Scott Satterfield fidgeted nervously as University of Louisville running back Jawhar Jordan blew through a hole in the Cincinnati Bearcat defense and scampered down the far sideline for a 49-yard touchdown run. If he suppressed an outward smile, inside he was glowing. Proud of his guys—except they were no longer “his guys.”
Around him, as he sat in his office above Nippert Stadium a week before Christmas, were potential UC recruits Satterfield was hoping to persuade to join him next season playing for the very Bearcat team he was trying hard not to root against. Such is the life of a college football coach.
Satterfield’s Louisville Cardinals ended the 2022 season, his fourth as head coach, with a bitter defeat to interstate rival Kentucky. Social media wasn’t being kind. Fans and alumni were restive and had clearly forgotten that he’d rebuilt a team that won just two of 12 games back in 2018.
Sporting a 7–5 record, Louisville was invited to the Fenway Bowl in one of the country’s most iconic venues: Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox since 1912. OK, it was a baseball stadium and Boston in mid-December, but they were playing a traditional rival up the river, UC, and that made for a memorable way to end the season.
Meanwhile, at that school up the river, Luke Fickell was packing his bags for Madison, Wisconsin, and UC Athletic Director John Cunningham was hunting for a new football coach. The Bearcats were heading to the Big 12 in 2023, so there was a debt-ceiling-level of urgency on the Clifton campus.
Satterfield was in Miami scouting Florida high school players when Cunningham called and asked if he was interested in the job. UC President Neville Pinto called him the next day, a Sunday, and Satterfield liked what he heard. “I heard a commitment to the program, a pride in what they’d put in place already, and a vision and a plan for the future,” he recalls.
The next day, Satterfield stood in the shadow of Nippert Stadium as Cunningham introduced UC’s 43rd head coach to a packed room. Satterfield was excited, energized, and ready to go…but his thoughts also drifted back to the Louisville locker room full of young men he loved.
“You know, in the business world, if you’re going to make a change, you do your research and check out the business that’s recruiting you,” says Satterfield. “Maybe you even go visit the city it’s in or take a few days to ask around. We don’t have that luxury in the coaching business. You take the job on faith and the vision of the A.D. and, in this case, the president of the university. You don’t even get to visit the campus. You maybe call a few people and then make your decision fast.”
There are no “two week notices” in college coaching. Someone else cleans out your old office. Maybe you get a chance to say goodbye to your old team, and maybe you don’t.
Satterfield had been through this routine before. In 2018 he decided to leave his first head coaching job at Appalachian State University to join Louisville just hours before coaching the Mountaineers to the Sun Belt Conference championship and a bid to the New Orleans Bowl. It was a tough job to leave abruptly. App State was his alma mater, and he’d been the star quarterback as a student and coached there for most of the next 20 years. When it was over, though, it was over.
From Mountaineer to Cardinal to Bearcat. Do not pass go—but you do collect, because the salary and perks get better at each stop.
Scott Satterfield brought some trusted friends with him to UC: Five assistant coaches and several players from his Louisville squad have joined him in Clifton. But the first coach he hired was Kerry Coombs, the veteran high school, college, and NFL coach who knows the game and Ohio high school football better than anyone.
“There’s no better high school football played than here in Ohio and, particularly, in this part of Ohio,” Satterfield says. “We need to be everywhere looking for talent, and [Kerry] is plugged in to all that.”
The search for talent and, as important, keeping it has become as formidable a challenge as deciding whether to go for it on fourth-and-5. Eligibility rules have changed over the last two years, turning the recruiting game into a buyer’s market for skilled players.
It used to be that college football players earned a scholarship, and that was it. While universities harvested millions on the backs, arms, and legs of their student-athletes, the player just hoped to do well enough to get noticed by the NFL. Now, though, it’s possible for students to earn name, image, and likeness (NIL) compensation for endorsing products, appearing at a ribbon-cutting, or just tweeting and Instagramming. It’s the wild west out there, and coaches must figure out a way to deal with it.
Similarly, there used to be a rule that, if a player transferred, he’d have to sit out a year before playing for the new school. No longer. Now there’s the “transfer portal,” and it’s the land of the revolving door. In the transfer period that ended on May 1, a total of 8,699 NCAA football players signaled their desire to play elsewhere. They didn’t all find new homes, but it gives you an idea of how transient the gridiron landscape has become.
College sports have fundamentally changed, and college coaches now look at each player every year as a potential free agent. Your team could disappear in a flash. You could coach your star running back to glory one year, but the next? He’s slashing through your defensive line, scoring for your in-state rival.
Satterfield calls this required new skill set “roster management,” and it’s hitting him in the face right now as he plans his first campaign as the Bearcat head coach. “For example, you’d like to have 10 or 11 scholarship players in the wide receiver room but, right now, we only have one coming back,” he says somewhat wistfully. “So we’ve had to build an entire room in one season, really one semester. And that’s just one position for this year. When the season is over, we’ll have to look at things again.”
Who’s headed to the NFL? Who’s a graduating senior? Who might transfer out? Who might we bring in? “And this happens twice with the portal,” he says. “Once at the end of the season and again in May.” He suppresses the thought of, again, comparing the wacky world of college coaching to a traditional business.
There’s one more complicating factor. These free agents who can make or break your season are in their late teens or early 20s. Most, if not all, were the stars of their high school teams. Some have already played a year or more of college football elsewhere and have further established their stud status. They’re shopping, and it’s a buyer’s market. Some are resentful, believing they didn’t get the playing time they deserved at their old school. Egos often trump common sense. Add in a few parents who might be living vicariously through their son’s athletic prowess and an impatient gaggle of boosters, and, as Satterfield admits with understated analysis, “it can be really difficult.”
“The big NIL deals are going to go to the players who’ve created a value for themselves,” he says. “So it’s, Look, I’ve played. I’ve proved myself so where can I go play now? What’s my best fit? Where can I excel and make the most money? That’s the world we’re living in now.”
The challenge for UC or any college football program is to build a financial structure that attracts those star athletes. It’s a big pool filled with superpowers like Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, and USC. And that pool is swimming in cash.
Satterfield talks about building team chemistry as perhaps his biggest challenge. UC enters the 2023 season with a new coaching staff, that nearly empty wide receiver room, a new (albeit experienced) quarterback, those Louisville transfers, and several new interior linemen. Satterfield jokes that, before he gets everyone on the same page, the players will need to learn each other’s names.
That goes for the coaching staff as well. Satterfield, as most coaches do, talks about establishing a “culture” beyond simply winning football games. It’s about how to deal with unique personalities, openness to new ideas, accountability, lines of authority, and accessibility. “Some coaches don’t want their players up here,” he says as he waves his arms around his vast office, “and I don’t understand that. I want them to feel comfortable coming up here.”
He wants his assistant coaches involved, too. “I’m not a micromanager, and I don’t mind our guys trying things outside the box,” he says. “Maybe it works better than we’ve done it before. My philosophy is that I want all my coaches to have a say and take ownership. I’m not a dictator. We talk and, at the end of that talk, l get the final say. But players and coaches need to feel they have ownership in what we do.”
Satterfield calls himself a risk-taker when it comes to game management. “I’m prone to go for it,” he says when I ask him his tendencies in fourth down situations. “I have an aggressive mentality, and the analytics play a big role in that thinking. When you go for it, you’re telling your offense you have confidence in them while also telling your defense that, if we don’t get the first down, you have confidence in them to stop the other team.”
He’ll take that aggressive approach into UC’s first season as a member of the Big 12 Conference. He says he hasn’t circled any game on his calendar as special, but he admits that September 23, when traditional power Oklahoma visits Nippert Stadium, will be electric. “I’m also looking forward to some of the fun places where we’re going to play, like Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and playing a night game at BYU will be awesome,” he says. “I can’t wait for this season. Being able to coach and play in a stadium like this is going to be incredible.”
UC has seven home games this season, starting September 2 against Eastern Kentucky and followed by rival Miami and Big 12 matchups with Oklahoma, Iowa State, Baylor, Central Florida, and Kansas.
Satterfield is used to transitions. He led Appalachian State from its status as a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, where it had won three national championships, to the top ranked Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference.
Its biggest win, though, was against Michigan in Ann Arbor. Satterfield nearly bounds out of his chair when I mention it, and it’s almost like he’s been hurtled back to 2007. He was the quarterbacks coach on staff, meaning he called the offensive plays from high up in the press box. He laughs when he remembers that, at halftime with Appalachian State leading 28–17, he wanted to go into the locker room to be with the team.
“But it was too far away,” he recalls of the 107,000-seat Big House. “I would have needed to go down the elevator and find a cab to drive me over there. By the time I’d get there, halftime would be about over. So I just got a popcorn and a Coke and relaxed.”
To this day, Appalachian State’s 34–32 win over Michigan is considered by many to be the greatest upset in college football history. “We drove back to Boone, North Carolina, through Ohio,” Satterfield says, laughing, “and wherever we stopped, Ohio State fans were buying our guys a meal or a soft drink or something.”
Twelve years earlier, it had been Satterfield behind center leading his team to an upset over in-state rival Wake Forest. That game provides an insight into his grit and, he’ll admit, skepticism when it comes to injuries.
He was a senior quarterback at App State that year and, 10 days before the game, a thunderstorm abruptly interrupted practice. Players scrambled off the field, which was on top of a hill overlooking the school’s fieldhouse. Satterfield, like most of his teammates, joyfully slid down the hill but, at the bottom, hit a rock and his right hand was sliced open. “There was blood everywhere,” he says, “and it took I think 28 stitches.” (Press reports at the time said it was 31.)
He didn’t practice, and after four or five days, he remembers, the training staff tried to stick a needle into the wound to alleviate the pain. “But that was worse,” he says. “It was the worst pain I’d ever had, and I told them to forget it. I’d just take an ibuprofen.”
He wore a glove for the game and lost two or three stitches as the Demon Deacons, as he put it, “knocked the crap out of me.” But he also ran and threw for 250 yards and was named Southern Conference Player of the Week. “After the game, I spent a lot of time in an ice bath up to my neck, but we won,” he says.
Back on that cold and gloomy December 2022 day, Satterfield watched with UC recruits as his old guys pummeled his new guys on TV. The kids eyed him respectfully, knowing they were experiencing something special.
The coach felt alone. The players and staff he’d been with in Louisville for years were nearly 900 miles away in Boston. The Lindner Center at UC was empty—every other Bearcat coach and administrator was 900 miles away as well, rooting for the other team. Which was now his team. All Satterfield had around him were his prospective players, shifting uncomfortably in their seats wondering when, how, or if they should react.
But Satterfield knew what to do. “I just looked up from the TV and said to the guys here, This is the future. This is what we’re gonna do here.” The message was clear: “We” were now the University of Cincinnati.