The Freeman Era

Author: Liam Coolican

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Marcus Freeman exited the field after Notre Dame’s 45-32 victory over North Carolina to a roar of approval from the traveling Notre Dame fans. It is a testament to the type of man Freeman is, and the culture he has built within his program, that he was able to get such a response from the Irish faithful. 

The start to the “Freeman Era,” though, was a disappointment. The Irish showed positive signs on the road against Ohio State but suffered an upset loss to Marshall the following week at home. 

“Somehow, someway, that Ohio State game has to make us better, same thing with the loss to Marshall,” Freeman said after the win over the Tar Heels. “For each person, it could be different. For me, it’s how do you learn from motivating a team to play the No. 2 team in the country the following week to make sure there’s no drop-off.” 

Many first-year head coaches would fold under the pressure Freeman faced after the Irish dropped their first two games of the season. The Irish slid from fifth in the country in the preseason poll to unranked in the span of just two weeks, and boos were heard from the home crowd. 

Freeman was able to respond to the pressure, however, because he’s a coach who is dedicated to the mission of building a positive team culture from the ground up. “We can’t only just focus on the outcome of the game,” he said. “We know that’s how we’re judged, wins and losses, we get that. But sometimes that can mask the reality of your team getting better.” 

Freeman is unique among Notre Dame coaches. He is only the second Black head coach in the program’s storied history, and he is the program’s first head coach of Asian American descent — his mother is Korean. At age 36, he is also the youngest Notre Dame head coach since the 1950s. 

His cultural background and youth present a fresh perspective, but he is also a quintessential Notre Dame head coach. Prior to the season, Freeman reinstated the storied tradition of pregame mass, reversing the change Brian Kelly had made during his tenure. The famous Player Walk now starts at the steps of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart before continuing to the stadium. 

Freeman was also recently confirmed as a Catholic in a private ceremony in early September, and is married to his college sweetheart, Joanna. They have six children. 

Freeman was initially hired before the 2021 season as the defensive coordinator after four years at the same position at Cincinnati. He played college football at Ohio State, where he starred as a linebacker, before an enlarged heart condition ended his chances of playing in the NFL. He was a graduate assistant at his alma mater before stops at Kent State and Purdue. 

Despite his young age, he was considered to be a rising star among college assistant coaches and declined numerous offers before deciding on the Irish. In his lone season as defensive coordinator, he led one of the best defenses in the country. The Irish were a top-15 unit, allowing less than 20 points per game. After just one season, though, Freeman’s role would change drastically. 

The days following Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure moved quickly for Notre Dame. News broke in late November on a Monday evening that Kelly would be accepting the job at LSU. By Saturday, the team uploaded a video of Freeman being introduced to the team. The joy and excitement on every player’s face was evident, reactions Kelly had rarely engendered among his players. 

There had been rumors that Freeman might be selected as head coach, but during those uncertain days, few aside from athletic director Jack Swarbrick and his inner circle had any real insight into the process. When Freeman was selected, it came as a surprise to many, but fans and players alike quickly welcomed their new coach with open arms. 

Notre Dame eventually was selected to play in the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, where it seemed destined the “Freeman Era” would continue its meteoric rise. Notre Dame jumped out to a commanding 28-7 first-half lead and looked dominant on both sides of the ball. 

It was simply too good to be true in a rookie head coach’s first game. Oklahoma State scored a quick touchdown before heading into the break and came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders. The Cowboys went on to score 31 unanswered points as Notre Dame failed to make the necessary adjustments at the half. 

Despite the loss, Irish fans and players were thrilled with their new head coach. Freeman found near instant success on the recruiting trail, building one of the best classes in recent memory for Notre Dame fans. The Irish are currently inside the top five on both the 247 Sports and Rivals recruiting rankings for the class of 2023 and are the early leaders for the class of 2024 on both sites. 

Freeman has successfully recruited numerous high-profile players, including five-star quarterback C.J. Carr, the grandson of famed Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr. There’s still a lot of time left in the season, but it is clear that Freeman has built significant momentum in recruiting that will translate to on-field success. 

The future isn’t as important as the here and now, however, and it appears that the win over North Carolina may have been a turning point for Freeman’s team. The Irish have now won back-to-back games and looked impressive on both sides of the ball against the Tar Heels. They’ll have a bye week to rest and recover before a showdown against No. 19 BYU in Las Vegas. 

The wins and losses will always matter, especially at Notre Dame, but Freeman has proved through word and deed that his mission is more than that. His values and team culture will always come first, and the wins will soon follow.