football Edit

Behind the scenes Marcus Freeman is living his 'Question Everything' mantra

There's very little Brian Kelly influence in Marcus Freeman's approach to being Notre Dame's head football coach.
There's very little Brian Kelly influence in Marcus Freeman's approach to being Notre Dame's head football coach. (AP)

The last time Marcus Freeman and the man who preceded him as the head football coach at Notre Dame had any kind of conversation with each other was a chance encounter several months ago at a South Bend-area restaurant.

Before that, there were a few congratulatory texts from now-second-year LSU coach Brian Kelly to Freeman back in December of 2021, when Freeman landed the job. The only exchange of really any substance in the past 18 months was Freeman calling Kelly to inform him that he wouldn’t be following him to Baton Rouge, La., to remain his defensive coordinator.

“I’m sure he’s pretty busy,” Freeman told Inside ND Sports without the least hint of bitterness during a Thursday one-on-one interview.

Not that the 37-year-old father of six is cavorting in a surplus of idle moments himself.



There is sincere respect Freeman has for Kelly, the program’s leader in wins (113) and the oldest man to ever stalk the sidelines as Irish head coach — 60 when he accepted over the phone on Nov. 28, 2021, LSU’s 10-year, $95 million deal while dining on barbecue burnt ends at the home of now Irish rising sophomore wide receiver Tobias Merriweather, then a recruit.

Freeman admires Kelly’s leadership, the concise messaging for what he wanted the program to be and how he wanted to arrive there. How he played to his assistant coaches’ strengths.

What Freeman appropriated from their brief 10 ½ months together into his first coaching gig has been a surprisingly short list, though, given athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s framing of the school’s choice of Freeman post-Kelly as a win for continuity.

And soon they won’t even have Swarbrick in common. The man who hired Kelly in December of 2009 to turn the page on Charlie Weis and who promoted Freeman 12 Decembers later, announced on June 8 that he’ll step away from his job after a near 16-year-run sometime early in 2024 to start a new chapter somewhere else.

Successor Pete Bevacqua begins the collaborative phase of his regime next month, with the former English major and 1993 ND grad leaving behind his post as chairman of NBC Sports.

“No, we’re not strangers. We know each other,” Freeman said of Bevacqua, who later picked up a law degree from Georgetown. “We spent some time last year in New York together. During the season we spent some time together and spent some quality time at the Kentucky Derby together [last month].

“You know what, he did place some bets. I don’t know if he won or lost. I didn’t ask him, but he was placing some bets.”

Nor does Freeman have much of a sense for Bevacqua’s vision for the Notre Dame football program beyond generalities.

Way too early,” he said. “I know that he wants Notre Dame to be the best. He loves this university, and he loves our football program. I know Pete will do everything in his power to stay at the top or get to the top of whatever sport there is.”


Outgoing Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick at a Dec. 6, 2021 press conference introduces Marcus Freeman as his successor to Brian Kelly's successor at Notre Dame.
Outgoing Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick at a Dec. 6, 2021 press conference introduces Marcus Freeman as his successor to Brian Kelly's successor at Notre Dame. (Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports Network)

Freeman, meanwhile, continues to consistently define himself, though not always in conspicuous ways.

One of the most consequential of those instances is the push/pull with the administrative/academic side of Notre Dame, which historically has been largely reluctant to see a call to change as an opportunity for evolution instead as a potential assault on its tradition and identity/mission.

Kelly, sometimes clumsily, though often ultimately successfully, took on that fight for his 12-year run before starkly pivoting and concocting a narrative that suggested winning a national championship in football wasn’t attainable at Notre Dame as he pulled the parachute cord.

Which left Freeman a rhetorical mess to mop up, let alone dealing with the lingering issues Kelly walked away from as well as some imposing new ones.

Freeman’s GPS in trying to affect the university’s approach comes from the mantra he expects every Notre Dame player and assistant coach — and himself — to live by, in lean times and in ascendant ones.

Question everything.

And when he applies it to the challenges perceived to be the most daunting by much of Notre Dame’s fan base — the school’s approach to incoming transfers, the school’s NIL (name, image, likeness) philosophy in recruiting, and coaxing an overdue facilities upgrade into reality — he does so with passion and persistence, but without the bombast.

“I have my voice in a lot of those conversations, but I’m never the person to blame outcomes on deficiencies,” Freeman said. “That’s the way I was raised. And in front of the media, in front of the world, we’ve got everything we need. I won’t ever blame anything we have or anything we don’t have for the shortcomings we might have on gameday, but behind closed doors you’re challenging everything."

He recalled a time recently when he had a captive audience on a university plane with university president Rev. John Jenkins, faculty rep for the athletic department Tricia Bellia and Swarbrick.

“The conversation we had was basically about how do we improve in every aspect of college athletics, especially our football program?" Freeman said. "And what are the things we need to do to help us continue to rise? But if you want me to say this in front of the media that the reason we didn’t win the national championship is because we didn’t have (the right kind of) training table, that’s not true.

“There are always going to be better ways to serve your players to help them have success. But we didn’t lose the four games we lost because of deficiencies we have in this building or with admissions or with the transfer portal or with NIL or anything else.

“Those are things that we always are going to try to find ways to improve. Even if we win the national championship, guess what? We’re always going to be trying to improve all those aspects of college athletics. And so, that’s kind of how I stand on all those things.”

Here’s what that looks like through the prisms of Notre Dame’s incoming transfer policy, NIL and recruiting, and an anticipated/eventual expansion of the 18-year-old Guglielmino Athletics Complex.


Pondering the portal

“We’re definitely moving closer,” Freeman said of a compromise position that would expand Notre Dame’s relatively shallow incoming transfer pool. “I think there’s definitely been positive conversations.”

The simplified version of Notre Dame’s admissions stance is that grad transfers are generally easy yeses and players in good standing who have completed all or part of their freshman academic year have a fighting chance.

And then it starts to get sticky with the sophomore class and near impossible with juniors. The major hangup is the high standard for transferable credits and the notion of getting a Notre Dame degree with a majority of credits being accrued elsewhere.

“I think it’s a matter of how do we come to a solution that the university, the deans, the schools that we have here feel great about, and that we, as coaches, feel great about also?’ Freeman said. “Like, the university just can’t make decisions to say, ‘OK, coaches you get everything you want’, because the university wants to be national champions of higher education.

“But that’s what we sell too in recruiting. So, we all want more, more, more. They want more. We want more. But we have to come to a common ground and we have to look and say where can we improve on both ends?

“We have to understand why there’s a pushback and say, ‘OK, let’s keep talking. Is there a better way? Instead of you saying no and us complaining, is there a better way for us and for them to make sure we all feel great about athletics and education at Notre Dame?’”

The urgency got ratcheted up when the NCAA on July 1, 2021 opened up the doors to universal no-sitting-our-a-year transfers in football for underclassmen switching zip codes for the first time.

Notre Dame remains committed to building primarily through high school recruiting and player development, but the caliber and volume of potential transfers has dramatically increased and the predictability of one’s own roster churn has dramatically decreased.

Consider that it took eight recruiting cycles for the Notre Dame football program to finally dip its toe into the grad transfer waters after the NCAA first introduced and enacted the concept in 2006, complete with no sit-out year for only those sorts of football transfers at that time.

The Irish only added three more scholarship-to-scholarship graduate imports over the ensuing five cycles that followed Florida defensive back Cody Riggs’ breakthrough transfer in 2014.

It took three weeks for Freeman this offseason to amass more. He finished with 10, including three who arrived as recruited walk-ons.

The Irish got into the scholarship-to-scholarship undergrad transfer game a little sooner but have accrued just four since Florida State offensive tackle Jordan Prestwood broke a decades-long tradition of snubbing such player acquisitions. When he made the move to ND in August 2011, the FSU early enrollee had been on that campus for less than a year.

USC running back Amir Carlisle — the same Amir Carlisle named Notre Dame football’s new director of player development in April — came five months later the next offseason, in January 2012, with Navy safety Alohi Gilman arriving in 2017 and Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph playing for the Irish this past season, then declaring as an early entry on New Year’s Eve for this spring’s NFL Draft.

“Nothing’s as fast as we want it,” Freeman said of the discussions about incoming transfers. “Everybody wants instant gratification. Everybody wants it right now, but yes there has been definite movement within those conversations between our athletic department, Tricia Bellia and the deans of the schools here at Notre Dame.”

QB Sam Hartman was one of a record 10 transfers Irish head coach Marcus Freeman brought in during the offseason.
QB Sam Hartman was one of a record 10 transfers Irish head coach Marcus Freeman brought in during the offseason. (Jeff Douglas, Inside ND Sports)

Navigating NIL

The inception of NIL simultaneously with the new portal rules heightened the impact of the other, sometimes in corrupted ways when it came to NIL or at least unintended ways.

Without delving into new NCAA president Charlie Baker’s impressive early steps in moving toward a Congressional solution, Notre Dame must still find a comfortable and competitive stance in the NIL space until and after that happens.

The messaging from Notre Dame remains essentially that:

• ND has a brand that will bring an athlete significant NIL opportunities.

• That player development and the generational wealth an NFL contract can bring is not only much greater than NIL money, but more reliable and more enduring.

• That the ND degree will allow that same player to prosper after the cheering stops and after NIL goes away.

It’s still early in the 2024 cycle, with the early signing period still six months away. But there seems to be more prospects at least willing to listen seriously to Notre Dame’s approach.

“I don’t know if it’s a shift,” Freeman said. “I think part of it may be what’s real and what’s not in this whole NIL conversation. I think there are some stories that have been put out there that maybe have been untrue.

“I think young people are realizing you’re not just going to go to college and make millions of dollars in NIL. You’re just not. There are very few individuals who have or will make that type of money. So, hopefully, people are understanding that NIL is a reflection of the excellence you have in your sport. I think in football, it still comes down to the better you are as a football player, the more NIL opportunities you’re going to get.”

When asked whether Notre Dame needed to push its NIL success stories further into the public eye, Freeman quickly quashed the notion.

“I don’t think we need to do anything different than what we’ve done,” he said. “If young people want to have an NIL conversation, we have an NIL presentation as part of [recruiting] visits. If their parents have questions or they have questions, ask away.

“But I don’t think we have to go out there and have to boast about what we’re doing in NIL, because if you’re more concerned about NIL than the development of you as a football player, you’re probably not going to be a great fit for here.”

The Irish Athletics Center opened its doors in August of 2019, but a Guglielmino Athletics Complex expansion still has no firm timetable.
The Irish Athletics Center opened its doors in August of 2019, but a Guglielmino Athletics Complex expansion still has no firm timetable. (Jeff Douglas, Inside ND Sports)

Pragmatism in the arms race

As long ago as the summer of 2017, Kelly was openly buoyed by the notion of expanding Notre Dame’s football facility, which he was convinced would swiftly move from conception to blueprint to reality in short order.

Part of it did, in the creation of the Irish Athletics Center, a new indoor facility that it wouldn’t have to share like it did with the old Loftus Center. The IAC opened in August of 2019.

Originally the second phase of the facilities expansion was to close Courtney Lane to allow for the new Guglielmino Athletic Complex sprawl and connect to the IAC. Freeman confirmed Thursday that the new construction will instead remain on the north side of Courtney Lane and necessitate a move of the school’s tennis facilities.

In both instances, it’s not about bells and whistles but about pragmatic improvements.

“Serving your players. That’s what it’s about,” Freeman said. “I’m not worried about recruiting. Anything we do is to serve our players.

“So, if it helps that we have our own big kitchen — I know training table is a big topic that everybody wants to bring up. (Training table meals are catered into the Gug from across campus.) Our kids eat fine where we’re at. But, would it be more convenient to have our own kitchen and our own place where all 100 kids can sit and eat? Yeah, yeah. But our kids are fine.

“Let me make sure I (emphasize) I’m not complaining about training table. And I’m so tired of people saying that’s why we’re not winning. It just blows my mind. Additionally, our staffs are growing. This building [the Gug] was built in 2005. College football staffs have grown since 2005. That’s another thing we have to do is get more space for the staff.

“We're always looking to enhance opportunities for our players. So, training room, weight room, recovery room. We want to be cutting edge. But again, that’s just helping your players maximize their abilities.”

How often is Freeman pressed for a timetable? In virtually every media interview with the Notre Dame beat and virtually every talk he gives to alumni groups. He buried his face in his hands when asked about the frequency Thursday.

“I don’t know what the timetable would be, but there is movement toward getting this done," he said. "There is definite movement. We’re farther along than we were yesterday or last year or the year before. And so, there is movement toward getting a new Gug. Timetable, I don’t know. I don’t have a concrete answer for you right now. But it’s going to happen.”


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