Notre Dame’s head coaching vacancy was not open long. Just 48 hours after news broke that Brian Kelly was running away from the challenge of taking Notre Dame the final step, news broke that the Irish will promote defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach. Notre Dame acted swiftly in replacing Kelly, but they also made the right choice in tabbing their first-year defensive coordinator to take over the program.
Notre Dame is on the doorsteps of being a championship team. They’ve been to the playoffs twice in three years and very well could add a third trip in four years on Sunday. There’s talent up and down the roster, and there’s all kinds of positive momentum for the program. All of that would have been in jeopardy had Notre Dame not promoted Marcus Freeman. He wasn’t just the logical choice. He was the only choice for Jack Swarbrick.
Just two weeks from National Signing Day, with one of the best recruiting classes in years set to sign their letters of intent, losing Freeman – the number one reason for the success – would have been disastrous. Reports already surfaced that some top-rated, elite prospects would likely open up their recruitments and sign elsewhere. In this day and age of one-time transfers without having to sit out, losing Freeman – which would have led to several other assistants leaving as well – likely would have kicked off a mass roster exodus like Oklahoma saw when Lincoln Riley left.
Those risks far outweigh the risks of placing Freeman, a first-time head coach, in charge of the Fighting Irish even though the last three Irish head coaches without college head coaching experience ultimately failed. Losing this recruiting class and a roster decimation would have set this program back years. Freeman has also shown signs of being ready to be a head coach long before he came to Notre Dame earlier this year despite being just 35 years old.
Brian Kelly desperately wanted Freeman to join him at LSU and was reportedly willing to make him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country. Had Freeman not been Notre Dame’s choice, there’s a good chance he’d be headed to Baton Rouge as well, along with several recruits currently committed to Notre Dame. Instead, Freeman will stay at Notre Dame. We’ve already learned that several assistant coaches have decided to stay on as part of Freeman’s staff, including offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and tight ends coach John McNulty.
In many ways, Marcus Freeman is the polar opposite of Brian Kelly. Kelly came to Notre Dame with 20 years of head coaching experience and a reputation for being a program builder. However, he didn’t bring a reputation for being a tireless recruiter, and as we learned last night from Tom Lemming, Kelly never cared much for recruiting while at Notre Dame.
Freeman is a first-time head coach with a reputation for being one of the best recruiters in the country. In just one year, Freeman has completely revitalized Notre Dame’s defensive recruiting. As the head coach, it stands to reason that he’ll do the same on that side of the ball. For all the good Brian Kelly did during his time at Notre Dame, one huge miss was his quarterback recruiting and, until recently, his offensive skill position recruiting as a whole. If Freeman can do on the offensive side of the ball what he’s already proven to do on the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame will not have a talent gap on offense in big games in the future.
There was widespread support for Freeman as head coach among current, former, and future players and near-universal support from the Notre Dame fanbase. The almost unanimous support for Freeman is simply not usually seen during coaching searches. No such movement occurred at Oklahoma after Riley left because he took many assistants with him.
Current players and recruits were extremely vocal on social media in their support for Freeman. Defensive players were tweeting pictures of themselves with Freeman one by one like they were the players in Rudy dropping their jerseys on movie Dan Devine’s desk (spoiler: that never happened in real life). Recruits have been using the hashtag #FreemanEra since Monday night. Pretty much any player or recruit who has come in contact with Marcus Freeman wanted him to get the gig. They got their wish.
There is still a lot we don’t know yet about Freeman’s staff, such as who will be his defensive coordinator. Promoting defensive line coach Mike Elston seems like the logical decision and one that would be well received by the team. Given Elston’s history with Kelly, though, it seems logical that Kelly might make a run at him as well. It has to sting for Brian Kelly that so far, his most critical former assistants do not appear to be following their old boss who left for purple pastures without giving any of them any indication such a move was coming.
With Freeman set to take over as head coach for the Irish, Notre Dame has some stability on its staff that should satisfy the concerns of the College Football Playoff Committee, who said coach availability could affect the final rankings. Well, in just 48 hours, Jack Swarbrick has helped stabilize a program that Brian Kelly attempted to submarine with his out-of-left-field move.
Time will tell if Marcus Freeman is the coach to take Notre Dame to the promised land, but Notre Dame made the right move given the circumstances.