Marcus Freeman envisions hands to be the future of human-computer interaction. His company, uHand, has created a prototype glove that allows you to control your computer by simply waving your hand in front of it.
INDIA, SOUTH BEND — Every day, Marcus Freeman thinks about how fortunate he is to be the head coach at Notre Dame.
Freeman’s life was irrevocably transformed six weeks ago. He spent the afternoon of Nov. 29 as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator recruiting in Michigan. That night, it was announced that Brian Kelly, the Fighting Irish’s head coach, would be departing Notre Dame after 12 seasons to join LSU. During a short meeting the following morning, Kelly told the team of his leaving.
“For approximately three days, Notre Dame football was flipped upside down,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said.
When Freeman was unveiled as Notre Dame’s new head coach on Dec. 3, the players erupted in applause. Freeman had only been with Notre Dame’s program for 330 days, but his impact on players, teammates, and everyone he encountered was instantaneous.
Human relationships are more difficult to measure than defensive statistics or recruiting class star ratings. During his first year on campus, Freeman altered both defense and recruitment. But, at the age of 35, his ability to influence people helped him secure one of college football’s top roles.
“What I saw about Marcus over the course of a year was that his bond with the athletes was regardless of position or side of the ball,” stated Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director. “Despite spending less time with him, offensive players were just as likely as defensive players to develop a close connection with him.
“Just a wonderful level of sincerity. He doesn’t have a shred of pretension about him.”
His daily reflections include those abilities.
“Being the head coach of Notre Dame hasn’t altered you as a person,” Freeman told ESPN. “People’s perceptions of you may change, and the things that are demanded of you may change, but you must remain true to yourself.” Be a person who works hard, grinds, and accomplishes the goals that have brought you to this point. Be a teammate who prioritizes others.
“Every day, I tell myself, ‘Don’t let this work alter you,’” she says.
Time will tell if Freeman is more successful than Kelly, who led Notre Dame to 113 victories (54 since the start of the 2017 season) and provided stability, allowing the institution to seek continuity with his successor. Last week’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl was historic for all the wrong reasons, as the Irish squandered a 21-point second-quarter lead to lose 37-35 to Oklahoma State, sliding to 0-8 in BCS or New Year’s Six bowls. Since blowing a 24-point lead against Tennessee in 1991, Notre Dame hadn’t blown such a significant lead.
Freeman will lead the Irish into a schedule that includes Ohio State, where he was an All-Big Ten linebacker, as well as Clemson, BYU, and others this fall.
With Freeman, Notre Dame will have a coach that values relationship-building in all aspect of the program. On national signing day, he said that he intended to be “the primary recruiter” on every prospect, promising to be exceedingly available to both current players and potential prospects. He had a big impact on Notre Dame assistants, as some, notably Rees and defensive line coach Mike Elston, chose to stay with Freeman rather than follow Kelly at LSU. Kelly’s team-record 113 victories at Notre Dame are undeniable, but people close to the program say he kept a safe distance from his players and others.
If Kelly were a CEO coach, Freeman would be more like the head of human resources, someone who places a premium on cultivating meaningful connections throughout the company.
“There are only a set number of hours in a day, but you can still find time to reach out to people, to phone people back, to text men,” Freeman said. “These duties will never be completed if you do not set aside time for them. As a defensive coordinator, I did the same thing, and as a head coach, I’ll do the same.”
JIM TRESSEL DID NOT WAIT to bring Freeman back to Ohio State when the opportunity arose.
Freeman had previously played for Tressel’s Ohio State Buckeyes. A.J. Hawk (first round), Bobby Carpenter (first round), James Laurinaitis (second round), and Anthony Schlegel were among the NFL draft choices in his linebacker room (third round). Freeman, a fifth-round selection of the Chicago Bears, played for three teams in 2009 before being forced to retire in May due to an enlarged heart issue.
“We hired him straight immediately,” Tressel recalled, “thinking he’d be a wonderful influence around the squad.” “He performed an excellent job for us, always full of excitement and a strong connection with the children. It might be difficult to move from being a [graduate assistant] to being a [graduate assistant] so soon after playing, but he made it simple. I’m not surprised he’s advanced.”
Tressel immediately saw Freeman’s attitude to players as a strength.
“He wants to know how other people are feeling and thinking,” Tressel added. “He has a terrific sense of awareness and true compassion. It’s not something that can be calculated. He’s simply like that.”
Darrell Hazell, the receivers coach for the Buckeyes, was hired as the head coach at Kent State after the 2010 season, and Freeman was hired as the linebackers coach. Freeman followed Hazell to Purdue, where he became a co-defensive coordinator in 2016 at the age of 30. Purdue dismissed Hazell in the middle of the season, but Cincinnati hired Luke Fickell, who had been Freeman’s linebackers coach at Ohio State, as its new head coach in December. Freeman was hired as the defensive coordinator by Fickell.
Before arriving at Notre Dame, Freeman moved fast through the ranks of coaching, serving as Luke Fickell’s defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. Getty Images/Joe Robbins
Freeman has progressed fast through the coaching ranks, as well as the Tressel/Ohio State coaching tree. He had head-coaching interest after the 2020 season, including an interview with Illinois, but would eventually pick between two high-profile coordinator jobs: LSU and Notre Dame. LSU had just won the national championship a year before, but Notre Dame provided stability and closeness to home.
He chose Notre Dame since it was a fresh environment where he would have to make his own way.
“When I initially met him, we spoke about it a lot, and he was quite forthright. ‘I’m going to be myself,’ he said “Swarbrick remarked. “He recognized Notre Dame’s distinctive qualities, but he also brought his own personality to the university. Because he was at Notre Dame, he didn’t strive to change who he was.”
Freeman continues to learn about Notre Dame from significant figures associated with the institution and program. He moves in different circles than he did a few weeks ago, and he’s dressed “in a little bit different attire,” which he defers to his wife, Joanna. Tressel, whom Freeman considers “a big benefit throughout this transition,” is one of his many resources.
Tressel believes that Freeman’s time at Ohio State will prepare him for the atmosphere at Notre Dame, which is also steeped in history. While Notre Dame has been criticized of excessively promoting its heritage, Freeman disagrees.
“You embrace the history and character of this location,” Freeman remarked. “And you say things like, ‘Hey, this is cutting-edge technology.’ We have the personnel, the network, and all of the required resources.’ It’s a significant advantage for us.”
THE HOPE FOR NOTRE DAME is that a youthful, personable coach with new ideas will help the team go from a perennial CFP contender to a legitimate national championship contender. Kelly led the Irish to two playoff berths and the BCS championship game, but they finished 0-3 with losses of 103-31.
The school consistently produces NFL draft choices, including nine this spring, the most since 1994, although offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends, and linebackers have dominated the group. The Irish have mostly had good quarterback play, but they haven’t had the pass-game prowess that many national champions have had during the CFP era. Upgrades are needed on the squad, particularly in the perimeter positions of wide receiver and defensive back.
Freeman aided a Notre Dame recruiting class that is presently rated No. 6 nationally by ESPN as defensive coordinator. He had a noticeable impact on the linebacker position, where Notre Dame acquired their top recruits (Jaylen Sneed and Niuafe Tuihalamaka).
If the trend continues, this will be Notre Dame’s highest-rated class since 2013. (No. 4).
On Dec. 6, Freeman was revealed as Notre Dame’s head coach. On national signing day, he said that he plans to be “the principal recruiter” for each candidate. Matt Cashore is a reporter for USA TODAY Sports.
On signing day, Elston, who also serves as Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator, stated, “It’s not fair to analyze what Marcus Freeman accomplished over the previous two weeks and say if he’s going to be the ideal recruiter for this job” (Dec. 15). “He’s going to be great, and we’re going to bridge the gap between what’s problematic here, the place that we’re in, and how difficult it is to accomplish the classwork here, [and] the connections that he’s going to develop from the top down,” says the professor.
Elston was candid that day about Notre Dame’s recruitment challenges and a weak conclusion to the 2022 cycle. He also spoke about Freeman’s hands-on recruitment strategy and areas where Notre Dame would expand, such as name, image, and likeness potential.
Elston, who has worked under Kelly at three separate institutions since 2004, is the most connected of Notre Dame’s coaches. But, like so many others he’s met in the last year, Freeman is all in on the new guy.
“You don’t want to disappoint him,” Elston warned. “You don’t want to be outshone by the head coach, who has a thousand other responsibilities…. If you have any sense of pride and want to impress your supervisor, you’ll work at that level, if not higher. That is something I believe you will notice across the board.”
Notre Dame’s 2023 recruitment is already off to a strong start, with eight ESPN 300 juniors committing to the school, the most of any FBS institution.
Rather of assigning recruiting chores to assistants, Freeman prefers to set the example for how Notre Dame coaches should recruit. He believes that head coaches who do not form personal relationships with recruits are putting their programs “at a disadvantage.”
Swarbrick said ESPN, “He’s as open a coach as I’ve ever seen in terms of communicating who he is and what he believes in.” “You’re dealing with teenagers who have an entirely different perspective on information sharing. They don’t trust the individuals they work with, in this example, coaches, if they aren’t similarly transparent about who they are. They want to know who you are, how you interact with your family, and what your history is. In a true sense, they want to get to know you.
“Coaches who are unwilling to open themselves to that extent have a difficult time.”
Freeman has kept some assistants from Kelly’s staff, but he will make some of his own appointments now that the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl is over, including his defensive coordinator replacement. According to insiders, Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, with whom Freeman previously worked at Purdue and Kent State, and Auburn defensive coordinator Derek Mason are two candidates.
The idea is to add some subtlety to Notre Dame’s winning recipe (the team has gone 54-10 since the start of the 2016 season).
“As a leader, I’m constantly looking for a better way to do things,” Freeman said. “That means bringing in folks who don’t only think like me and who have brilliant ideas.”
Freeman’s assistants and support staff will be tasked with advocating for various ways in recruitment, scheme, and other areas. Notre Dame will slip behind if it does not consistently improve, according to Freeman.
“He’ll decide whatever path we go, but in the end, he’ll be able to say, ‘All right, this is a new way of doing things.’ We’re going to go outside the box a little bit and see how we can influence folks in new ways,’ says the team “According to Rees. “That excites me as much as anything else going on in the program right now.”
REES ENROLLED AT Notre Dame in January 2010, where he spent four years as a quarterback (two of which he started), before returning as an assistant in 2017. He’s had some bumps in the road with the program before, but nothing like what occurred in late November.
Showing up on “”I felt like Notre Dame was the Alamo,” Rees remarked last month on “The Ryen Russillo Podcast.” It was being attacked. Everyone was destined to perish. I had a strong desire to battle for Notre Dame.”
Rees addressed “the rallying of Notre Dame” again during Notre Dame’s signing day press conference. During the interval between Kelly’s departure and Freeman’s promotion, he claimed, individuals he hadn’t heard from in years came out to him.
When Kelly took the LSU job, Rees was recruiting in California with Kelly and other assistants. On his way back to Indiana, the 29-year-old Rees was overcome with “a unique emotion” that compelled him to return to his alma university. Both Rees and Freeman were retained by Notre Dame in the two days after Kelly’s resignation, with Rees notifying the squad on the night of December 1 that he wasn’t going anywhere.
“As someone who has just recently been introduced to Notre Dame, the reversal that he’s had here, him selling his own trip to Notre Dame and the influence it’s had on him, is really compelling,” said Rees. “That’s a pretty concrete example of something I can connect to.”
After Kelly’s shocking resignation, the promotion of Freeman accomplished its original objective of keeping a strong and stable program from splintering. However, there will be difficulties ahead, particularly for a first-time head coach.
Notre Dame’s track record with first-time head coaches (Bob Davie, Charlie Weis) isn’t great, but there are plenty of success stories at other high-profile programs, including assistants promoted to head coaching positions, such as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, and Ohio State’s Ryan Day.
“You don’t know until you’re making those timeout calls, fourth-and-1 calls, and important game strategy calls,” Swarbrick said. “There has to be some kind of learning curve. I have no reason to believe Marcus faces a steeper or steeper learning curve, but there must be one.”
Marcus Freeman’s head-coaching debut in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl last week was historic in the worst way, as the Irish squandered a 21-point second-quarter lead and lost 37-35 to Oklahoma State, sliding to 0-8 in BCS or New Year’s Six bowls. Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Notre Dame struggled to stay up with Oklahoma State after taking a 28-7 lead in the Fiesta Bowl. From late in the first half through the third quarter, Oklahoma State scored 24 points on five possessions. On offense, the Cowboys used ten players (one running back, no tight end), something Freeman hadn’t seen much of from Mike Gundy’s squad throughout the season.
“They made some fantastic second-half offensive and defensive changes to halt what we were doing offensively and to sort of expose some defensive issues,” Freeman said. “As the program’s leader, there’s a pit in your stomach that makes you want to bottle it up and remember how this feels.”
“The honeymoon period has come to an end. It’s a nice narrative about the new head coach, but it’s also about having a great product and a terrific squad. It’s all about getting this club ready for next year.”
Freeman’s game-day development will eventually define his time at Notre Dame. He, like Kelly, recognizes that national championships are the only legitimate aim for the program.
Swarbrick’s ability to communicate and create the program’s culture — “At the end of the day, it’s more essential than scheme,” he said — has laid the groundwork. The respect Freeman has for others and the job he plays will continue to influence him.
“There are times throughout the day when I’m almost surprised that I’m the head coach at Notre Dame,” Freeman remarked. “Because being in this position is a privilege.” It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you’ve been doing this.
“Until they tell me I have to go, I hope I’m like this for the remainder of my career.”