No one anticipated such chaos, other than the man wearing the purple shirt under his blue blazer the day he was asked about speculation regarding the USC job.
Brian Kelly — winner of more games (113) as the head coach of Notre Dame than Knute Rockne — led the Irish to a pair of playoff appearances in three seasons and 54 victories in the last five. He took Notre Dame to the front door of a national title before turning over the keys to Vice President and Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick for a new set in Baton Rouge, La.
Swarbrick, under a decree from the Notre Dame players “not to screw it up,” turned to 35- and now 36-year-old Marcus Freeman to lead the Irish moving forward.
It’s a rare day when the new Notre Dame head football coach inherits such a successful program. The last person prior to Freeman to do so was Bob Davie following the 11-year, 100-victory, 1988 national title-winning run by Lou Holtz.
Generally, new Notre Dame head football coaches have monstrous rebuilding projects on their hands. Not so with the energetic Freeman, who takes over one of the nation’s healthiest programs, due in part to his charismatic personality and boundless communication skills, but mostly because Kelly revamped the program following the 4-8 season in 2016 and put it on rock-solid ground.
Freeman’s hiring as head coach prevented the exodus of players and coaches. Only one player (punter Jay Bramblett) and one coach (special teams coordinator Brian Polian) ended up at LSU with Kelly. Freeman kept the 2022 signing class mostly intact. He united a fan base which had fractured during 12 years of Kelly’s schtick and near misses.
The day likely will come when a segment of Notre Dame fans regrets the loss of Kelly. An average of 11 victories per season over half a decade was largely taken for granted. Such a run hadn’t happened since 1988-93 under Holtz.
Freeman’s inexperience as a head coach showed itself in the Fiesta Bowl when Oklahoma State — trailing by three touchdowns but led by a 17-year head coach — scored 30 unanswered points to hand Freeman his first loss, 37-35.
In reality, there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to the head football coach at Notre Dame. First-time college head coaches Gerry Faust (1981-85), Bob Davie (1997-2001) and Charlie Weis (2005-09) led the Irish to an average of six-to-seven victories per season. Veteran college head coach Tyrone Willingham (2002-04) couldn’t keep the momentum going after a 10-win first year.
And yet just as Freeman’s hiring from Cincinnati as defensive coordinator a year ago was heralded as the top catch among Power 5 conferences, he was the No. 1 candidate among first-time head coaches following the 2021 season.
Freeman brings boundless enthusiasm to the position, a level of communication with recruits that Kelly generally passed down to his assistants, and a player-first mentality that has pulled the program together in ways that Kelly could not or would not.
Is that the recipe for taking the Irish from national title aspirant to true national title contender? It likely will be talent-wise. Freeman believes in expanding the recruiting net to see if more five-star prospects fit and recognize the benefits of the Notre Dame football/educational experience.
In the meantime, the learning gap between Kelly the experienced head coach and Freeman’s ascension to the Notre Dame football throne remains vast despite possessing all the characteristics, including the embrace of the University of Notre Dame, which he nearly chose some 20-plus years earlier as a football recruit.
It’s a matter of how quickly he can establish his footing and comfort zone as head coach of the Fighting Irish.
What Kelly built and handed to Freeman cannot be underestimated. This is one of the top five programs in all of college football. That’s a step that Freeman doesn’t have to worry about. He doesn’t have to create a winning culture. It’s already in place. He doesn’t have to convince the players they can be successful. They are and have been near the top of the heap with the SEC elite, Clemson and Ohio State the last five seasons.
What Freeman is expected to do is surpass what Brian Kelly did. That means getting beyond an 11-to-12 victory program and winning a national title. Those are expectations that would be difficult for the most established head coaches, let alone one with a 0-1 record.
So begins the Marcus Freeman era at Notre Dame. The expectations are through the roof. So is the excitement for a new era in Fighting Irish football. How high can Freeman raise the bar? We’ll learn more on Sept. 3 in Columbus, Ohio.
Tim Prister ‘82 is the co-publisher/senior editor of Irish Illustrated. The former Irish third baseman recently completed his 40th season as a journalist covering Notre Dame athletics.