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God, Country, Notre Dame AND Marcus Freeman

Photo Credit: Irish Tribune


It was 2003 and Notre Dame was struggling through Tyrone Willingham’s second season at the helm. After a somewhat surprising 10-2 regular season in 2002 closed with an embarrassing Gator Bowl loss to NC State, Notre Dame entered the year ranked 20th. Being near the upper deck of the Top 25 isn’t exactly where Irish fans wanted to be; however, there was optimism heading into the season. That optimism was quickly dashed when a come from behind victory was needed in the opener against Washington State followed up by a terrible performance against Michigan in a 38-0 loss, one of the worst losses in the history of the series. As the Irish limped to a 2-5 record, a home game with Florida State loomed. Ever optimistic, this presented an opportunity for Notre Dame to turn around their fortunes and get on the right footing. It was not to be. Bobby Bowden and his boys got revenge from a year prior and whipped Notre Dame to the tune of 37-0 (it was 30-0 at halftime and he mercifully called off the dogs, forever cementing a place in my heart for his kindness). Notre Dame was now 2-6 and I wondered if it would ever end. Would Notre Dame simply become an Ivy League school? A university with great academics and a once proud football program, similar to Georgia Tech or Tulane?

This would not happen of course. After struggling through another subpar coaching hire in Charlie Weis, Brian Kelly righted the ship and brought respectability where there had been very little over a 20 year period. Then, 2012 happened. It wasn’t so much that Notre Dame lost the National Championship to Alabama, it was how they lost. Physically dominated from start to finish, the Irish were down 28-0 at halftime, going on to lose 42-14. To make matters worse, Kelly was rumored to have flirted with the Philadelphia Eagles coaching job a week or so after the game was over. Was he going to leave now? Did he feel his work was done? Didn’t he want to be at Notre Dame? Once again, the pit in our stomachs returned. Just when we thought progress was being made, we got embarrassed on the national stage and now have to find another head coach. Crisis averted, Kelly stayed and continued to build on his success, rejuvenating a once proud program to “win the games they’re supposed to win,” while sometimes winning those they aren’t or at least coming close on multiple occasions.

All of this background is necessary to understand how important the Marcus Freeman hire is. Without the angst and pain pre-Kelly or close calls and playoff blowouts of those Kelly years, Marcus Freeman wouldn’t have been hired, it wouldn’t have made sense. To be successful at Notre Dame, to really be successful, you have to revere the university and its football program with childlike wonderment. It has to be your passion, seeping into your soul, into your very essence. Sure, it’s nice to be the head coach at Minnesota, Penn State or UCLA. None of these are jobs a 36 year old, first time head coach would turn down. But they’re not Notre Dame. For the very reasons everyone either loves or hates the Irish, those are the reasons the job is so special. Marcus Freeman gets it, every true fan of Notre Dame football could see that, which is why he needed to be hired. He has embraced the university for everything it has to offer, whether that be an advantage or a perceived disadvantage. Where Kelly was more like Devine or even Davie in the way he needed to “shop down a different aisle” to find players to play at Notre Dame, Freeman sounds more like Ara or Holtz asking, “why not us?” Why indeed.

There are 3 main areas where Marcus Freeman, the man and the football coach, will help elevate Notre Dame to compete at the highest level:

Recruiting

This is the lifeblood of any program. It’s true, there are many teams I can name that are able to win without a cadre of 4 and 5 star recruits on the roster. But, there’s a big difference between winning 9-10 games and getting blown out by the best teams on your schedule and winning 13-14 games, going undefeated and hoisting that National Championship trophy. Marcus Freeman boarded a plane directly after becoming the head football coach of Notre Dame to keep the players that had already verbally committed, and asked them to recommit to him. He didn’t sit back, relax and enjoy his success. What success? He hadn’t won a game yet! He knows how important it is to get the best players in the nation in order to compete at the highest level. He was even able to seal the deal with Billy Schrauth, a highly coveted 4 star Offensive Lineman, prying him away from his home state of Wisconsin. The man is a recruiting machine and he expects all of his underlings to follow suit, making this very clear in multiple press conferences and one off conversations since taking the job. The results so far have been spectacular, with Notre Dame holding the #3 and #1 class according to 247 Sports in ’23 & ’24. This includes a recent pickup of what could be the next game changing QB in Kenny Minchey. Once a Pitt commit, Freeman (along with Tommy Rees) were able to make the flip and finally have their 2023 class QB. Minchey, coupled with CJ Carr and 4 wide receiver commits in upcoming classes (all in the Top 300 per 24/7 Sports) will provide the skill position talent necessary to build upon an already solid offensive/defensive line framework.


Likeability

When’s the last time Notre Dame was cool? Seriously, has that ever happened? Well, since Marcus Freeman took the reins, Notre Dame is definitely perceived as being pretty cool. Freeman exudes confidence and approachability. His ability to connect with large audiences, whether it be live during a press conference or on a Zoom call, is unlike anything that’s been seen in a Notre Dame head coach. He’s a flag bearer for his generation, utilizing all the tools at his disposal to connect and build meaningful relationships through social media, online content or face to face visits with prospective players' parents. He’s a natural on camera, having an innate ability to be himself while shedding years if not decades of hatred for Notre Dame, he’s breathed new life into a once moribund albeit still popular college football brand. A family man, he brings his kids to practice and is quick to thank his wife for allowing him to follow his dream. Looking like a guy who can still take the field, he wakes up most mornings and goes for a run, stopping by his favorite place on campus to reflect on the words inscribed on the basilica “God, Country, Notre Dame.” He’s dragging the football program and, by extension, the entire university into the 21st century. This is why he was hired, Jack Swarbrick and the rest of the leadership appear to be merrily following along, no kicking or screaming required.


Leadership

Whether you’re leading a team of people at a Fortune 500 company or you’re leading a football team, there has to be a belief, a belief in the person who’s asking you to sacrifice and give it your all. A vision for the future, one in which it won’t always be easy, but the end result will be worth it. In order to do this, you need to have exceptional relationship skills, an ability to connect and the confidence to lead no matter how dark the storm clouds might hover over your head. Marcus Freeman is a great defensive coach, he’s proven this to be the case. Can he be a great head coach? There’s every reason to believe that he can. He doesn’t always know what he’s doing and he won’t always have the perfect answer, sometimes he’s even truthful to a fault, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good leader. He’s the kind of guy who will take the broom and sweep the floor rather than asking someone else to do it for him. We know this simply in the way he carries himself, in how he speaks of his military upbringing and the admiration he has for his mother. All of this matters, it matters to the players, the fans and the wayward alumni who thinks he’s been left out to pasture by the university only to find himself invited to the Spring Game for an alumni event, fully back in the fold where he belongs.

Charlie Weis brought more talent and Brian Kelly brought respectability when many fans thought the Irish would never rise above the likes of a mid-Tier Big 10 program. When Kelly bolted out the door for “greener pastures” at LSU, Marcus Freeman was waiting in the wings, ready to ascend the throne when asked. We’re patiently waiting to see his star continue to rise, lifting the spirits, hopes and win totals of Notre Dame along with him. It’s called the Freeman Factor and most Irish fans believe it will factor into a National Championship very soon.


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