000 at UW, per a signed contract that also was turned over earlier this month.
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5. Hitting the recruiting trail
Another area that's undergone a noticeable change since Fickell arrived is UW's approach on the recruiting trail, with the new coach and his staff treating potential future Badgers to a "first-class" experience.
From using "Jump Around" as a way to create buzz during junior day visits to spending money on billboards across Wisconsin and Chicagoland over the holidays, the program has been willing to try new things while priding itself on creating a personalized experience.
With the Badgers looking to consistently win battles at the line of scrimmage to succeed in their schemes, recruiting and developing talent on the offensive and defensive lines is paramount for UW, and luckily for Fickell, his assistants at those positions are up for the challenge.
Scruggs, the Badgers' new defensive line coach, doesn't try to schmooze recruits, instead trying to get to know them.
“Sometimes I'll call the kid and I just tell him, 'Hey, listen, don't talk to me about football. I'm gonna hang up on you,’” said Scruggs, who played in the NFL from 2012 to 2016. “‘Tell me about something that happened in history class today or math class.’"
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6. Competing builds camaraderie
Not wanting to be left out of the program's transformation, new strength and conditioning coach Brady Collins — along with his staff and UW facility workers — gave the weight room a makeover, while also looking for ways to inject some new energy into the training process.
Collins' changes went beyond a new coat of paint and some new equipment. He also has been embracing his role as a motivator by using competition between the players to shake up things in the weight room.
While one of his favorite ways to fire up the players is with a rope war, a version of seated tug-of-war, Collins also will fan the competitive flames with things like video games, Pictionary or something as simple as rock-paper-scissors.
“We’re a big proponent of competition,” Collins said. “So like, are you gonna compete every single day, whatever it is? And I just always find unique ways to do it.
“You’re gonna come into the weight room and you’re going to compete with yourself, no doubt, your boys around you. But there's got to be something to set the tone and something to really keep that … winners win, winners want to compete, they want to be challenged.”
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7. Forging new relationships
After spending a short stint as quality control coach at UW, Letton is taking over a tight ends room that once again needs to acclimate to and build bonds with another assistant. Despite being the group's fourth position coach since early last year, he's confident he can build a rapport with the players.
“I want them to feel as comfortable as they've ever been with me as their coach, and I want there to be as deep a connection within our room as possible coming out of spring,” Letton said.
With spring ball just around the corner, Letton is trying to spend as much time with his players as possible.
“To me, the best thing that’s happened is that training table moved and there's two meals over there,” he said. “I try and sit with those guys. Down in the weight room, I try and work out. I know it’s not super evident, but the cheese up here has kind of got me a little bit.
“But nevertheless, I try and be around them as much as I can outside of a football setting. I mean, obviously every time they're in this building, they're doing something toward football, right? If I can observe, I can pull them aside, if I bring them up to the office, anything like that just get to spend time with them. So nothing too drastic because they're pretty busy here with class and whatnot, but got to spend a good amount of time with them.”
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8. Making changes between the lines
Along with all the new faces at UW, there also will be a new look to the Badgers' style of play on both sides of the ball under Fickell.
Longo is leading a major overhaul on offense, where the Badgers will employ his favored Air Raid offense. And while he's told recruits like transfer quarterback Nick Evers that the plan is to be an effective running team, the passing attack at UW will get a needed facelift.
“I’d be an idiot not to run the football here,” he said after joining the Badgers staff — but the star of the show will be the quarterback.
“It’s a quarterback-driven system,” Longo said. “Everything starts with the quarterback in any offense, but this one really is predicated on the decision-making that goes on at that position. And in our mind, philosophically, the quarterback needs to be a tremendous distributor of the football.”
Tressel has told his players that the defense he’s looking to run is a blend of the 3-4 base defense that the Badgers ran under coordinators Jim Leonhard, Justin Wilcox and Dave Aranda, and the 3-3-5 defense that the Bearcats employed to become the first Group of Five program to play in the College Football Playoff.
Tressel isn't throwing out everything UW's done in the past, talking in January about trying to "mesh the elite" defenses between the old Badgers' scheme and what he ran at Cincinnati.
"We're spending a lot of time right now, second to recruiting, trying to figure out how to 'mesh the elite,'" he said. "That's one of the things we've talked about. The Wisconsin defense has been phenomenal. Actually, in 2021, I believe we were No. 1 in the nation against the run. And Cincinnati the same year was No. 1 in the nation against the pass, and we're getting to figure out the way to mesh these together."
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9. Learning lessons in the pros
After working as the director of player development at Cincinnati under Fickell from 2018-19, then the program’s defensive line coach from 2020-21, Scruggs left the Bearcats to return to the professional game as assistant defensive line coach for the New York Jets last season.
The five-year NFL veteran knew that opportunity was too good to pass up, but he jumped at the chance to return to the college game and join him in Madison when Fickell came calling again.
Scruggs has said one of the biggest lessons from the pros he's trying to apply at UW is the attention to detail.
“You just constantly are digging," he said in February. "Until you get to something that feels most comfortable, which is why I understand the margin of winning in the NFL, regardless of what the score may say, is always just that close.
"Because I see what people are doing every day, and I hope to bring that same type of attention to detail here in how we prepare, not only from a defensive perspective."
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10. Getting in some face time
BadgerExtra also has had opportunities in the run up to spring football to get some face time with UW's new assistants at the McClain Center in Madison.
Brown spoke with reporters in February about the challenges of coaching and recruiting at a new program, what Bryson Green can bring to the wide receivers room, and how he has seen the relationships develop between old and new Badgers in his position group.
Hitschler praised the work ethic of players he took over in the safety room and the impact former defensive coordinator Leonhard had on the group, while also talking up the talent of the Badgers' new additions.
Spalding shared how he's working to develop relationships with the players in UW's running backs room, while also touching on the progress Braelon Allen has made and the Badgers' backfield depth.
Bicknell offered some insight on UW's offensive line, discussing the difference in how his position group will work without having to face eight- or nine-man boxes within the Badgers' new offense.