Swarbrick’s Swift Action Stabilized Notre Dame Football Amid Chaos

Just 48 hours ago, Notre Dame was a program on the ropes. Thanks to swift action from its AD, it finds itself revitalized and pushing forward.

The 2021 football season was a rollercoaster for Notre Dame. Still, the ultimate haymaker landed Monday night when Brian Kelly, the coach with the most losses in program history, decided to run out of town without giving anyone – his staff, his players, his AD – any warning it was coming. The punch landed and had the Notre Dame football program wobbling at the knees. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s swift action in naming a successor and preventing Kelly from raiding his old staff, however, has not only stabilized the program but propelled it forward with the kind of momentum we haven’t seen in a long time.

Critical injuries in camp, more injuries in the season ravaging the offensive line, wide receiver, and linebacker rooms. An early-season loss to Cincinnati that saw the Group of 5 school mock Notre Dame’s now-former head coach in the aftermath. And yet another season of the quarterback carousel. All of the trials and tribulations of a season that at times felt cursed yet ended with an 11-1 record and a chance for the playoffs all felt trivial three days ago when news broke that Kelly was leaving Notre Dame and leaving everyone stunned in the process.

A program without a strong culture and foundation would have crumbled. When Lincoln Riley pulled the same maneuver no 24 hours before Kelly, Oklahoma’s foundation cracked and started to crumble. Riley took his top assistants with him, high-profile elite recruits started decommitting left and right (some following him to USC already), and players started jumping the transfer portal like it was a backyard pool at a summer cookout. That didn’t happen at Notre Dame, and the Irish faithful have Swarbrick to thank for it.

When Swarbrick delivered his press conference on Tuesday morning mere hours after Kelly shocked the college football world, he delivered a head-scratching performance. At the time, I wrote that he was either blindsided or sandbagging us all because he knew his plan. It turns out it was most definitely the latter, as I suspected at the time. Swarbrick is too good of an AD to be as unprepared as it seemed he was on Tuesday morning.

Less than 48 hours after Kelly ran out of town and burned nearly every bridge he built at Notre Dame in the process, Swarbrick not only had his next coach, he secured all of the top assistants responsible for Notre Dame’s 11-1 campaign in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year – assistants that we know Brian Kelly thought he’d be able to take with him. It turns out when you leave everyone in the dark and allow your staff to look like fools in the homes of recruits while news breaks that you’re leaving the program, they aren’t too keen on following you anymore.

It started on Tuesday night when Notre Dame announced strength and condition coordinator Matt Balis was staying. This was the first indicator we got that Notre Dame was zeroing in on Marcus Freeman. Most head coaches want their S&C coach, so locking up Balis without a head coach indicated the hire would come from within. While not reported, it would be shocking if Brian Kelly didn’t want Balis, a man who has had a significant role in the turnaround at Notre Dame following 2016, with him in Baton Rouge.

On Wednesday, it became clear by the afternoon that Freeman was in Swarbrick’s sights along with retaining offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Kelly and LSU reportedly offered Rees over $1 million to come with him. Rees said thanks but no thanks and decided to stay at his alma mater. But, again, you don’t lock up another coordinator if your head coach isn’t all but a formality.

Then the big news dropped that Marcus Freeman would indeed be the next head football coach at the University of Notre Dame. The University still hasn’t officially announced the hire, but it’s a done deal. Swarbrick could have gone outside of the program – and he allegedly had plenty of options – but he went with the guy that almost every recruit, current player, former player, and fan wanted to replace the other guy who used to be here. In 20+ years running this site, I’ve never seen anything like the groundswell of support for Freeman from every angle, and that includes the coaching searches that resulted in Geroge O’Leary, Tyrone Willingham, Charlies Weis, and Brian Kelly.

It turned out another highly influential group endorsed Freeman as Kelly’s successor – the current Notre Dame assistant coaches. Then, one by one, news broke that nearly every critical assistant was staying on as part of Freeman’s staff. Lance Taylor, John McNulty, Mike Mickens, Chris O’Leary, and of course Mike Elston. Elston was with Kelly for over 20 years at three different stops but is staying at Notre Dame, reportedly as Freeman’s defensive coordinator, instead of following Kelly to LSU.

From chaos in the aftermath of Kelly’s selfish decision to leave his team that he coached to the verge of another playoff berth, to not only stabilized but energized in 48 hours. It’s astonishing that near-unanimous approval from the fan base. Again in the 20+ years of running this site, I can’t say I ever remember the fanbase being this unified at any other point during that time.

What transpired this week could have set the program back years. Had Swarbrick not moved quickly and retained as much of the staff as he did, the top-5 class Notre Dame hopes to sign in two weeks would have fallen apart. Without all of the assistants that have been retained – Freeman especially – we likely would have seen an Oklahoma-style transfer portal parade. Instead, the Notre Dame players celebrated on social media for their new head coach and the return of their positions coaches.

For as much criticism as I’ve thrown at Brian Kelly (and will continue to do so), it does speak volumes to the culture that has been built at Notre Dame that what happened at Oklahoma didn’t happen here. It also speaks to the impressive job Jack Swarbrick did of acting so swiftly and stabilizing a program that appeared to be on the cusp of finally crossing the threshold of championship contender with a roster full of talented youngsters and an elite incoming recruiting class.

At the same time, the decisions of the Irish assistants to stick with Freeman and Notre Dame over Kelly – and to be fair, we don’t know each of the ones Kelly hoped to bring with him – speaks volumes of how this staff now feels about their former boss.

Notre Dame always has been and always will be bigger than one man. This week just so happens to be one of the most shining examples of that in many years. Now if we can only have some good chaos this weekend, perhaps this story which looked like it could be a nightmare on Monday night, could have a storybook ending.

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  1. Why the vitriol over Kelly. On the contrary, it’s time to rejoice. Thank you Brian for listening to the ND fan base and leaving. You mocked us at that press conference when you became the winningest coach at ND. “Yeah, winningest coach without a national title, just ask the fans”. Doubt LSU fans will be as generous as we’ve been over these 12years.
    No way of knowing that Freeman is the answer, but it is a beginning.

  2. GREAT, great day for Notre Dame! Been a fan 62 0f my 68 yrs & this is the best news short of our winning national championships, which will will do so again soon! Welcome Marcus!!!

  3. Interesting fact:
    It took Swarbrick less time to conduct the entire coaching search than it took ND to officially announce the hire after it was concluded.

  4. I’ve always loved, and preferred, men (and women) who can’t be bought. They are worth there weight in gold, and just as rare. Apparently men like that can still be found out there at the Catholic Disneyland. I could not be more proud.
    BGC 77 82

  5. There is a misunderstanding of who Swarbrick was directing his speech toward. He did not give that presser to assuage fears of alumni/fans. He did not give that speech to let the media know his process.

    He gave that speech to any future coach so that they would feel that:
    (a) While I’m the coach, they’re not constantly shopping around for other coaches by carrying around a list (even though they probably have a list and are having discussions all the time with agents).
    (b) They are built to win today.
    (c) They will give me the resources I need.

    The hand-wringing about what Swarbrick said is really mind-boggling. If you were blind not to see his intentions, then you need to go back to negotiating school.

  6. Swarbrick orchestraed this whole thing. He knew at the end of the season he had to set the stage for moving Kelly (who would never win a national championship) aside, to make room for Freeman while also holding onto Reese, before they both got lured away. Everyone understood that — including Kelly, who has a history of doing exactly what he did this week. Look at the press coverage this year: Kelly surpasses Rockne, but he never won a big game; Freeman getting more and more camera time during game broadcasts the past few weeks. (Reese as well.) That didn’t happen in a vacuum. Swarbrick knew what Kelly would do, and so did Freeman and Reese. Kelly did it and they all pretended to be surprised for about 24 hours. The future has arrived. God bless Jack Swarbrick. Go Irish!

  7. Lest we forget (someone else may have recently pointed this out) that BK did virtually the same thing to Cincinnati when he peaced-out there in 2009:

    “Kelly’s Bearcats reeled off 12 straight victories and finished the regular season undefeated. Going into the bowl season, they were ranked #3 in the BCS Standings and faced the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. Kelly did not coach the team in the 51–24 loss to the Florida Gators because of his departure to Notre Dame.”

    Apparently he’s a creature of habit.

  8. Remember Kelly’s initial years at Notre Dame where he was such a total head case, screaming and yelling on the sidelines so much that NBC kept a camera on him all the time.

    He won a lot but it was always about him.

    He’s all yours LSU

    Good luck.

  9. For a good laugh check out BKs speech at halftime of the LSU basketball game. Dude speaks with a southern accent.
    To be fair, for $95M I’ll talk anyway you like.

    1. Yeah, me too, LOL. Brey had a few good years when they won the ACC and almost took down UK. But now it seems back to mediocre ND basketball. Time for some new blood.

  10. JS made the best decision w/ the information at hand. This will probably turn out to be a very good decision to hire
    A benefits/risk analysis has to conclude that Freeman was the best choice.
    Nevertheless, let’s not be so naive to overlook the risk of hiring a man who has zero experience as a HC.
    We may not know that answer for sure for 3 or 4 years.
    IN the meantime, let’s give him our 100% support. He certainly can’t win any less major bowl games or NC’s than his
    predecessor did. From that perspective, the risk of hiring him is zero.
    The upside is incredible!

    1. “..the risk of hiring him is zero.”
      I’ll follow that up with these other famous last words: How could this possibly be wrong ?

  11. I would put this out there:

    If ND had a game this weekend, against anyone Top 5 or below, I’m dogballs certain it would be an epic beat down….on the scoreboard, and for the eyes per the lift in desire.
    Enough to make the committee reconsider, regardless whether Cincy or OK St. lose.

    Regardless, it is very unfortunate we can’t see these kids go to war for their new coach immediately.
    Just for the echoes.

  12. I don’t think Swarbrick would have gone with Freeman unless he had a strong sense that he could succeed in the position. And I tend to trust Swarbrick’s strong senses. Swarbrick is one of the best ADs out there. I saw his fingerprints all over Kelly 2.0; does anyone think that Kelly managed to reinvent himself and the culture as thoroughly as he did without Swarbrick’s involvement? I certainly don’t.

    I’ve always liked Kelly, I don’t think he’s the narcissist that some are making him out to be, but I’ve always found him tone-deaf to the point of being abrasive. He mishandled his departure pretty badly; if he had talked to Swarbrick about even a day ahead of time I’m sure that the transition would have been handled a lot more deftly than it was.

    I suspect he didn’t do that because he wanted to make a run at all of his assistant coaches, and thought if he gave Swarbrick a day’s notice or whatever and asked for his advice how to handle it, he wouldn’t be able to make a run at his assistant coaches. As it turned out, he mangled the process so badly that nobody wanted to follow him anyway.

    1. Sorry, bob, but that is a remarkably naive assessment.

      Picking the head football coach at ND is power, institutional politics, constuency appeasement, poker playing, media manipulation, and big money rolled up into a bomb with a short fuse.

      Swarbrick acted too quickly to have any idea what other options might have panned out.
      But he did put out a dangerous fire, and the townfolk are cheering…that’s something.

      1. I’ll give the ridiculously accomplished man, universally praised and respected around college athletics, the benefit of the doubt that he might have had some idea how other options might have planned out. Generally speaking, Stanford JDs with 30+ yrs experience are capable of considering nuance and variables.

    2. And that “Kelly 2.0” moniker was always pure boolshi+.

      The guy was read the riot act, chastened like a pet dog, and bided his time, rehabbing his ego and his image….until he either had enough money socked away to at least walk into the sunset…or find another gig, if fate was to co-operate and be so kind.

      And lo and behold….Silly Season 2021 delivered Kelly the Powerball.

  13. Sincerely hope this works. (Genius) coordinator Charlie Weiss -epic fail. Bob Davie was excellent defensive coordinator at A&M before holding same job at ND. Not a sterling success. We’ve had much better success, as have had most major programs, with someone with extensive experience as a head coach. Kelley; Holtz; Parseghian

    1. Davie didn’t understand, respect, or even give a shit about Univ. of ND. He was just a climber looking for the job title and the money.

      Charlie Weis utterly adored ND…..he just wasn’t a college coach. With his NFL resume, no one believed that could possibly be even a risk, let alone his achilles heel.
      Once there was blood in the water, his physical appearance became a cruel target.
      I’ve never felt worse for a guy who walked away with such an obscene amount of money.

  14. I think how no assistants wanted to go with Kelly speaks volumes of what they think of Bozo and more so, what they think of Coach Freeman. Pretty much a big vote of confidence for Freeman by the assistants that are staying and by the AD. Though I thought Fickell should have headed the list, the assistant coaches wanting to stay on with Freeman, tells me they have seen something that we don’t all get to see in their day to day interactions with Freeman that occurred through the season with him. Looks to be respect.

    1. Well, Lousiana isn’t for everyone…the word ‘culture’ gets overused, but it really applies to the Bayou.
      I’m not disparaging it, or even suggesting I would never live there…..but you better at least consider the not-so-subtle difference in lifestyle before you hire a moving truck.

      Just because Kelly is such a money-grubbing bonehead that he blithely jumped on a plane is no reason to assume his staff is that greedy or dumb.

  15. Yes time will tell about Freeman. He loves Notredame and his past record as a great recruiter is a good start. The main thing though is Notredame must always recruit Heisman level quarterbacks and develop them if they are ever going to sniff a national championship.

    1. I don’t believe a Heisman-calibre QB is necessary.
      Referencing Alabama as the protype has made that appear to be an irrefutable correlation, but that’s just due to its overall embarrasssment of riches in talent.

    2. Totally agree on the QB comment. I suggest we scrap what we have, and what we have coming in next season, and search a lot harder.

  16. I agree, great job by Swarbrick. I was never a big fan of Kelly. He is a great recruiter, a good fundamentals coach but falls short in his inability to “game coach”. Thus I figured he’d never reach the promised land at ND. Hopefully the next coach will have that ability. For long time fans you will remember that Holtz excelled at game coaching and given time to prepare his teams could play with anyone. Kelly lacked the ability to get his players jacked up for the big games and he lost several games by coming out “flat” and getting themselves in a big hole early. Examples are the last visit to Miami, the rain game down at Clemson a few years ago, the last trip to Michigan and the 2012 title game against Alabama. All except the Alabama game were ones the Irish should have won but were poorly prepared to play. Good riddance and I’m excited for the future!

  17. BK told his new players that he”wasn’t there to win the presss conference…that will take time”.
    Notwithstanding that I don’t know what ‘winning a press conference’ means……

    His speaking gets more tedioous, more tiresome, and more laced with repetitive gibberish every time he opens his mouth. That;s a critical problem all frauds have.

    So, even without knowing what “winning a press conference” means, I’m pretty sure this was his very best shot at it.
    Not only did he screw the pooch on this one, he falsely believes he’s going to get more, better shot(s) at doing it.

    Real pro. Good luck LSU.
    (I bet they reach their limit of him WAY faster than ND would have…if ever.)

  18. *wins. Need to correct this sentence: “[…] Brian Kelly, the coach with the most wins in program history, decided to run out[…]”. First sentence of Para 1.

      1. Expunge Kelly from the database.
        Why stop at the 21 wins? …Vacate Kelly!
        We beat cancer, baby!

  19. Time will tell how successful Freeman will be as a HC. It’s always a risk hiring a coach with no experience but in this case hiring Freeman is a risk worth taking.

  20. C’mon man. You’re spinning a turd sandwich as a “croissant du merde”.

    Swarbrick whipped together a quick, filling lunch for a bunch of hungry, impatient workers who were unexpectedly waiting at his diner door.
    That did the trick..they all went back to work fat and happy. For a few hours.
    There’s no way of knowing yet whether it’s the start of a run as the town’s favorite restaurant.

  21. Yeah, I have to agree. We won’t know for a little while if Freeman is the man to finally bring home that elusive NC. But unlike when Weis left and we wanted and needed an overhaul, this time I think we had a good foundation that we didn’t want to just throw away.

    And I think Swarbick was smart to act quickly, not just for current recruiting and to avoid any mass exodus among players and assistants, which are indeed critical. But it lets the world know that Freeman was the 1st choice. Swarbick didn’t just settle for Freeman after a massive search. He’s making it clear Freeman has his full confidence. I think that sends a message to not only Freeman, but all the assistants who chose to remain, that they have his full support.

    And yeah, the way BK left was pathetic. I hope not one single assistant follows him to LSU. Even if not every single one remained, I hope they go elsewhere. He sent them a message as well, that it was every man for himself. So BK shouldn’t be surprised if none of his assistants follow him. Rees and Elston have to smart the most, because more than any other I think they were his guys. For them to stay on at ND is a message to BK.

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