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Five names Notre Dame football should consider for its head coach opening to replace Brian Kelly

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Even though Brian Kelly agreed to a contract extension with Notre Dame before the 2020 season, athletics director Jack Swarbrick should already have a list of names in mind he would like to pursue as the next head coach of Notre Dame’s football program.

The stunning reports came Monday night, first from Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports, that LSU will hire Kelly as its next head coach. No matter how surprising the news may have been, that’s how life goes in big-time college athletics. Just ask Oklahoma.

Swarbrick has certainly had to update his list of potential hires several times since Kelly first flirted with leaving the Irish for the NFL after the 2012 season. In the coming days and weeks, we should learn some of the names on that list.

Who should Swarbrick consider? These five coaches would be a good place to start.

Luke Fickell

The Cincinnati head coach shouldn’t have to do much to win over Notre Dame’s administration or fans. Fickell showed his coaching process on Oct. 2 when he brought the Bearcats into Notre Dame Stadium and beat the Irish 24-13.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell

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In his fifth season leading Cincinnati, Fickell has the Bearcats (12-0), No. 4 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, one win in Saturday’s AAC Championship against Houston away from a likely spot in this year’s College Football Playoff. Fickell has compiled a 47-14 record at Cincinnati.

Hiring Fickell could allow Notre Dame to keep some of its coaching staff intact as current Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens both worked for Fickell at Cincinnati before coming to Notre Dame in 2021 and 2020, respectively.

Fickell, a native of Columbus, Ohio, and former defensive lineman at Ohio State, belongs to the coaching trees of Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. Fickell even bridged the gap between their two tenures as Ohio State’s head coach as the interim coach in 2011.

Fickell was promoted from co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach to interim coach for the entire 2011 season after Tressel resigned in May 2011 during an NCAA investigation into the Ohio State program for players receiving improper benefits. The Buckeyes struggled through a 6-7 season, which included Michigan’s last victory against Ohio State until this past weekend.

Fickell stayed on Ohio State’s staff when Meyer was named head coach. He remained the team’s defensive coordinator until leaving for Cincinnati.

Marcus Freeman

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is likely to be a head coach for the first time in his career sooner rather than later. Maybe the Irish should give Freeman his first shot at leading a program.

Notre Dame Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman
Notre Dame Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman

That might be too much to ask under most circumstances. Head coaching experience should be at the top of any résumé for a potential Notre Dame head coach. But Kelly is leaving the Notre Dame football program in a great position for the next coach who takes the reins.

The same charisma that allows Freeman to be an elite recruiter of high school football players should play well as a head coach. It’s hard to leave a conversation with Freeman unimpressed by him.

His résumé as a defensive coordinator speaks for itself. After a rough start to the season, Freeman has the Irish ranked No. 11 in the FBS in scoring defense for allowing 18.2 points per game. Cincinnati finished among the top 25 in scoring defense in each of Freeman’s last three seasons as its defensive coordinator.

Freeman opted to come to Notre Dame last offseason over an offer to be LSU’s defensive coordinator. He chose to stay in the Midwest where his entire coaching career has taken place. Freeman, a former linebacker at Ohio State, was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes in 2010 before taking jobs at Kent State and Purdue and then becoming Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator.

Retaining Freeman should be on the wish list of any incoming head coach. He will be the key to Notre Dame hanging on to many of its top defensive recruits in a 2022 class that’s ranked No. 4 in the country by both Rivals and 247Sports. Eleven of the 23 verbal commitments in the class are from defensive players.

The last Notre Dame defensive coordinator to be promoted to head coach was Bob Davie before the 1997 season.

If Swarbrick is going to take a chance on a first-time head coach, Freeman makes the most sense.

Matt Campbell

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has been the media darling of the coaching carousel in recent years. Turning a downtrodden Iowa State program into a conference contender in the Big 12 should earn Campbell the opportunity to find a bigger job.

Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell
Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell

Should that job be as big as Notre Dame? Swarbrick would have to ignore a disappointing 2021 season for Iowa State. The Cyclones (7-5) finished the regular season in fourth place in the Big 12 after being voted to finish second in the preseason.

Notre Dame showed the difference between itself and Iowa State in a 33-9 victory against the Cyclones in the 2019 Camping World Bowl. The Cyclones bounced back by earning a trip to the Big 12 Championship in 2020 before losing in it to Oklahoma.

Before taking over Iowa State for the 2016 season, Campbell turned Toledo into a pesky opponent for Power Five teams including a 2015 win at Arkansas. The Rockets never managed to win a MAC Championship under Campbell.

Campbell has proved he can be a winning head coach with a 35-15 record at Toledo and a 42-33 record at Iowa State, but he’d need to prove to Swarbrick that he has what it takes to be a true championship contender at Notre Dame.

The fact that Campbell came through the coaching ranks as an offensive line coach could carry weight in a Notre Dame program with a proud history at the position. Campbell, who played defensive line at Pittsburgh and Mount Union, started his coaching career as a graduate student at Bowling Green in 2003 before full-time assistant roles at Mount Union, Bowling Green and Toledo.

James Franklin

Penn State head coach James Franklin turned early openings on the job market this season into a 10-year contract extension. Maybe the Irish should consider just how locked in Franklin is to staying in Happy Valley.

Penn State head coach James Franklin
Penn State head coach James Franklin

Despite struggling through the 2020 season with a 4-5 record and ending the 2021 regular season with an underwhelming 7-5 record, Franklin’s Penn State tenure has been filled with success. He has won 11 games for the Nittany Lions three times, including a 2016 season that resulted in a Big Ten title.

Franklin finished his three seasons at Vanderbilt (2011-13) with a pair of nine-win seasons. The Commodores had won at least nine games in a season just twice before his arrival: in 1904 and 1915. His ability to compete in the SEC at a school with academic expectations would be a key selling point for Notre Dame.

Franklin has been a strong recruiter at both programs. His current crop of commitments in the 2022 class are ranked No. 5 by Rivals. It likely will become the sixth recruiting class he signed at Penn State to finish ranked among the top 15 on Rivals.

Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald probably loves his alma mater too much to leave the position he has held since 2006. But maybe after a 3-9 season, Fitzgerald might want to give something else a try.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald, a two-time All-American linebacker for Northwestern (1995-96), has had to scratch and claw his way for every ounce of respect he has gained leading the program in Evanston, Illinois. It’s hard to be consistent at a program that outsiders expect little from in the Big Ten, which is why his career record of 109-90 won’t blow anyone away. Yet he has had five seasons of nine wins or more for the Wildcats.

The Wildcats earned trips to the Big Ten Championship twice under Fitzgerald (2018 and 2020), but lost both matchups to Ohio State. Fitzgerald was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2018 and won the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award in 2020.

If Fitzgerald truly wanted to push himself for a national championship run, he’d give Notre Dame some consideration. The biggest question from Notre Dame would be his ability to recruit at a national level. The Wildcats have been built to overachieve rather than have more talent that its opponents in the Big Ten.

Maybe Fitzgerald wants to experience more wins in Notre Dame Stadium, which he did for Northwestern as a player in 1995 and a coach in 2014.

This article originally appeared on ND Insider: Notre Dame football: Five coaches to consider to replace Brian Kelly