How Brian Kelly Convincing Marcus Freeman Notre Dame Is Better than LSU Reshaped the Program

Less than a year after beating LSU for Freeman's services, Brian Kelly chased the bag to Baton Rouge while Freeman inherits the keys to the Notre Dame kingdom

A little less than a year ago, Notre Dame and LSU were locked in a head recruiting battle, but it wasn’t for a cornerback or wide receiver or even a quarterback. No, it was for the rising star defensive coordinator that seemed destined to become a head coach sooner rather than later. In his greatest recruiting win at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly sold Marcus Freeman on why Notre Dame is a better program than LSU. Little did we know then that Kelly convincing Marcus Freeman to come to Notre Dame over LSU would reshape the program for years to come.

Everyone thought that Marcus Freeman was headed to LSU when the Irish and Tigers battled for his services. LSU is in the SEC, where there are no rules and money is no object. Surely LSU would throw a mountain of cash at Freeman that Notre Dame wouldn’t match and have to settle for a backup option.

Freeman, however, shocked everyone when he bought into Brian Kelly’s pitch on the benefits of Notre Dame over LSU. What makes it even more surprising in retrospect is that we’ve recently learned that Brian Kelly preferred to golf instead of recruit. I guess we’re all lucky that this recruiting battle took place in the winter.

Kelly sold Freeman on Notre Dame, and Notre Dame sold itself once Freman arrived on campus. “To have a chance to be part of Coach Kelly’s staff and this program at the University of Notre Dame is an opportunity you can’t pass up. You just can’t,” Freeman said at the time. “Every day I’m here, I realize more and more why this place is so special. It’s very unique. It’s top of the line in everything we do. That’s not only football but academics and everything that comes with being a part of Notre Dame.”

Fast forward, not even 12 months, and Kelly has left Notre Dame for LSU – the same institution Kelly convinced Freeman not to go to even though LSU likely would have matched any dollar amount he wanted. It’s a wild scenario that no one could have imagined when Freeman came to Notre Dame, at least not this soon. Some felt Freeman could be a head coach in waiting one day, but no one in their right minds thought Kelly would leave Notre Dame for LSU to make that possibility a reality so soon.

But here we are. Marcus Freeman is the next head coach at the University of Notre Dame at just 35 years old. An official announcement from the University was finally made Friday morning after Freeman’s offer was reviewed and approved by the University’s compensation committee. Had Brian Kelly not been able to beat LSU for Freeman a year ago, who knows where we’d be right now.

Kelly’s abrupt departure threw this program into a momentary tailspin, but Jack Swarbrick was able to guide it out like he was Maverick at the end of Top Gun with ease because of Freeman’s presence on the staff. Of course, we’ll never know who Kelly would have tabbed next if Freeman rejected him, but unless that replacement was also a rising start coach ready for a head coaching role, Swarbrick might have been forced to look outside the program. Had that happened, we’d still be waiting to find out who the next head coach would be.

We don’t know if Freeman will be able to do all the things that Kelly did so well during his time here yet, but we do know that Freeman excels in some areas that Kelly was never good at. We know Freeman is a tireless recruiter who resonates with recruits better than Kelly ever did. In addition, we’ve seen that Freeman’s connection with his fellow assistant coaches was seemingly stronger than Kelly’s with his subordinates since none of them have followed him to Baton Rouge. That staff continuity will be a major reason why Notre Dame can hold on to a top-five recruiting class.

It is also very telling that Brian Kelly’s departure so far has not directly led to a single decommitment. This week, Devin Moore decommitted from Notre Dame, but he was already wavering before the Kelly news. The same night the Kelly news broke, Moore posted a picture of himself with a Florida coach making an in-home visit. The Irish staff is still working to retain Moore and will have their chance later this week.

Still, when Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma, the Sooners lost six commitments. So even if you count the Moore decommitment, that would be a grand total of one. At the same time, there were numerous reports that Notre Dame’s recruiting class would have fallen apart if Freeman didn’t remain on the staff, at least as the defensive coordinator. However, most recruits who have been interviewed since Kelly’s departure haven’t expressed too much sadness over his departure especially knowing that they know Freeman, Tommy Rees, Mike Elston, Lance Taylor, John McNulty, and Chris O’Leary are all staying at Notre Dame.

Over the last few days, Freeman received near-universal support from past and present players in addition to recruits. The defensive players seemingly all tweeted out pictures of themselves with Freeman supporting his candidacy for the head coach vacancy. There are numerous head coaching vacancies around the country every year, but campaigns like the one players and recruits staged for Freeman are rare.

Notre Dame players lost their head coach without a hint of a warning it was remotely possible. Yet, when it happened, they all rallied around one coach. A coach who has not even been on campus a year. He was a coach who bought into Notre Dame a year ago when it was pitched to him even though there was likely a bigger payday at LSU. And their old coach? He took the payday at LSU and the easy way out.

Luckily for Notre Dame, its players, and its fans, Marcus Freeman bought into Brian Kelly’s pitch of Notre Dame last year, even though it seems Kelly never bought into it himself.

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  1. People are far too bitter about Brian Kelly’s departure. Yes, suddenly out the door was a bit classless.
    But Brian Kelly is 65 years old. How much longer would he coach? Maybe another 5 years. This LSU opportunity opened up suddenly, and I believer him when he talked about the challenge – coaches are achievers. They always want to succeed, and once they have climbed one mountain, they look to the next.
    Brian Kelly was not exactly explicit about what that challenge was. I believe he went to LSU to try and win an National Championship. He took an ND program that was pretty low and brought it to a place where they are in the Playoffs most years or knocking on the door. The recruits he gets know that and that is partly the reason the program has been very good the last few years. He also did not hesitate to clean house assistant coach-wise when things were bad a few years back. So lets just lay off the hysterical abuse of BK. He really brought the ND program back to relevance after Davie, Willingham and Weis made a dog’s dinner of it.
    LSU academic requirements are significantly lower than ND. That allows them to recruit talent that is only focused on getting to the NFL and does not really care about other careers. I think BK felt he had hit a ceiling in terms of access to talent that could win a National Championship. His only shot is to get the type of talent Alabama, Clemson, LSU recruit, the talent that you find in the South, particularly in Texas and Florida, the talent that flattened ND whenever they did make the college playoffs. I do not think the money was that important. It was the prospect of coaching the best talent available, a chance at the big prize, that flipped the switch.

  2. When I saw how pumped up for Freeman the team was I was amazed. I hope Freeman is the Steve Fisher of Notre Dame and sticks it to BK the way Michigan did to Bill Frieder. Every ND player should focus their anger and frustration into hopefully two more games this season.

  3. Brian Kelly — God bless his little cotton socks — had his morning grits, laced up his orthopedic sneakers, and went to spend the day with an acting coach to work on his southern drawl.

    Geaux Tigers…with Faux Kelly!

    1. On the advice of Baton Rouge’s WWTF morning show DJs, Bayou Brian will be personally reaching out to a local recruiting prospect, Robert Boucher, Jr.

      1. aka Capt. Insano.

        Reboot a ‘Stuffing the Passer’!
        First episode summary: A Brian Kelly recruiting visit to the Boucher house, peddling his LSU boolshi+ to Bobby and his momma.
        It does not go well.

    2. if i am an LSU fan or alumni, i am beyond offended at his “southern accent” during the basketball game! i cannot express how glad i am that he is no longer coaching ND!!

      1. As a welcoming gesture, they should put on a Southie accent, call him a chowdahaed, and give a wicked good beatin’ to the doahs of his cah.

  4. I really hope Freeman works out. Obviously as a ND fan I want them to win NC’s. But I’ve been down on BK since the infamous 2016 season, and now he is public enemy #1 for the way he left. In fairness I’ll give BK credit for stabilizing the program and making it respectable at least. But he was not the coach to make them elite. Is Freeman? I hope so.

    It’d also be a real stick in the eye for BK if his entire staff and team did something they never did while he was coach. Beat an actual elite team.

    This is really a most unusual situation when you think of it. I can’t recall a time when a coach left the way BK did, yet everything largely remained the same. Sure, when you know a coach is retiring and there is a HC in waiting you might see that. But how often have you seen it that a coach abruptly leaves (or is fired) and nothing else really changes?

    It also speaks volumes about BK as a boss that none of his staff want to follow him to LSU.

    1. That you didn’t know that Kelly would leave at the sound of the first big fistful of change getting dropped into his panhandler’s guitar case is your problem, not his.

      I was sick of his 3-song cover playlist 9 years ago.

      1. You really are an unhappy, miserable human being aren’t you. You even complain about how quickly Freeman was promoted. But I’m not surprised you’re unhappy about it. Frankly I’m not even sure why you come on here because you don’t really seem like you want ND to do well.

        Or maybe you’re upset that BK went to one of your prized SEC schools to coach.

        But whatever the case, I choose to be optimistic. BK is gone, Freeman is an up and coming coach and I hope he does well and ND does well under Freeman. I can’t way they will, but I’ll remain optimistic.

      2. Hmm, so we resort to name calling. How old are we?

        Or maybe I hit a little close to home and you’re just upset BK will be coaching one of the SEC schools you’re always raving about here.

    2. I was thinking the same thing, to see a staff abandoned and then stick together. The irony that Kelly was such a goof program builder that he assembled a staff that buys into ND more than he did. He, himself was not an excellent recruiter but he put a solid program in place and early on said there is an RKG (right kind of guy) for ND and I think he did a great job identifying and bringing those guys in. Our depth in the last 5yrs of this run is as good as its been since the Holtz era.

      Its so Obi Juan in that he set everything up and then took the fall (for 95m LoL) so Luke could ascend. It was such an emotional ride it that we went from the bewilderment and anger of the low class exit that to me just shouted Kelly having no faith in ND winning a NC, to the inspiring and heartening way that the staff, players, and administration hung together and showed faith and loyalty to the program Kelly abandoned. Something like that I can never in all of sports (and I’ve seen plenty) say I have seen. Its movie script stuff.

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