The ranks of major college Black head coaches are never swollen, and there remain many Power 5 and predominantly white colleges that have yet to hire their first one. But as the college football season nears the end of its first month, there are two new Black head coaches who are in charge of high profile programs that face major challenges. Both Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame and Mickey Joseph at Nebraska are also first year and first time head coaches as well.
Notre Dame’s Freeman was the universal choice of the players to replace Brian Kelly after he left for the head coaching job at Louisiana State University. Freeman was linebackers coach as well as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in 2021, and Kelly tried to get him to accept that same position at LSU. But Freeman instead became Notre Dame’s second Black head coach.
Things got off to a tough start for Freeman’s team, although it was expected that they would lose their opener to Ohio State, one of the favorites to win the national title. What wasn’t so expected was the second loss to Marshall,. a team that Notre Dame was paying over a million to be an expected easy win at home. Instead it was a tough 21-20 loss and the skeptics began voicing doubts about Freeman after only two games.
Notre Dame bounced back this past Saturday, defeating California 20-17. While the victory will calm some fears for the short term, Freeman knows he’s under a super microscope. Every Notre Dame home game is on NBC, and most of the road games are shown on other networks. The schedule is a tough one that includes games against nationally ranked foes BYU, Clemson and Southern Cal. But Freeman is quite confident in his abilities, and when he took the job publicly acknowledged the degree of difficulty and level of exposure that goes with the position of Notre Dame head coach.
“Wow, I’m the head coach at the University of Notre Dame,” the 36-year-old Freeman said last December upon taking the job. “it’s been business as usual. Once that (first) second goes up, it’s about, get back to work, get back to work.” Though he lost his first game in last year’s Fiesta Bowl to Oklahomas State and took a pair of early losses this year, most observers feel Freeman will eventually get Notre Dame back in title contention.
Joseph has only been on the job one week, but his first game wasn’t a good one. The sixth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners crushed Nebraska 49-14, and though he’d only been in charge a week Joseph took full blame for his team’s poor showing. “This is on me, not my players, not my assistant coaches,” Joseph told ABC News, :I’ve got to do a better job, and I will. I’ve got to accept responsibility for it, and I have. We’ve got eight games left, and we’re going to get ready to win some games.”
Joseph is in a much tougher spot than Freeman, who has a guaranteed five-hear contract. He’s an interim figure, part of the coaching staff assembled by former head coach Scott Frost. Frost, who won a Heisman Trophy while quarterbacking Nebraska to a national championship in the late ‘90s, was brought in to re-establish the domination of past Cornhusker squads. Instead, Frost, who began in 2018, had a 16-31 career mark, and a 5-22 record in one-score games, the worse mark among FBS teams during that period. Nebraska was so anxious to can him after their 1-2 start they fired him prior to Oct. 1, when his $15 million dollar buyout would have dropped to $7.5 million.
So Joseph must try and build a winner in an atmosphere of gloom, with rumors swirling that Urban Meyer (among others) is already being considered for the full-time job. Both he and Freeman know that the rest of the year the progress of their team will be closely watched, and their coaching performances constantly watched and evaluated.