Instant connection: Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman might change game as we know it – by being himself. Is it enough to lift the Irish?
The first official recruit of Marcus Freeman’s coaching career, junior college linebacker C.J. Malauulu, transferred to Kent State in 2011. Malauulu soon realized he drastically underestimated the seismic culture shift that comes with moving from Southern California to Northeast Ohio.
Malauulu showed up on a winter recruiting trip dressed in slippers and shorts, the wind chill welcoming him to a new world. When seeking a burrito after arriving, he was stunned when teammates directed him to Taco Bell. When Malauulu’s teammates held jam sessions, he’d play his ukulele while they strummed country tunes.
“From the culture that I come from, there’s a lot of brown people,” he said. “When I came there, it wasn’t the same. I was a little nervous.”
About a decade before Freeman became the head coach at Notre Dame, he’d just turned 25 as a member of Darrell Hazell’s first Kent State staff in 2011. He took his first recruiting trip as a full-time coach to meet Malauulu in Oceanside, California, and Freeman unknowingly hatched a gameplan of forging deep and indelible relationships that have enabled his meteoric career ascent.
Recognizing the stark cultural differences for Malauulu, Freeman immediately began scouring campus to find anyone of Polynesian heritage. Eventually, he tracked down a custodian of Tongan descent. Malauulu never actually met the custodian, but he recognized Freeman’s extreme effort.
Freeman’s wife, Joanna, would prepare Hawaiian barbecue mix when the Kent players came to his cozy condo and then slip Malauulu a container of leftovers. Freeman later organized the linebackers to perform the Haka, a ceremonial dance with Polynesian roots. They showed more heart than art. “We weren’t exactly looking like the All Blacks out there,” Malauulu recalled with a chuckle, comparing them to the famed New Zealand rugby team who helped popularize the Haka in sports.
When Malauulu skipped a pre-practice meeting to get his driver’s license, Freeman realized that he needed to teach him right from wrong within the program more than punish him. The totality of the effort by Freeman forged a bond of trust and respect that resonates a decade after Malauulu’s two All-MAC seasons.
“Marcus Freeman is like the best big brother ever,” Malauulu said in a recent phone interview. “He makes you feel like family, and you know that he cares about you. On the field and, more importantly, off the field, you can tell he cares about the whole person.”
'He’s not phony, he’s not contrived and he’s not made-up'
Marcus Freeman’s thunderclap arrival to the mainstream sports world came in early December when the Fighting Irish team found out formally that he would be named Notre Dame’s head coach. The players mobbed, hugged and bee-hived into a euphoric mosh pit upon hearing the news, as it became clear he had built the same caliber of bond with them as he did Malauulu.
a player's coach@Marcus_Freeman1 | #GoIrish pic.twitter.com/pf9E1OygA8
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 3, 2021
The clip instantly went viral, and it exudes the type of poignant raw emotion and spontaneous elation that could never be choreographed.
That organic joy stems from one of the gifts that has defined and propelled Freeman’s career — a deep and authentic connection to his players that started at Kent and followed him through stops as an assistant coach and coordinator at Purdue, Cincinnati and Notre Dame.
“I’ll go to my grave saying he was the best and most relatable coach I’ve ever had,” said former Purdue linebacker Garrett Hudson, who now coaches high school football in Indiana. “You can line up anyone in the NFL, and he’s going to be my No. 1 until they bury me 6-feet under.”
Glimpsing back at the journey of Freeman, 35, to become the coach at Notre Dame also offers a peek into the profession's future. Freeman’s ability to push players past their limits and maximize their potential through authentic relationships comes without any of the bullying, patronizing and berating so often associated with coaching.
Could his surprise elevation be remembered as a bellwether for what the profession will look like in the next generation?
As Freeman embarks on one of the biggest jobs in college football, he’s going to be intentional about not deviating from the gameplan that got him here — deep connection with players, recruits and the community. One at a time, Freeman has built relationships that allowed him to coach hard, recruit successfully and foster a strong culture. “He’s not phony, he’s not contrived and he’s not made-up,” former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told Yahoo Sports.
Heading into his debut against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, Freeman’s hire has brought an aura of freshness to one of college football’s stuffiest brands. Can the energy and interest nudge Notre Dame higher than the peaks it reached under Kelly? He played once for the BCS title and twice reached the College Football Playoff. Can Freeman’s ability to connect enable Notre Dame to link back to its championship lineage?
“Ultimately, it’s about the relationships.” Freeman said of lessons reverberating from coaching Malauulu and beyond. “That’s why you do it. You can change someone’s life.”
Freeman's lords of discipline: His mom and dad
Every weekday morning during the late 1990s, Michael Freeman’s voice echoed through the pre-dawn darkness in a modest three-bedroom house in suburban Dayton. In the booming bass befitting a former Air Force sergeant, Freeman would rouse his sons: “Get your butts up!”
That prompted Mike Freeman, 13, and Marcus Freeman, 11, to join their father in the living room as he grunted out his final sets on the family weight bench around 5:15 a.m. Their mother, Chong, left for her factory job around the same time.
Marcus and Mike started their winter mornings running in place in front of the piano. The boys would eventually execute bench presses, knee bends and squats, with the piano bench pulling double duty. “If your butt didn’t touch that piano bench doing squats, you were going to hear about it,” Marcus Freeman recalls with a laugh. “We learned to do things right, or we were going to have to do them over.”
Marcus Freeman never quite knew the destination, but he learned early on that waking up at the crack of dawn and running would lead him there. He awoke every morning, legs driving toward an unknown horizon. “You better get up early,” Michael Freeman Sr. warned him. “Your opponents are getting up early.”
As the years wore on, that living room of the family’s “lower middle class home” became crowded with trophies and medals the Freeman boys won from football, baseball and taekwondo. The awards lived where the success was rooted, mile markers to the eventual destination.
The twin pillars of Marcus Freeman’s ascent — discipline and other-centeredness — can be traced back to what he learned from his mom and dad at home. The most important relationships of his early life setting the tone for how he’d eventually forge his own.
As Freeman kept running, the accomplishments escalated in scope — starring at Ohio State, getting drafted into the NFL and a moonshot coaching career. But they came from the same place. The same people.
Michael and Chong Freeman didn’t just demand discipline, consistency and hard work. They demonstrated it. (Mike Freeman ran far, too, as he's an associate director with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Austin, Texas.)
After Michael Freeman Sr. retired as an Air Force Senior Master Sargent E-8 with 26 years of service, he didn’t leave behind the military ethos. He worked for the Dayton Metro Housing Authority after his retirement but kept a cadet mentality.
Dad wasn’t the only one exhibiting extreme discipline and selflessness. Chong Freeman worked three jobs at times — a factory job at Mound Manufacturing that necessitated her to leave before sunrise, a part-time janitorial job at nights and a weekend job at a friend’s store, TNT Fashion. Marcus Freeman recalls occasionally going to the offices to help his mother clean.
Michael Freeman Sr., 78, grew up in Columbus, worked as an usher at Ohio Stadium while in the Boy Scouts and joined the Air Force soon after high school.
The Air Force stationed Michael Freeman at Osan Air Base in South Korea in the 1970s. While there, he met Chong. They married in 1977 and moved to Abilene, Texas, around 1979. When Michael left for a year on assignment in Turkey, Chong stayed in Texas to work at Texas Instruments and took classes to learn English.
“She always wanted to put others first, she never wanted the spotlight on her,” Marcus Freeman said. “She came from Korea and didn’t know a lot of people, so she was always going to put her family first.”
Chong Freeman signed both her boys up for taekwondo, the national sport in South Korea, and her extra jobs helped pay for the lessons. The boys thrived, as Marcus Freeman said he learned the power of extreme accountability when looking inward after a sparring loss when there’s no one else to blame.
Even the family dinner schedule adhered to a strict regimen — fried chicken on Monday, steak on Tuesday, spaghetti on Wednesday, pork chops on Thursday and a variety on Fridays. Chong would often make huge meals for the family, always putting others first, and cook herself some kimchi.
What began as running in place eventually allowed Marcus Freeman to sprint ahead. And the lessons from his most important formative relationships set the stage for him to become the best version of himself and demand that from others.
“What I learned most was the routine,” he said. “Get up no matter how you feel and get to work. It’s something that’s been instilled with me forever.”
Life after NFL meant embracing 'chameleon' qualities
The end of Marcus Freeman’s football playing career came swiftly and harshly in 2010. After earning second-team All-Big Ten honors twice at Ohio State and getting selected in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL draft, Freeman bounced through three different teams — the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills without taking a regular season snap.
As he headed to be signed by Indianapolis a few days after the Super Bowl in 2010, Colts doctors found an enlarged heart. He was medically disqualified, which essentially drove him straight into the coaching profession. Marcus Freeman fights the notion to embellish the sudden circumstances.
“It sounds so great when you read it — a guy got his NFL career cut short and then started coaching,” Freeman said. “But really, my NFL career was cut short because I wasn’t good enough. That’s OK. At some point, everyone is going to be not good enough. To me it was a blessing in disguise.”
As a player, then-Ohio State linebacker coach Luke Fickell nicknamed Freeman “The Chameleon,” a complimentary term for his ability to navigate the team's different social groups. “He had a well-roundedness and an intelligence,” Fickell said, “that always gave him the opportunity to thrive in any social situation.”
Freeman also appreciated football's strategic side. Former teammate James Laurinaitis remembers he and Freeman bonding over Fickell’s verbal lashings. “Some of my favorite conversations with Marcus as a player,” Laurinaitis said with a laugh, “we’d be sitting on the bench midgame and predicting what play Coach Fickell was going to absolutely crush us on.”
Freeman knew enough to spend his NFL career keenly aware of his professional limitations. That included calling Fickell about starting a coaching career while languishing on the Texans' practice squad in 2009. He was engaged to Joanna at the time, who remained in Columbus working at the CBS affiliate as a reporter.
The medical disqualification gave Freeman a linear focus on coaching. He attacked it the only way he knew how — he got up early and started running. The same player who annoyed his roommates in college with 5:15 a.m. weekend wake-ups – and eventually Joanna — didn’t know any other way than pre-dawn discipline.
Fickell coached Freeman all five of his years at Ohio State (2004-08) and grew close enough to him that he’d tease him for his affinity for nice shoes, diamond earrings and the rims on his hunter-green Expedition, which was nicknamed The Green Monster.
Freeman’s dedication showed right away, as Calvin Pruitt, his best friend, recalls Freeman making only a cameo appearance at his bachelor party in Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie. Freeman, the best man, drove Pruitt up in the Lexus he bought with his $180,000 NFL signing bonus, hung out for a while and took the final ferry off the island.
Pruitt was a bit miffed, as Freeman drove three hours back to Columbus and slept an hour or two in the office before Buckeyes summer camps. Pruitt recalls Freeman telling him: “This is very important to me, I can’t miss this opportunity that I have in front of me right now.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Freeman kept strict priorities. And Freeman, predictably enough, began impressing his superiors with his work ethic and ability to connect with players. The same chameleon ability that allowed Freeman to weave seamlessly through campus showed back up when dealing with players and recruits.
“Marcus has a gift that he can relate to kids and families, regardless of if they are from cities or the suburbs,” Fickell said. “It’s natural to him.”
Multiple former players noted that Freeman rarely recalled his NFL experience, never dwelling on it. And that’s one thing that impressed Hazell about Freeman’s relationship building, it was rooted in the players’ journey. Not Freeman’s.
“Players had an instant connection with him,” Hazell said. “It wasn’t a guy pounding his chest saying, ‘This is the way that I did it.’ But it was a relationship of, ‘If you do it this way, this can help you be the best player you can be.”
Defining and refining the 'player's coach' tag
Back in 2018, Cincinnati’s Ryan Royer helped form a gritty crew of Bearcats walk-ons who nicknamed themselves "The Show." As in, “I’m about to go put on a show,” which can be a tricky proposition for a third-stringer.
No coach at Cincinnati recognized, nurtured and attempted to grow The Show more than then-Bearcats defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. He highlighted the energy, lobbied for Royer to get special teams reps and ultimately understood and delivered the validation all walk-ons seek.
“He embraced it and he’d try and recruit guys on the team, saying, ‘You need to be a part of The Show,’” Royer recalled. “He was the No. 1 coach pushing for it and supporting it. It was a great example of how he treated everyone the same.”
For Freeman, all the relationships mattered. And that theme weaves through his rise up the ranks from Kent State to Purdue to Cincinnati and, finally, Notre Dame over the past decade.
He’d ask about players’ girlfriends, insist on meeting their families and play “trash ball” — a hybrid of football and basketball that uses a trash can — while talking smack to the linebackers the whole time.
All the while, Freeman remained firmly in charge, yet still relatable enough that he endured gentle teasing about his shaved legs, scented office candles and owning 50-something pairs of white Vans sneakers. (He cleans them with a toothbrush, according to Joanna.) He claims to be the strongest bencher in the Notre Dame linebackers room, pushing up 315 pounds five times.
From Royer’s humble beginnings in The Show, he emerged as a special teams linchpin, eventually earned a scholarship and became one of the program’s most respected players while earning a degree in mechanical engineering. Royer also emerged as a bit of a nightlife ringleader, a role that Freeman relished learning about after being introduced to The Fan Game.
Royer helped invent a game that involves two guys boosting up another, who would stick their head in a moving ceiling fan until it stopped. This would play out to the blaring backdrop of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys. Royer insists the fan moves slow and there has been no injuries, but admits the game can have enough participants for the song needing to be played multiple times.
Freeman delighted in the existence of The Fan Game, reveling in the frivolity inherent to college life.
“He’d ask, ‘Did you do The Fan Game this weekend?’” Royer recalled with a laugh. “He’d tell the whole defensive staff about it. He loved it. It was never just about football. He was involved with everything, and we loved him for that.”
At Purdue, Freeman once brought in a former Navy Seal for a special workout in the wrestling room that featured tug-of-war, assault bike rides and battle ropes. He got so close to the players there that he could push them further. “He’s in your face, but it’s all positive reinforcement,” Hudson said. “And later that night he texted, ‘I love you guys more than anything.’”
Perhaps most impressive is that Freeman forged those bonds as Purdue slogged through a 9-33 record over four seasons. “We didn’t have the most wins, we weren’t the most liked team,” Hudson said. “But because the guys liked Coach Freeman so much, we were the most tight-knit group.”
Part of Freeman’s early resonance nationally after getting the job came when describing his coaching style to The Players Tribune: “I don’t have to walk around like I have to put fear in their hearts, that doesn’t mean the demands aren’t going to be extremely high … You can be very demanding, and still make people feel good and still make people feel important.”
From finding a Tongan janitor to cheering on The Show to capturing the hearts of his Purdue players, Freeman lived those words. And it’s not surprising that Malauulu and Hudson are both coaching now and channeling Freeman every day
“He’s a player’s coach,” Royer said. “That’s 100 percent true. But that doesn’t mean he takes it easy on his players. He’s very demanding, but you want to work hard and do everything you can for him because you know that he cares about you.”
Strongest lobby for Freeman at Notre Dame — his players
A few hours after Brian Kelly told the Notre Dame players he planned to leave for LSU in a 7 a.m. team meeting, athletic director Jack Swarbrick met with the team’s seven captains in a conference room in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. The 2 p.m. meeting set the course for the next generation of Notre Dame football.
Swarbrick called the meeting seeking characteristics the captains wanted for their next coach. He chuckles now at the calculated brilliance of the players, who basically ignored Swarbrick’s ground rules.
The seven captains — wideout Avery Davis, safety Kyle Hamilton, defensive linemen Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson, linebacker Drew White and running back Kyren Williams — took turns all explaining in “brilliant, articulate and passionate” terms a different version of the same message.
“This is our culture,” Swarbrick recalled them saying. “It’s not the coaches’ culture. We built this thing. It’s really good, and we think it’s the best in college football. We want to protect that.
“Basically, they told me: ‘You don’t get to screw it up.’”
Notre Dame finished this regular season 11-1, and the fifth-year seniors in the program have gone 54-9 with two College Football Playoff appearances. Notre Dame's players didn’t want an outsider coming in and telling them how to win games.
Swarbrick didn’t ask specifically for coach candidates, but the players made it clear — “forceful and unanimous,” from both sides of the ball — that they wanted Freeman. It struck Swarbrick that Williams, the star tailback, mentioned that he’d plan his route through the football offices to poke his head in the first-year defensive coordinator’s corner office. The same knack for relationships that defined Freeman’s rise permeated every corner of the Notre Dame program.
“He was the guy I was rooting for and so many of the guys were rooting for,” said JD Bertrand, a junior linebacker. “It brought a calmness to our program.”
Still, there’s uncertainty about Freeman’s age, lack of head coaching experience and the size of the stage he’s inheriting. It’d be naïve to think there won’t be missteps and growing pains. Once there’s a few losses, the same reputation he’s lauded for as a players' coach will inevitably see-saw to criticism.
Notre Dame boasts a strong roster and staff stability with strength coach Matt Balis and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees as linchpins who preceded Freeman’s elevation. Freeman’s hire a year ago helped kickstart a 2023 recruiting class that ranks No. 1 nationally in Rivals.com rankings. Kelly built a house with great bones, and Freeman’s job is enhancing that.
“Marcus’ greatest strengths play especially well to what’s needed to take that next step,” Swarbrick said. “A lot of that has to do with recruiting and player evaluation and culture building. The things you see with Lincoln Riley and Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban.
“I think his natural skill set lends itself to the things that have become the most important in college football.”
Freeman immediately pushed some of the recruiting paradigms at Notre Dame upon his hire in January, but did so in the spirit of the program’s uniqueness — tradition, academics and close-knit campus — being an advantage for the school. “He was aware of our differences and embraced them,” Kelly said in a phone interview this week. “He also brought an energy and a thinking outside the box related to recruiting. Both of those things will serve him well."
The players bought in quickly upon his arrival last winter, as Bertrand said Freeman hung a mini basketball hoop in the linebackers room and played a game of Knockout — just with the letters ND — as guys entered the room to bring energy and competition to meetings. Bertrand’s brother, John Michael, is a lefty pitcher on the Irish baseball team and Freeman went out of his way to build a relationship with him when they’d lift weights.
Freeman’s coaching rhetoric even made its way to the linebackers’ Secret Santa, as junior Jack Kiser bought Freeman an engraved golden whistle, a tribute to the Golden Standard theme he introduced in the spring. (Freeman gifted linebacker Shayne Simon a pair of white Vans, a nod to Freeman’s own collection.) “He’s not changing,” Bertrand said. “He’s the same Coach Freeman that we knew.”
And that has resulted in a new aura and vibe for the Notre Dame program that was perhaps summed up by Hudson, who played for Freeman at Purdue and admits it “breaks my heart” to say this about a rival school.
“Coach Freeman is going to make Notre Dame cool for young kids, for kids coming out of cities, kids that don’t typically think of Notre Dame are going to say, ‘I want to go play for that man,’” said Hudson who is an assistant at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Indiana. “He’s going to make Notre Dame take that next step. I truly believe that with all my heart.”
Big happy families
At Marcus Freeman’s introductory news conference in December, Joanna Freeman entered with the family’s six children — Vinny, 14; Siena, 9; Gino, 8; Nico, 6; Capri, 4; and Rocco, 3. She pleaded with the four boys to sit still for 20 minutes while their dad spoke, and then they could go throw the ball around in the fieldhouse.
Freeman’s parents were in attendance as well, a full-circle moment for the culmination of what they instilled. As Marcus Freeman soared into the American consciousness after getting elevated to the head job in early December, his robust family both accompanied him and offered a window into the person behind the coach.
Marcus and Joanna met while Marcus played at Ohio State, as they lived in the same housing complex in Columbus. She went to nearby Otterbein, and they were introduced by Pruitt. Joanna grew up in a tight-knit Italian family in Massillon, a football-crazed town where Sundays included trips to watch the Browns in the Dawg Pound and family dinners. She describes the couple as two public school kids from Ohio who are close to their families and proud of where they are from.
“We don’t have a super romantic love story,” Joanna said. “We had a lot of breakups and make-ups. We fell hard. We fell fast. We were really young when we met, and a lot of ways, we really grew and matured into adults together.”
Nearly a year after they got married, Marcus got offered the linebackers job by Hazell at Kent State for $42,000 a year. They already had their first child, and Joanna’s job as a television reporter for WBNS in Columbus paid a majority of the family’s bills.
They talked about Joanna sticking around in Columbus to keep working. But Joanna had faith in Marcus and clear direction that she wanted the family together. “If you’re going to do this,” Marcus recalled Joanna saying, “we’re going to do this together.”
The family grew as they hopscotched the Midwest. The Freemans stayed grounded, as Joanna said one thing that defines them as a couple is that they don’t serve as “bobbleheads” for each other.
“She has the most pure heart,” Marcus said of Joanna. “She’s loyal to her family and people that she loves. It hasn’t always been easy. At times, I can take her for granted. She’s an Italian pistol. If I’m a jerk, she’s going to be ready to fire back. But she’s so loyal.
“There’s no one else I’d rather do life with than her.”
The Freemans got a reasonable facsimile of a head coaching life with six kids from Luke and Amy Fickell when Freeman reunited with his old position coach at Cincinnati in 2017. The Fickells also have six children, and the families, who’d known each other for more than a decade, grew so close they vacationed together on the Outer Banks and in Hilton Head and even took “family portraits” together.
They became known as the FickMans, Amy Fickell said with a laugh, and the Freemans even moved into the Fickell house for a few months while the Freeman's home was being renovated in 2020. “It was wonderful,” Amy Fickell said. “Some people think it’s crazy, but I love her kids. It couldn’t have been a more comfortable situation. My kids loved it.”
Our Rocco is blessed to have Luke and Amy Fickell as his godparents. Bearcat family on and off the field. pic.twitter.com/I8jKGegHZp
— Marcus Freeman (@Marcus_Freeman1) October 7, 2019
When Capri Freeman broke her arm a few years ago, Joanna called Amy Fickell and they met at the hospital. Rocco was still a baby, which meant Amy Fickell stayed in the room with Capri and held her while Capri's arm got casted.
That story is indicative of the coaching reality that Freeman’s deep investment into his players, long hours and time away recruiting means that he is often going to spend more time with other people’s kids than his own.
“If I thought as his wife, his heart wasn’t in the right place, it’d be hard for me to deal with the absence of him,” Joanna said. “But I know he’s making a positive impact, he wants to make people better and truly wants best for the people around him.”
And that leaves Joanna Freeman with the primary responsibility for many of the details, needs and activities of their six kids. Laurinaitis calls Joanna “the true hero at home.”
Amy Fickell sums Joanna up this way: “She’s mentally tough, a strong person. As coaches’ wives, you have to be the dad as well as the mom most of the time, so this makes her perfect for both jobs — coach’s wife and mother.”
Joanna’s dual role at home allows Marcus to pass on the lessons of his childhood and fatherhood through the broader context of team as family. The twin pillars of discipline and other-centeredness are being dispensed both at home and in the locker room.
The wake-up calls from his father set the structure of his career ascent.
The empathy from his mother taught Freeman how to touch players’ hearts. His coaching journey gave him a blueprint to connect, inspire and motivate. His sprawling, rollicking and loving family provides the support, motivation and inspiration.
And now Marcus Freeman has arrived at a destination job because he invested in every relationship along the way.
“I never aspired to be the head coach at Notre Dame,” Freeman said.
“I wanted to be the best teammate, the best linebacker coach and the defensive coordinator I could be, wherever I was at. And being the head coach at Notre Dame is the result of that.”