College Football
Notre Dame sends a message by hiring Marcus Freeman as head coach
College Football

Notre Dame sends a message by hiring Marcus Freeman as head coach

Updated Dec. 2, 2021 4:30 p.m. ET

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

Notre Dame didn’t take long to promote the most dynamic, talented coordinator in the country after Brian Kelly bolted for LSU.

According to multiple reports, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will be the next Fighting Irish head coach.

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Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was the latest to join an unenviable and staggering list of prominent athletic directors who have had to find a new coach since 2019. 

With the Notre Dame opening, 10 of the 20 all-time winningest programs in college football have had vacancies in the past two coaching cycles. 

– 4. Notre Dame
– 5. Texas
– 6. Oklahoma
- 9. Tennessee
– 10. USC
– 12. LSU
– 13. Auburn
– 17. Virginia Tech
– 18. Florida
– 19. Washington

Even before hiring the 35-year-old Freeman, Swarbrick made sure to sign offensive coordinator and former Fighting Irish QB Tommy Rees to an extension, heading off his potential move to Baton Rouge to join Kelly. Also, to elevate Freeman, it was thought to be crucial for Rees to stay in South Bend.

There's another important reason Swarbrick needed to move quickly. If Michigan, Cincinnati, Alabama or Oklahoma State lose their respective conference championship games this weekend, Notre Dame has a real chance to jump into the College Football Playoff. 

Playoff chairman Gary Barta indicated that part of the committee’s evaluation includes whether the team in question has a head coach — a bizarre circumstance put in motion by Kelly’s decision to leave the 11-1 Irish two days after the regular season ended.

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With Freeman accepting the head-coaching job, it also means one more person is removed from the hiring pool for Oklahoma, which lost Lincoln Riley to USC on Sunday.

Notre Dame ranks No. 11 in scoring defense (18.2 points per game) and No. 29 in total defense (339.1 yards per game). As defensive coordinator for four years at Cincinnati and this season at Notre Dame, Freeman’s approach has always been to try to dictate terms. He is renowned for forcing the opposing offense to play into its weakness.

The philosophy is rooted in his background. Freeman played linebacker at Ohio State from 2004 to 2008 and, after a brief stint with the Chicago Bears, became a grad assistant at OSU in 2010. In an interesting twist, the Fighting Irish open next season at Freeman’s alma mater.

After working as a linebackers coach at Kent State (2011) and Purdue (2012 to 2016), Freeman was tapped by Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell — his former position coach at Ohio State — to be the Bearcats' defensive coordinator at age 31.

That was in 2017. By 2020, Freeman had put together one of the most dominant defenses in the sport. Last season, the Bearcats ranked No. 4 in yards allowed per play, No. 3 in the country in pass defense efficiency and No. 1 in TD-to-INT ratio, allowing just seven passing TDs and intercepting 16 passes. Cincinnati completed a perfect regular season and earned a berth in the Peach Bowl against Georgia.

In January 2021, Freeman left Cincinnati to become the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, declining an offer from LSU. He reportedly took the job in South Bend because he believed it gave him the best opportunity to become a head coach.

He hit the ground running in recruiting, landing eight blue-chip prospects in his first six months as Notre Dame defensive coordinator. He took great pride in selling the program to recruits by reaching them where they live, never believing it was incumbent upon them to know about Notre Dame’s tradition or history.

"To be able to sell [Notre Dame] to a young person so that they understand, that’s the unique part about it," Freeman said on The Shamrock podcast. "You’re not going to be able to speak to everybody the same. The ability to understand how this person comprehends one thing versus this person comprehends another thing, but you’re still saying the same things. We can speak it differently.

"Sometimes I use a rapper. If I’m talking to a kid, ‘Hey, who’s your favorite rapper?’ [He'll say] somebody like Durk, Lil Nas, whatever. I say, 'Listen, you gotta think like Jay-Z. Jay-Z just sold Tidal for millions of dollars. You can look at those other schools, but Notre Dame is like Jay-Z.' To [hear] a kid say, ‘Oh, that makes sense. Oh, you’re talking big-picture.’"

It’s this kind of insight into people, and, frankly, a love of people — as well as Freeman's ability to coach defense — that last year led Brian Kelly to say aloud what many had believed for some time.

"My defensive coordinator is Black, and he's going to be the next head coach," Kelly said on NBC Sports’ "Race in America: A Candid Conversation." "This is not about color or race. This is about the things that he just talked about. Steph [Curry] talked about the important things to be a CEO and understanding how to make people around you better."

At his introductory news conference Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Kelly told media why he chose to leave South Bend to coach LSU.

"I came down here because I wanted to be with the best," he said. "The standard of expectation. You're looked at in terms of championships here, and I want that. I want to be under the bright lights. That's part of the draw."

Notre Dame — a program with feature films on a player and coach, a program that boasts one of the largest fan bases in the sport, a program that produced Joe Montana, Jerome Bettis, Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown and Paul Hornung — sent a message with its elevation of Freeman and extension of Rees. The former Irish QB articulated that message in a speech to players letting them know he was staying in South Bend.

"We have work to do this year," Rees said. "We have a lot ahead of us, and for the guys that are coming back, let’s go win a f---ing national championship here at Notre Dame."

Now it's up to Freeman and Rees to make that happen.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.


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