SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Every day, Marcus Freeman takes a moment to reflect on the opportunity he has to be Notre Dame‘s head coach.
Six weeks ago, Freeman’s life forever changed. He spent the afternoon of Nov. 29 recruiting in Michigan as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. That night, news broke that Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly would be leaving Notre Dame for LSU after 12 seasons. The next morning, Kelly informed the team of his departure during a brief meeting.
“Notre Dame football was turned upside down for about three days,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said.
On Dec. 3, Notre Dame players cheered when Freeman was reintroduced as their new head coach. Freeman had been officially with Notre Dame’s program for only 330 days, but his effect on players, colleagues and others he came across could be felt immediately.
Human connections aren’t as easy to quantify as defensive statistics or star ratings of a recruiting class. Freeman shaped both defense and recruiting during his first year on campus. But his ability to impact others helped him land one of college football’s top jobs at age 35.
“What was different about Marcus, in observing him for a year, is that his relationship with the players was independent of position, or which side of the ball you played,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “Offensive players were as likely to have a close relationship with him as defensive players, even though they spend less time with him.
“Just a remarkable genuineness. The guy just doesn’t have an ounce of pretense in him.”
Those skills are part of his daily reflections.
“You’re not changed as a person because you’re the head coach of Notre Dame,” Freeman told ESPN. “The perception of you might change, the things that are asked of you might change, but you have to be who you are. Be a person who works and grinds and does the things that got you to this position. Be a teammate who puts other people first.
“That’s what I remind myself every day: Don’t let this job change you.”
Time will tell whether Freeman is more successful than Kelly, who won 113 games (54 since the start of the 2017 season) and brought stability to Notre Dame, which in turn, allowed the school to seek continuity with his replacement. Freeman’s head-coaching debut in last week’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl became historic for the wrong reasons, as the Irish blew a 21-point second-quarter lead to Oklahoma State and fell 37-35, dropping to 0-8 in BCS or New Year’s Six bowls. Notre Dame hadn’t squandered such a big lead since losing a 24-point edge against Tennessee in 1991.
This coming fall, Freeman will lead the Irish into a schedule that begins with Ohio State, where Freeman was an All-Big Ten linebacker, and features Clemson, BYU and others.
What Notre Dame can count on with Freeman is a coach who prioritizes relationship-building in every element of the program. He vows to be extremely accessible to both current players and future recruits, saying on national signing day that he intends to be “the lead recruiter” on every prospect. His effect on Notre Dame assistants has been significant, as several, including Rees and defensive line coach Mike Elston, opted to remain with Freeman rather than join Kelly at LSU. Kelly’s team-record 113 wins at Notre Dame is unequivocal, but he often operated at a distance from players and others, according to sources in and around the program.
If Kelly operated as a CEO coach, Freeman might be more like the head of human resources, someone who prioritizes building meaningful relationships throughout the organization.
“The ability to reach out to people, to call people back, to text guys, there’s only a certain amount of hours in a day, but you still can make time to do those things,” Freeman said. “If you don’t set intentional time, these tasks will never get done. That’s what I’ve done as a defensive coordinator, and that’s what I’ll continue to do as a head coach.”
WHEN JIM TRESSEL had a chance to bring Freeman back to Ohio State, he didn’t hesitate.
Freeman had played for Tressel with the Buckeyes. He was part of a loaded linebacker room that featured NFL draft picks such as A.J. Hawk (first round), Bobby Carpenter (first round), James Laurinaitis (second round) and Anthony Schlegel (third round). A fifth-round pick of the Chicago Bears, Freeman spent time with three teams in 2009 before having to retire the following May because of an enlarged heart condition.
“We hired him right away, thinking that he’d be a great influence around the team,” Tressel said. “He did a great job for us, always high enthusiasm, always great connectivity to the kids. Sometimes when you’re a [graduate assistant] shortly after playing, it’s hard, but he made that transition easy. I’m not shocked that he has progressed.”
Tressel saw Freeman’s approach toward players emerge right away as a strength.
“He wants to hear what others feel and think,” Tressel said. “He’s got a good awareness and good compassion, and it’s genuine. It’s not something that’s calculated in any way. That’s just who he is.”
After the 2010 season, Buckeyes receivers coach Darrell Hazell landed the head-coaching job at Kent State, and brought Freeman in as linebackers coach. When Hazell moved on to Purdue, Freeman joined him, becoming a co-defensive coordinator in 2016 at age 30. Purdue fired Hazell midway through the season, but in December, Cincinnati hired Luke Fickell, who had been Freeman’s linebackers coach at Ohio State, to lead its program. Fickell brought in Freeman as defensive coordinator.
Freeman had risen quickly in coaching, but also in the familiar comforts of the Tressel/Ohio State coaching tree. After the 2020 season, he generated head-coaching interest, including an interview with Illinois, but ultimately would choose between two high-profile coordinator jobs: LSU and Notre Dame. LSU was just a year removed from a national title, but Notre Dame offered stability and a proximity to home.
He picked Notre Dame, a new place where he had to forge his own path.
“We talked about it a lot when I first met him, and he was really clear. He said, ‘I’m going to be me,'” Swarbrick said. “He appreciated what was unique about Notre Dame, but he brought to it his real self. He didn’t try and modify who he was because he was at Notre Dame.”
Freeman is still learning about Notre Dame through notable people connected to the school and the program. He operates in different circles than he did weeks ago, and “in a little bit different clothes,” a wardrobe upgrade he leaves up to his wife, Joanna. Freeman has plenty of resources, including Tressel, whom he considers “a huge asset during this transition.”
Tressel thinks Freeman’s experience at Ohio State will help him navigate the environment at Notre Dame, another program steeped in tradition. While Notre Dame has been accused of propping up its past too much, Freeman doesn’t see it that way.
“You embrace the history of this place, the uniqueness,” Freeman said. “And you use it as, ‘Hey, this is cutting edge. We have the people, we have the network, we have every resource necessary.’ It’s a huge benefit for us.”
NOTRE DAME’S HOPE is that a young, relatable coach with fresh ideas can help the program rise from frequent CFP contender to bona fide national title threat. Kelly guided the Irish to two playoff appearances and the BCS title game, but went 0-3, losing by a combined score of 103-31.
The program regularly produces NFL draft picks — including nine this past spring, Notre Dame’s highest total since 1994 — but the group has been dominated by offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers. The Irish have had mostly solid quarterback play but have lacked the pass-game prowess of many national champions during the CFP era. There are roster upgrades to be made, especially at perimeter positions such as wide receiver and defensive back.
As defensive coordinator, Freeman contributed to a Notre Dame recruiting class currently ranked No. 6 nationally by ESPN. He had a clear effect on the linebacker position, where Notre Dame landed its highest-rated prospects (Jaylen Sneed and Niuafe Tuihalamaka).
If it holds, the class would be Notre Dame’s highest rated by ESPN since 2013 (No. 4).
“It’s not fair to evaluate what Marcus Freeman did over the last two weeks and decide whether he’s going to be the right recruiter for this role,” Elston, who serves as Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator, said on signing day (Dec. 15). “He’s going to be phenomenal, and we’re going to bridge the gap, from what’s challenging here and the location that we’re in and how hard it is to do the classwork here, [with] the relationships that he’s going to build from the top down.”
Elston spoke bluntly that day about Notre Dame’s obstacles in recruiting and a finish to the 2022 cycle that he wished had been stronger. He also spoke boldly about Freeman’s hands-on approach to recruiting and areas that Notre Dame will grow, such as name, image and likeness opportunities.
Few of Notre Dame’s assistants are more connected to Kelly than Elston, who has worked for Kelly since 2004 at three different programs. But like many others Freeman has encountered in the past year, he’s all-in on the new guy.
“You don’t want to let him down,” Elston said. “You don’t want to be outshined by the head coach, who’s got 1,000 other things on his plate. … If you have any pride at all and you want to impress the boss, then you’re going to work at that level, if not more. I think you’ll see that across the board.”
Notre Dame’s 2023 recruiting is already off to an impressive start as the program has commitments from eight ESPN 300 juniors, the most of any FBS team.
Freeman is comfortable setting the example for how Notre Dame coaches should recruit, rather than delegating those duties to assistants. He believes head coaches who don’t establish personal relationships with recruits put their programs “at a disadvantage.”
“He’s as open a coach as I’ve been around in terms of sharing who he is and what he believes in,” Swarbrick told ESPN. “You’re dealing with young people who have a completely different sense of sharing information. If the people they’re working with, in this case, coaches, aren’t equally forthcoming about who they are, they don’t trust them. They want to understand who you are, how you relate to your family, what’s your background. They want to know you, in a very real sense.
“Coaches that aren’t willing to reveal themselves to that degree have trouble.”
Freeman has retained several assistants from Kelly’s staff, although he will make some of his own hires, including his replacement at defensive coordinator, now that the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl is in the rearview. Two possibilities, according to sources, are Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, whom Freeman worked with at Purdue and Kent State, as well as Auburn defensive coordinator Derek Mason.
The goal is to blend a winning formula at Notre Dame — the team is 54-10 since the start of the 2016 season — with some nuance.
“As a leader, I’m always going to look for a better way,” Freeman said. “So that means bringing in people that don’t just think like me, that have great ideas.”
Freeman’s assistants and support staff will be challenged to advocate for different approaches in recruiting, scheme and other areas. If Notre Dame isn’t constantly in enhance mode, Freeman said, it will fall behind.
“He’s going to choose which direction we go in, but ultimately, he’s going to be able to say, ‘All right, this is a new way of doing it. We’re going to look outside the box a little bit and we’re going to be able to affect guys in different ways,'” Rees said. “To me, that’s as exciting as anything that’s going on in the program right now.”
REES ENROLLED AT Notre Dame in January 2010, played four seasons at quarterback (starting two), and then returned as an assistant in 2017. He has experienced turbulent times with the program, but nothing like what happened in late November.
Appearing on “The Ryen Russillo Podcast” last month, Rees said, “I felt like Notre Dame was the Alamo. It was under attack. Everyone was going to die. I wanted to fight for Notre Dame.”
At Notre Dame’s signing day news conference, Rees again addressed “the rallying of Notre Dame.” He said people he had not heard from in years reached out during the time between Kelly’s departure and Freeman’s promotion.
Rees was recruiting in California with Kelly and other assistants when Kelly took the LSU job. Flying back to Indiana, the 29-year-old Rees said he was hit by “a rare feeling” pulling him to remain at his alma mater. Notre Dame spent the two days after Kelly’s departure negotiating to retain both Rees and Freeman, with Rees informing the team on the night of Dec. 1 that he wasn’t going anywhere.
“As somebody that just got exposed to Notre Dame, the turnaround that he’s had here, him selling his own journey to Notre Dame and the impact it’s had on him, is very powerful,” Rees said. “That’s something very tangible and something I can relate to.”
The promotion of Freeman served its initial purpose: to keep a healthy and stable program from splintering after Kelly’s stunning departure. There will be challenges ahead, though, especially for a first-time head coach.
Notre Dame’s history with first-time head coaches (Bob Davie, Charlie Weis) isn’t great, but there are plenty of success stories at other high-profile programs, including assistants who were promoted to lead roles, such as Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and Ryan Day at Ohio State.
“Until you’re making those timeout decisions and fourth-and-1 calls and critical game strategy calls, you don’t know,” Swarbrick said. “There’s got to be a learning curve. I have no reason to suspect it’s a bigger learning curve or a smaller one in Marcus’ case, but there has to be one.”
The learning curve showed in the Fiesta Bowl, as Notre Dame struggled to keep pace with Oklahoma State after building a 28-7 lead. Oklahoma State scored 24 points on five drives spanning from late in the first half through the third quarter. The Cowboys featured 10 personnel — one running back, no tight end — on offense, which Freeman hadn’t seen much from Mike Gundy’s team during the season.
“They made some good second-half adjustments offensively and defensively to stop what we were doing offensively and to kind of exploit some things defensively,” Freeman said. “For me, as the leader of this program, it’s a pit in your stomach that you want to bottle it up and you want to remember how this feels.
“The honeymoon stage is over. The whole new head coach, it’s a great story, no, it’s about having a great product and it’s about having a great team. It’s about developing this team for next year.”
Freeman’s game-day growth ultimately will shape his Notre Dame tenure. Like Kelly, he acknowledges that national championships are the program’s only appropriate goal.
But his ability to communicate and build the program’s culture — “At the end of the day, it’s more important than scheme,” Swarbrick said — has provided a foundation. Freeman’s appreciation for others and for the role he has will continue to guide him.
“There’s moments throughout the day that I’m still almost shocked that I’m the head coach of Notre Dame,” Freeman said. “Because it’s a privilege to be in this position. I don’t care what your age is or how many years you’ve been doing this.
“I hope I’m like this for the rest of my career, until they tell me I have to leave.”