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.