Marcus Freeman had options for 2021.
He could have followed Brian Kelly to be the defensive coordinator at LSU. He could have ended up at Cincinnati had Notre Dame put on a full-court press for Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell. He could have gone back to his alma mater and helped with the defense at Ohio State in 2021. Freeman, however, stayed put.
And Notre Dame, especially the players, are going to love him for it.
Freeman is expected to be named Notre Dame’s next coach, according to Irish Illustrated.
Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton endorsed that decision before it happened on the “Inside the Garage” podcast with teammates Cam Hart, Conor Ratigan and KC Wallace on Tuesday.
“I’ll put my vote out there for Marcus Freeman, easily,” Hamilton said on the podcast. “Since he’s come in here it feels like we’ve known him for years. He’s always even-keel. He’s the same guy every single day. I think he’s a great leader.”
Imagine being able to make that kind of impact. Freeman, in his first year as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, was able to make a connection with a roster that compiled a 33-6 record the previous three seasons that strongly connected with his predecessor, Clark Lea.
It’s a move that keeps Notre Dame together in the short term. According to The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees intends to remain on the staff, too. The Irish still have an outside shot to make the College Football Playoff depending on Saturday’s results, and having Freeman on staff ensures that the continuity of the coaching staff will not be compromised.
If the Irish do get in the playoff, Kelly’s departure to LSU might have the opposite impact. This move, at least on the onset, has galvanized a talented roster.
Will it work in the long term? Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is taking a risk considering Freeman has no head-coaching experience and is taking on arguably the toughest job in college football, one that is akin to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL. Kelly did manage that high-pressure job 12 seasons.
The interesting development here is the perception that Kelly left because of the recruiting advantages at LSU.
The Irish have a top-10 recruiting class, and Freeman could offer a new pitch with recruits in the era of NIL and the transfer portal. He already has the support of future NFL stars like Hamilton. The Athletic’s Pete Sampson also detailed one of those stories, where Freeman compared Notre Dame to Jay-Z with recruits.
During the summer we had Marcus Freeman on our podcast The Shamrock and I asked him about recruiting for Notre Dame. Here was his answer. I was floored. pic.twitter.com/SpIWCIJiKp
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) December 1, 2021
The idea is that Notre Dame is a legacy program, and Freeman offers something different than Kelly, Charlie Weis or Tyrone Willingham, the program’s first African-American coach who lasted just three seasons from 2002-04.
Unlike those three coaches, Freeman has the “player’s coach” label from Day 1. He doesn’t have to prove himself to the locker room, and the Notre Dame decision-makers wanted this hire.
Freeman will be around longer than three years, especially with the setup. A top-5 recruiting class is coming in, and the Irish return enough talent next year that they will be in the College Football Playoff conversation again. If the CFP ever expands, Notre Dame will be a regular.
Will Freeman be the one that breaks the program’s national championship drought that extends back to 1988, which is seven years longer than the Cowboys’ Super Bowl drought? That remains to be seen, but this doesn’t feel like a turning point for the program.
They are headed in the right direction.
Notre Dame had other options for 2021, too. They could have chosen two other former Buckeyes to lead the Irish out of the tunnel in the season opener at Ohio State. Fickell would have been great given his Catholic ties in the Buckeye State. Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer would have been the most-proven winner, but that still feels like a move that should have been made in 2005 and his off-field issues at Florida, Ohio State and in Jacksonville probably made the Irish a little squeamish.
Instead, Freeman will run out of that tunnel next season, and it feels right for so many reasons.
Just ask the players who will be coming out behind him.