Why Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman can become 'the next great coach in college football'

After retiring from the NFL in 2010 because of a heart issue, Marcus Freeman returned to his alma mater, Ohio State, to pursue a career in athletics. He was unsure whether to work in administration or coaching, so he spent a few months with associate athletic director Pat Chun and a few working with his old position coach, Luke Fickell.

After those stints, Freeman faced a crossroads and eventually chose coaching. “He’s the kind of guy who could have done anything he wanted,” Chun, now the AD at Washington State, said by phone on Wednesday night. “Just a good human being.”

And it’s clear that Freeman made the right choice. On Wednesday, Freeman emerged as the expected candidate to replace Brian Kelly as the school’s next head football coach. A little more than a decade after choosing a path in coaching, the 35-year-old Freeman has achieved one of the most storied coaching positions in the profession.

Sep 18, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman leaves the field after Notre Dame defeated the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman leaves the field after defeating Purdue at Notre Dame Stadium. (Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

The deal may not be finalized for a few days as there’s a formal vetting process that must happen before an offer is put into place. (You can thank university bureaucracy and George O’Leary for the delay.) But it’d be stunning if Freeman didn’t end up as Notre Dame’s next head coach, as the same qualities that permeated a decade ago when he chose the sideline as a profession were what convinced the Notre Dame brass.

“He’s got all the tools to be the next great coach in college football,” Chun said. “He’s got high integrity, intelligence and work ethic. He’s been mentored by some of the best in the business. And he clearly has a unique ability to connect with college kids.”

Notre Dame is one of the most demanding jobs in college football. But behind the scenes at Notre Dame, AD Jack Swarbrick and schools officials saw enough during Freeman’s 11 months on campus to convince them that he could handle the breadth of challenges that come with the Notre Dame job.

Starting with the obvious, Freeman emerged as one of the sport’s top young coordinators and coaching prospects. His 3-3-5 defense took some time to gel during his first season in South Bend, but Notre Dame finished the season allowing an average of 5.75 points the final four games and is 11-1 with a shot at the College Football Playoff.

But the reason that Notre Dame officials targeted Freeman and feel comfortable with him far transcends tactics.

Among Freeman's selling points: Connections and continuity

The first place to point to for Freeman’s hiring would be connection. As Notre Dame officials entered the hiring process, a few things stood out as they surveyed the players about the head coach position moving forward. Notre Dame players were protective of the culture they’d built in recent years, as Notre Dame has gone 44-6 the past four years.

That stretch features a slew of players proud of what they built, and there’s a sense that next season could again be College Football Playoff-caliber, as there’s expected to be a higher talent level than this 2021 team. The players made clear they weren’t keen on someone coming in, ripping apart what had been built and installing an entirely new culture and infrastructure.

It'd be too simplistic to say the players wanted Freeman and that’s why he became the hire. But the quality of relationships he built with all the players in the program in less than a year cannot be overlooked. Freeman’s bond transcended the defense, an important detail in his hiring. Freeman made an effort to build strong relationships with players on the offensive side of the ball, a tricky task as he ingratiated himself in the program. That resonated with Notre Dame decision makers, especially because individual connection was never deemed a strength of Kelly by the Irish players.

Notre Dame is a place that's awash in its own lore, and Freeman endeared himself to Notre Dame officials with his ability to identify and accentuate why Notre Dame is distinctly different than blue bloods like Alabama, USC and Ohio State. Freeman quickly showed an intuitive understanding of how to leverage the unique aspects of Notre Dame — academics, tradition, alumni connections — as an advantage.

Freeman summed up Notre Dame this spring to Yahoo Sports by saying the school has "something to sell that nobody else in the country can." He added: "I'm talking about the entire package of the opportunity to win a national championship, the opportunity to be developed and prepared for the NFL better than anywhere else in the country, but also an opportunity to obtain a degree that gets you into a network."

The hiring of Freeman is also a play on continuity. And, bluntly, a play on not letting much of that continuity re-emerge in Baton Rouge. This is a play on taking a familiar leader and proven infrastructure over a new leader who’d likely overhaul the infrastructure.

A majority of the on-field staff — though not all — is expected to remain. A vast majority of the off-field staff will be in place, and that’s dozens of positions at a place like Notre Dame. There’s a sense around Notre Dame that keeping together everything built under Kelly during his tenure would be paramount.

Irish push to maintain recruiting edge

The first real sign of Notre Dame looking internally for the next coach came when strength coach Matt Balis turned down LSU to stay in South Bend. Balis came to South Bend in the wake of Notre Dame’s 4-8 clunker in 2016, and was viewed as so indispensable that the next coach would need to accept him.

Word came out Wednesday that offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who is 22-3 as a play-caller, would also stay in South Bend. Rees, 29, is a former star at Notre Dame, played for Kelly and his decision to stick around to work with Freeman is perhaps the highest compliment to what he believes the new regime can become.

Continuity would also mean that Notre Dame’s No. 4 recruiting class in 2022 and No. 2 class for 2023 would have a strong chance of staying in place. Freeman’s energy helped push a strong recruiting program and nudge it toward becoming an elite recruiting program, which has long been viewed as the final step from CFP participation to advancement.

Recruiting, at its core, is connection. Freeman showed that at Cincinnati, where a former co-worker of his raved late Wednesday about his “rare ability” to connect with players. Freeman helped recruit, build and coordinate the Bearcats into the program that went undefeated in the regular season in 2020 and nearly upset Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

There’s a chance that No. 6 Notre Dame could end up in the College Football Playoff this season, and what a storybook debut that would be.

Freeman arrived at Notre Dame after a heated duel for his services between LSU and the Irish in January. That will go down as one of the single best decisions a young coach has ever made. While Ed Orgeron's implosion was predictable, few could have forecast Kelly as his replacement.

“You see the monumental places, the Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome, those are things that you see pictures of, you hear about,” Freeman told Yahoo Sports this past spring. “But when you see them in-person, it’s like you’re in a movie.”

Little did Freeman know the plot twist would be him emerging as the lead actor in Notre Dame football. At 35, he has a chance for a long run in the starring role at one of college football’s glamour jobs.

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