Looks like the Irish are getting a lot younger on the sidelines
As the 48-hour mark neared since the news of Brian Kelly’s sudden and shocking departure broke, the Notre Dame football program and fanbase were still reeling. Kelly had hopped on a plane to Baton Rouge on Tuesday morning, at which point LSU quickly began churning out content about winning championships and talking heads debated whether the move was the right choice. But after the initial shock subsided, the path to the next head coach became blindingly clear to just about every single person involved with the Irish football program.
Enter defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker who spent four years in the DC position with the Cincinnati Bearcats. Freeman is 35 years old and has never been a head coach before. He’s been at Notre Dame less than a year, after Kelly brought him on following his former DC’s departure to be the head coach at Vanderbilt. A lot of these facts may seem to be marks against him — his short time with the program, his youth, his lack of experience. And yet — and yet — the athletes, recruits, alums, former players, fans, and boosters rallied around him like I’ve never seen before. Player after player posted supportive messages and photos for Freeman on Twitter, recruits told reporters that they would decommit if he wasn’t the next head coach, program alumni hosted a Twitter Space titled “Marcus Freeman is the next head coach at Notre Dame,” and the call from fans on the message boards was unanimous.
Then the news broke that Kelly was offering almost all of his former staff a raise to come join him at LSU, including Freeman and offensive coordinator and former Irish QB Tommy Rees. The optimism among the fans turned to panic, as Notre Dame is not exactly known for opening up their pockets in this sort of situation (see: Brian Kelly). The players took matters into their own hands again, tweeting out #PayTommyRees on the day that athletic director Jack Swarbrick was set to meet with Rees to discuss his future at Notre Dame following reports that LSU was offering him a $400K raise. Well, Tommy Rees apparently got paid, because he gathered the team together on Wednesday night to tell them the news: “I’m fucking staying.”
By this time, rumors from anonymous sources that Freeman would be the next head coach (and the second Black head coach in school history after Ty Willingham in 2002-04) were just about everywhere, with the caveat that university president Father John Jenkins would have to sign off on the hire — complicated by the fact that Jenkins is currently in Vatican City, and it was around 1 a.m. when the news was breaking (just wake him up!!). But it became more than just a rumor as the Irish coaches circled the wagons — the strength and conditioning coach? Staying. The running backs coach? Staying. Tight ends coach? Still in South Bend. And Mike Elston, the program’s recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach, who followed Kelly from Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame for nearly two decades? Staying. At. Notre. Dame.
The way Kelly’s departure went undoubtedly rubbed people in the program the wrong way, particularly with a shot, however long, at seeing the playoffs on New Years’ Eve. But that’s not necessarily enough to make everyone stick around. The staff seems to have some real faith in Freeman’s ability to lead the team. He won over the locker room and the recruits, but these coaches’ decisions to stay perhaps say the most about where they believe the program is headed after nearly being gutted by Kelly. On Monday night, the fans were in a state of absolute despair, and by Wednesday evening, they were more optimistic about the future of the Irish football program than I’ve ever seen them.
The days of the old guard at Notre Dame may be coming to an end now, with a 35-year-old at the helm and 29-year-old Rees as second-in-command. What does Notre Dame look like without retirement-age guys screaming at kids on the sideline? Hopefully better. Hopefully different. Hopefully able to move past wistfully yearning for the good old days — Freeman was two years old when Notre Dame last won a national championship, which gives me confidence that he’ll be able to usher in some real change absent of historical context. The program is quickly closing ranks and Kelly is giving the players absolute truckloads of motivational content by essentially telling everyone that he doesn’t think that Notre Dame can win a championship. The unanimous confidence in the hiring of a young Black coach (only the second Black coach in Notre Dame’s history) indicates a culture shift for the program, a changing of the guard to the next generation that just might finally — FINALLY — be able to win it all.
Marcus Freeman is expected to be the next head coach at #NotreDame.
— Tom Loy (@TomLoy247) December 2, 2021
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.
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.
THE FREEMAN FILE
|Hometown||Huber Heights, Ohio|
|High School||Wayne High School|
|College||Ohio State (2007, B.S.; 2011, M.S.)|
|Children||Vinny, Siena, Gino, Nico, Capri and Rocco|
|2005||Ohio State (Alamo)|
|2006||Ohio State (Fiesta)|
|2007||Ohio State (BCS National Championship Game)|
|2008||Ohio State (BCS National Championship Game)|
|2010||Ohio State||Graduate Assistant|
|2021-||Notre Dame||Bob Hinton Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers|
BOWLS COACHED IN
|2010||Ohio State (Sugar)|
|2012||Kent State (GoDaddy.com)|
- A four-year letterwinner for the Buckeyes from 2004 to 2008, played under Luke Fickell and earned second team All-Big Ten honors in 2008 while helping lead Ohio State to four conference titles, three BCS bowls and two trips to the national title game during his career.
- Played in the 2009 Senior Bowl and was a fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, spending time with the Bears, Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans before a medical condition ended his playing career.
- A 2007 Ohio State graduate, earned Academic All-Big Ten and academic all-district honors.
- In 2011, earned a master’s degree in sports management from Ohio State.
- Graduated from Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, and was a Parade All-American.
- 2020 247Sports.com Defensive Coordinator of the Year and 2020 Broyles Award Finalist; 2018 & 2019 Broyles Award nominee
- In 2020, the Bearcats (9-1) earned a bid to the Peach Bowl as the No. 8-ranked team in the nation and won the American Athletic Conference Championship, the program’s first outright league title since 2009, when Cincinnati’s head coach was Brian Kelly.
- Cincinnati’s defense ranked in the Top 20 nationally in several categories for 2020-21, including being ranked 13th in total defense (324.6 yards per game) and eighth in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) among all FBS teams.
- In addition, the Bearcats were third in team passing efficiency defense (101.25), 14th in rushing defense (111.1 yards per game), 15th in red zone defense (0.735), 17th in fourth down defense (0.375 rate), 16th in team sacks (3.00 per game) and 10th in turnovers gained (21).
- Coached the Bearcats to back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2018 and 2019, the 2019 American Athletic Conference East Division Championship and consecutive bowl-game wins in the 2018 Military Bowl and 2019 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl.
- The Bearcats finished atop the 2019 AAC ranks in scoring defense for the second-straight season and ranked among the league’s top three in rushing and total defense.
- Cincinnati led the American in 2018 in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense and ranked among the Top-15 in the NCAA FBS in all three categories.
- Joined the Bearcats staff after a four-year stint at Purdue. He coached linebackers all four seasons and served as the Boilermakers co-defensive coordinator in 2015.
- Freeman coached linebackers at Kent State from 2011-12, helping develop all-conference selections Luke Batton and C.J. Malauulu.
- Freeman started his coaching career as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater, Ohio State, in 2010 and the Buckeyes went 12-1 with a victory in the Sugar Bowl.
CB Ahmad Gardner (Cincinnati)
- Garnered multiple All-America selections, being named to the FWAA and USA TODAY first teams, in addition to the Associated Press, AFCA and The Athletic second teams. Gardner was also named first team All-AAC.
S Darrick Forrest (Cincinnati)
- Named 2020 Honorable-Mention All-American Athletic Conference and 2019 First-Team All-American Athletic Conference, totaling 200 tackles, six interceptions with 96 return yards, 12 passes defended and a fumble recovery
- Drafted by the Washington Football Team in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft
S James Wiggins (Cincinnati)
- 2021 The Athletic First-Team All-American and Associated Press Second-Team All-American, 2020 First-Team All-American Athletic Conference, 2020 Jim Thorpe Award Semifinalist, 2018 Second-Team All-AAC
- Totaled 87 tackles with five interceptions, 18 passes defended and two forced fumbles
- Drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL Draft
LB Markus Bailey (Purdue)
- Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection in 2016. Bailey led the Boilermakers with 97 total tackles, 61 solo stops, and four interceptions in 2016 after starting in 12 games.
LB Jimmy Herman (Purdue)
- Earned Purdue’s Guy “Red” Mackey Award and the Noble E. Kizer Award, for exemplifying the overall success of the University’s intercollegiate athletics program and earning the highest GPA among football players over the 2016 calendar year, respectively. Herman posted 138 tackles over his final two seasons.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (Purdue)
- A USA Today Freshman All-American in 2014, averaged 6.7 tackles per game under Freeman’s coaching and was voted a captain by his teammates prior to the 2015 season.
LB Danny Ezechukwu (Purdue)
- Broke out with a 43-tackle season as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and followed it up with 79 stops in 2015, the most by any of Purdue’s linebackers and second on the team. Added 52 stops in 2016, finishing among the top-four tacklers on the team.
ILB Luke Batton (Kent State)
- Earned second team All-Mid-American Conference honors in 2012 after finishing with 143 total tackles, including 80 solo stops, after being named third-team all-conference in 2011.
OLB C.J. Malauulu (Kent State)
- Was a third team all-conference selection in 2012, recording 72 total tackles, after being a second-team all-conference honoree
Marcus Freeman (American football HEAD COACH, NOTRE DAME)
|Notre Dame Fighting Irish|
|Born:||January 10, 1986
|Height:||6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)|
|Weight:||240 lb (109 kg)|
|High school:||Wayne (OH)|
|NFL Draft:||2009 / Round: 5 / Pick: 154|
|As a player:|
|* Offseason and/or practice squad member only|
|As a coach:|
|Career highlights and awards|
Marcus Freeman (born January 10, 1986) is an American football coach and former linebacker, who is currently the defensive coordinator for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He played college football at Ohio State. It was reported that Notre Dame will announce is hiring as new head coach.
His father Michael Freeman met his mother Chong while he was serving in the Air Force in South Korea. Marcus was born at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Medical Center in Fairborn, Ohio. He has an older brother, Michael Jr. The family lived in Huber Heights and Marcus attended Wayne High School.
Freeman was rated as one of the top three overall prospects in Ohio as a senior and named to the Parade All-America team coming out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He was credited with 127 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries as a senior. He totaled 152 tackles, including 29 behind the line of scrimmage, and eight sacks as a junior Freeman was a four-year starter and a two-time first-team All-Ohio selection. He also ran track, competing in the 4×100-meter relay and throwing the shot and discus.