Why Marcus Freeman makes sense to replace Brian Kelly at Notre Dame
Marcus Freeman stood with his arms crossed on the visitor’s sideline at Stanford Stadium last Saturday night. He had a headset on but wasn’t speaking. He didn’t need to. In that particular moment, that was the job of the head coach.
The Notre Dame offense was on the field in the final minutes of a 45-14 blowout victory. Freeman was in the 12th game of his first season as the Irish’s defensive coordinator. On par with his unit’s previous three performances, the blue and gold defense was lights out against Stanford for much of the night.
The man doing the talking, meanwhile, was somewhere farther down the field from where Freeman stood stoically with his arms folded. Brian Kelly, in the 12th game of his 12th season as Notre Dame’s head coach, took his headset off and shook Cardinal coach David Shaw’s hand after the clock hit 0:00 then put on a different headset, grabbed a microphone with an interlocking gold “ND” logo and started to talk again.
It was time for Kelly's usual postgame radio hit with Notre Dame’s broadcast crew. It’ll probably stand as the last of those he ever participated in. In a shocking turn of events, multiple reports surfaced Monday evening indicating Kelly is leaving Notre Dame to succeed former LSU head coach Ed Orgeron in Baton Rouge.
Kelly’s departure came less than a week after he said a fairy godmother would need to present him with $250 million for him to ever leave Notre Dame. LSU didn't offer that much, but per reports the Tigers came closer than any other school ever would.
Needless to say, the Notre Dame job is mammoth vacancy few expected to come open. Even fewer are fit to fill it. But Notre Dame has a coach on its staff right now who might be as capable as any in the country of doing so.
His name is Marcus Freeman. And those radio hits might soon be all his.
Sure, Notre Dame isn’t a place for first-year head coaches. Ara Parseghian busted his chops at Northwestern before arriving in South Bend in 1964. Dan Devine coached Arizona State, Missouri and the Green Bay Packers before his Notre Dame tenure.
Gerry Faust’s first head coaching gig was at Notre Dame. He flamed out with a 30-26-1 record after five years. Lou Holtz? He had all the experience in the world. William and Mary, NC State, Arkansas, Minnesota — 16 years at those schools before getting to Notre Dame.
Bob Davie was much like Faust. First job? Notre Dame. Five years. 35-25 record. Done. Outta here. Tyrone Willingham didn’t work out even though he coached at Stanford for seven years before taking the Notre Dame job. An anomaly. Charlie Weis? His first head coaching job came at Notre Dame. Everyone knows how that ended.
And then there was Kelly — past tense of the verb in use because his tenure appears to be a thing of the past. He was highly successful at Cincinnati before getting to Notre Dame. Ironically, a potential successor might be able to say the same. Notre Dame would be wise to give Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell a ring. But if Fickell doesn’t turn out to be the guy, why not make it someone who helped him rise to prominence at his current program?
Freeman, Cincinnati's defensive coordinator from 2018-20, would join the ranks of Faust, Davie and Weis as coaches since the Parseghian era whose first head coaching job came at Notre Dame. All three of them failed and were fired. There are reasons to believe Freeman wouldn’t suffer the same fate.
First of all, recruiting. There’s a strong case to be made that part of Cincinnati’s current success is a result of the recruiting rampage Freeman was able to orchestrate while with the Bearcats for three seasons. Freeman has helped Kelly with an even better haul in just one year at Notre Dame.
The Irish are currently ranked No. 4 according to Rivals in the class of 2022 team rankings. The early signing period is coming up in two weeks. Want to keep the class intact? Promote the guy who played a huge role in getting the Irish’s 23 commits as of Tuesday morning to pledge to the blue and gold program.
Notre Dame doesn’t want a mass exodus of talented players backing out of their commitments, after all. Look what has happened to Oklahoma since Lincoln Riley jumped ship for USC. That could very well happen if Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick doesn’t act swiftly and put Freeman in charge.
Freeman has the support of current Notre Dame players, too, to little surprise. Junior All-American safety Kyle Hamilton called Freeman a “great leader.” Walk-on wide receiver Conor Ratigan said Freeman is a good mix of personable, knowledgeable and tough-loving when he needs to be. The culture fit would be like slipping off one pair of shoes and putting on an identical set that's already been broken in.
“Since he’s come in here, it seems like we’ve known him for years,” Hamilton said.
There's more to it than relationships, for sure. Whoever Notre Dame lands on has to be an impressive football coach. He has to understand both sides of the ball. He has to be able to relate to everyone — players, coaches, the administration, fans, etc. Freeman seems to check all the boxes, but he's yet to prove it at any level let alone at a place like Notre Dame. The Irish would be taking a hopeful chance on him. Freeman isn't a sure thing.
But on that note, back to Riley for a moment. He hadn’t spent a down as a head coach in college football until he took over for Bob Stoops in 2017. Sixty-five games and a 55-10 record later, and it has worked out quite well for him. Not bad for a guy who was the offensive coordinator at East Carolina three years before taking the reins at OU.
Things have gone quite well for Ryan Day at Ohio State, too. He’s 33-4 after taking over for Urban Meyer in 2018. Day's first season working with Meyer was 2017. How's that for quick results? Check in on Georgia’s Kirby Smart. His first head coaching job came in Athens. He’s 64-14 since 2016. He's currently coaching the best team in the land.
First-year head coaches can be successful at big-time programs if they’re taking over successful situations. Freeman would most certainly be doing so. Kelly said it himself in his farewell message to players obtained by BlueandGold.com on Monday night.
“Our program is elite because of your hard work and commitment and I know that will continue,” Kelly wrote.
Notre Dame has certainly been elite the last five seasons. Freeman was an elite defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. His first year as one at Notre Dame was up and down with a lot of the former in the final month of the regular season. Kelly said over the summer that Freeman would one day be a head coach in college football.
That day could be today.
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