Marcus Freeman

They may not be in this year’s college football playoffs, but Notre Dame University is still making headlines. In fact they surprised numerous analysts and pundits when they named Marcus Freeman head coach two weeks ago. He becomes the second Black head football coach at the school, and takes the job after only one season as defensive coordinator and no previous head coaching experience. But he was undeniably the choice of the players and Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick didn’t waste any time with the appointment.

Freeman at 35 is the second youngest head coach ever hired at Notre Dame. He replaces Brian Kelly, who earlier this season became Notre Dame’s winningest coach, but who departed for bigger money at LSU. Though he didn’t say it, the overwhelming feeling left behind by Kelly’s departure was the notion you can’t win a national title at Notre Dame due to its stiff academic requirements. Whether true of not, two coaches have won national titles at LSU who are now unemployed and not considered in Kelly’s class as a tactician. Freeman will certainly be in the spotlight, replacing a consistently successful, experienced personality in Kelly. 

“Every search process has its own rhythm and you want to do the best job you can, not the fastest job you can,” Swarbrick told the Associated Press. “We’re going to do the best job we can to find the right person to lead Notre Dame.” Kelly had stabilized a Notre ame program that had gone through three coaches in 13 years prior to his arrival in 2009. Over the last five years he’d won 54 games and made the playoffs twice. He’d also led the charge to build a football-specific indoor practice facility, as well as gained some comforts for his assistant coaches in recruiting efforts. All these things made his leaving even more of a shock.

“Last time we did a football search, we built a list of characteristics,” Swarbrick said. “I can’t remember now, I think it was 11 or 12, that we built first and then we screened candidates against that list. High on that list was rebuilding a program. Rebuilding a program doesn’t even show up on the list this year, right? So a different focus takes you in different directions and that’s where I’m pleased to say we are today.”

 Freeman has only been South Bend since January. He considered taking the defensive coordinator’s job at LSU, and prior to accepting this position as Notre Dame’s head coach turned down a second LSU offer to become defensive coordinator. The returning players began publicly advocating for Freeman, as did incoming recruits set to sign their National Letters of Intent Dec. 15.  “Notre Dame’s in a great place, and I don’t want anybody to think we’re not moving forward full-steam,” Swarbrick said.

Freeman has seven consensus four-star defenders currently committed to Notre Dame’s class of 2022 that’s ranked fourth in the country by rivals.com. His first big get, consensus four-star defensive end Tyson Ford (St. Louis), echoed the current Irish roster’s sentiment early in the week.

Freeman’s background includes four years as defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, plus being linebackers coach and later co-defensive coordinator at Purdue, and a linebackers coach at Kent State for two seasons. But while Notre Dame basks in the glow of the Freeman hire, no one should forget the fate of their first Black coach, Tyrone Willingham.

He went 21-15 from 2002-2004, then got the boot. He remains the only head coach in Notre Dame history not to get at least five years tenure. While prospects for Freeman’s success are good, Notre Dame has shown they have zero sentimentality when it comes to head football coaches. Those who win get rewarded or move on. Those who don’t win and win big don’t last.