There aren’t many coaching jobs, college or pro, more high profile than that at Notre Dame. Today many conferences have their own networks, but Notre Dame was the first to convince a national broadcast network (NBC) to carry its home games. They remain the nation’s most prominent independent school (at least in football) and this past season only a home loss to Cincinnati kept them from making the College Football Playoffs.
Yet at the end of the season, with his team still bound for a bowl game, head coach Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU. Left unsaid, at least by Kelly, but raised by numerous others was the fact Notre Dame’s stiff admission requirements make it extremely hard for them to recruit the type athletes who fill SEC rosters. Notre Dame hasn’t won a national title since 1988 under Lou Holtz, and it was an open secret that during his regime the university eased admission requirements, something that they haven’t done since his departure.
But Notre Dame made major news when Kelly’s replacement was announced. It was former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who was promoted to the top job. This decision raised a lot of eyebrows because Freeman has no head coaching experience, had only been with the team one season, and at 35 is the youngest Power 5 head coach in the country.
The players were loud and unanimous in their support of that decision, but others around the country, in particular some major college writers, questioned the move due to Freeman’s inexperience and youth. But one key factor was the retention of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. A former Irish quarterback under Kelly from 2010-13, Rees was reportedly courted to join Kelly at LSU. Retaining Rees to lead the offense was believed to be a key for Notre Dame if it decided to promote Freeman from within. Interestingly, Kelly offered Freeman the defensive coordinator position at LSU, but certainly he’d prefer a head coaching job.
Freeman’s impact on the defense was considerable. The Irish held their final four opponents to a combined 23 points, and the program is also putting the finishing touches on its first top-five class since 2013 thanks in large part to Freeman’s leadership on the recruiting trail.
Prior to Notre Dame, Freeman served as defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, where he helped grow the Bearcats into the College Football Playoff contender they are today. He was a player at Ohio State and was selected in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
As the second Black head coach in Notre Dame history, Marcus Freeman knows he’s really going to be closely watched. His first game didn’t turn out so well, as Notre Dame blew a 21-point lead and lost the Fiesta Bowl 37-35 to Oklahoma State. Still, the real test will come this fall, with Notre Dame opening its season against Ohio State.
In the end, it will all come down to wins and losses.