MADISON, Wis. — Luke Fickell has been a head coach long enough to know that there are challenges associated with leading 18- to -23-year-old college athletes, particularly when a football season has careened off the expected track, as this one has at Wisconsin. It’s one thing to say a team shouldn’t dwell on the past and must continue to move forward. It’s another thing to ensure players are actually capable of doing so.
Fickell found himself this week referencing the movie “Men In Black” and, more specifically, the neutralizer device used to wipe the memories of people who stared directly at its flash. Since that apparatus doesn’t exist in real life, Fickell and his staff were left to address the mounting frustration and anger among players.
Wisconsin, which began the season with championship aspirations, has lost four of its last five games to drop to 5-5 and put a 22nd consecutive program bowl berth in doubt. The Badgers also are coming off a 24-10 home loss to Northwestern that Fickell called “embarrassing.” They trailed by three touchdowns in the first half and left the field to a chorus of boos from fans.
There are two regular-season games remaining against Nebraska and Minnesota. And Fickell, in his first season at Wisconsin, is tasked with trying to keep the team afloat just as it appears the Badgers are drowning in a sea of miscues and disappointment.
“The bodies aren’t exactly what I worry about,” Fickell said. “It’s the mind. Everything that we do is trying to make sure we can open it up, get guys to communicate, but find ways to control not just your mind but that self-talk that you have.”
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Whatever frustrations players were feeling internally bubbled over the surface Saturday night after the loss to Northwestern when two team leaders — safety Hunter Wohler and quarterback Tanner Mordecai — expressed concern about what had transpired this season. Mordecai said he wanted to know who would have “a big give-a-s— factor in this program.” Wohler said a whole lot more, noting the entire team wasn’t bought into the process. He took responsibility for not calling out players for their lack of care and effort. Fickell himself said he needed to determine which players wanted to be here and which ones did not.
That’s why, when players and coaches reconvened in the football facility Sunday, Fickell made sure everyone had an opportunity to air their grievances in an effort to find common ground and grow from their struggles.
“Nobody likes losing, and I think that’s the really big thing here is that you put all this work, all this time in and we haven’t been able to piece it together, and I think it’s extremely frustrating,” Badgers center Tanor Bortolini said. “So I think Sunday you felt some of those emotions come out. But I think it was a very positive thing. It’s just kind of some stuff that needed to be said.”
Bortolini revealed there actually was a players-only meeting “the other week,” although that didn’t seem to change the team’s fortunes. He said that, in addition to a team meeting Sunday, players met individually with their position coaches, who specifically asked for player feedback “because we’re not where we want to be, and we want to figure out why we aren’t.”
“That just kind of gave guys an opportunity,” Bortolini said. “Most days, you’re not going to come in on a Sunday and go tell your coach what you think happened and what went wrong and what you think you can do to make it better. You’re more kind of here to learn and listen.”
As for what, exactly, was said in those meetings, the contents figure to remain behind closed doors — something that likely was important after players publicly vented Saturday.
“I would imagine that the players will speak a lot more freely,” Fickell said. “And I don’t mean that I don’t want to say anything. But there’s things that you talk about within your family that you don’t talk about outside your family. I remind those guys that, ‘Look, I will never call you out in the media. I will never call you out in the public. But I sure as hell with call you out in front of our family.’ So there are things that we have to be accountable for.”
Defensive lineman Rodas Johnson said of player comments made Saturday: “If you take offense to it, then it’s probably you. If your feelings are hurt, change.” He said he could understand where his teammates were coming from because they were frustrated but noted that he didn’t have specific players he could say had not bought in.
“You do this thing every day, even as 18-to-23-year-old guys, this gets tiring,” Johnson said. “And you’re going to have a moment where you may need to get picked up, and that’s what we had to do better as a team is just make sure that we have everybody on board. For the guys that are lacking a little bit of motivation, we just have to make sure we find ways to keep them locked in and motivated.”
Players said Tuesday night that they liked the response they had seen from teammates. That declaration likely won’t make Badgers fans feel any better during a season of missed opportunities. One week earlier, Fickell said his team put forth its best Sunday practice of the season. Wisconsin promptly fell behind 24-3 at halftime to Northwestern.
“Little things turn into big things and all just start falling apart,” Badgers defensive lineman James Thompson Jr. said. “You see it week by week, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you know, it happens. Just clean that up during Friday night walk-through and then clean it up on Saturday.’ But I feel like that small things turn into big things and it grows and grows and they’re going to explode. I feel like last Saturday, that’s what happened.”
The causes for any potential lack of effort or attitude issues are unclear. Is it returning players who, after four consecutive years of underwhelming results, don’t have much left to give? Is it an inability to mesh 15 scholarship transfers this offseason into the fray? Is it something else?
In the era of the transfer portal and NIL deals, finding team cohesion can be more challenging than ever. Fickell said the goal was to not be misguided or grow antsy by taking shortcuts for a quick fix rather than building something sustainable. Mordecai, one of those transfers, said he hadn’t seen anything to indicate the group had an issue with players looking out for their own self-interests.
“The tough thing is after a three-game stretch of losses and being 1-4 in our last five, I think it’s easy for people to kind of zone out, not quite be as focused if you’re 10-0, 9-1,” Bortolini said. “And I think the real focus point of that is making sure that guys are re-focusing this week, really emphasizing that if you want to be here, we need to show it and we need to win now, essentially. How bad do you want to be here? How bad do you want to win? What are you willing to do? What are you willing to sacrifice for our team to be in a position to win on Saturday?”
Dissatisfaction with the on-field product seems to be everywhere. Johnson was still fuming Tuesday about the fact that Wisconsin’s fans booed the team during its loss to Northwestern. He’ll be one of 21 seniors honored during senior day festivities on Saturday against Nebraska and said he hoped to hear cheers.
“I understand the frustration because you spend your hard-earned money to come see us play and we don’t satisfy them,” Johnson said. “But regardless of who you are and how you feel, that hurts. I’m a human being. I put my life’s work into this since I was 13, 12 years old. So for somebody to come into my house where I die every day, day-in and day-out, it just kind of hurts your feelings. It is what it is. I take it with a grain of salt. But I feel like that kind of has to be said.”
Fickell was asked to compare his first-year struggles at Wisconsin with what happened in year one for him at Cincinnati, when the Bearcats went 4-8 in 2017. Fickell said the expectations coaches walked into and the expectations he had for himself at Wisconsin were higher.
“So this is and continues to be a hell of a lot more challenging,” Fickell said.
Meeting that challenge hasn’t happened yet. And, based on the way this season has unfolded, there is so much more work to be done.
“In the big picture of it, I’m responsible,” Fickell said. “So I put it on my shoulders to make sure that we all are on the same page. It’s the nature of the things that you learn when you go through real adverse situations.
“You can think you know what you’re looking at in the offseason and the spring and in the summer. But nobody can prepare themselves for the real adverse situations. So all of us are figuring out how we handle things together, whether we’re the coaching staff or the players.”
(Photo of Luke Fickell: John Fisher / Getty Images)