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Tale of the Tape: Marcus Freeman vs Brian Kelly Year 1

By: Murray O'Connell | Writer | Twitter: @MurrayOConnell | Profile: @MurrayOConnell

Photo Courtesy of ABC KSAT 12


It’s not up there with the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, or JLo and Ben Affleck getting engaged, but Notre Dame fans all remember where they were when the news broke, a little over a year ago, that Brian Kelly was leaving for LSU.


Shock. Surprise. Disbelief. All emotions most Irish fans felt before inevitably turning to anger. How could the winningest coach in program history, the one who talked about national championships and the “next man in” suddenly leave for what he thought was greener pastures?


Excitement. Hope. Gratitude. All emotions most Irish fans felt as Marcus Freeman was announced as the 30th head coach in Notre Dame football history. Notre Dame fans can still feel the energy and excitement bursting from that viral locker room video announcing Freeman as coach.


And so began a season of Notre Dame fans keeping one eye on the Irish and the other on their former head coach’s new team. Initially Irish fans thought they made out as the winner as Kelly’s first game against Florida State ended with a loss. However, Irish fans were somberly brought back to reality after the Marshall loss sent shockwaves through South Bend leaving many to wonder if Notre Dame had made the right decision in promoting Freeman.


However, with the year now over and a larger sample size available, the Irish Tribune spoke to two experts, Darin Pritchett, host of Weekday Sportsbeat on WSBT Radio South Bend,

and Jacques Doucet, WAFB Sportscaster in Baton Rouge, to compare how both coaches did after one year on the job.


What was the sentiment with fans when it was announced that these coaches would be taking over?

Doucet: “He was not one of the guys who was talked about a lot, Lincoln Riley was the hot name nationally, some people wondered if the LSU AD would roll the dice on Lane Kiffin. Everyone knew Brian Kelly as one of top 5 best known coaches in the country, but I think that it was a bit odd. Why would a guy who is 60 and well established and having all this success leave Notre Dame and come to a completely different place in LSU? Both powerhouses, but very different places.”


Pritchett: “People were really excited because Marcus represented a coach that they hadn't known very long, but they already understood his passion, his work ethic, and what a good football guy he was. The fan base really wanted a coach they could wrap their arms around and enjoy and appreciate. There was this group of fans that were concerned about Freeman being a first time coach, and those haven't worked out very well at Notre Dame, but I think his appreciation of Notre Dame, his passion, and his work ethic allowed those fans to say ‘Ok lets give this guy a shot.’”

What is the sentiment from fans now after both coaches have completed their first season?

Pritchett: “I think they appreciated the fact that Freeman’s leadership skills really showed up during the season. When they were 0-2, and even when they lost to Stanford, I think a lot of fans started to see his leadership skills come through. That season could have ended in a lot of different ways, and many of those ways weren't very good. But I think the fact that the players bought into what he was saying, they continued to listen, and when your best players believe, I think it's easy for everybody else to buy in as well.”

Doucet: “A lot of people felt like they needed an adult in the room and Brian Kelly has been the adult in the room. He came in with a plan, he’s emotional when he coaches on the sidelines, but off the field he’s not emotional, and that's what was needed, somebody who had a plan and a process. Most people feel like he’s done a remarkable job from where LSU was a year ago, getting embarrassed in a bowl game with barely enough players to fill out a roster to winning the SEC West and beating Alabama."

What was the biggest obstacle these coaches faced this year?


Doucet: “Rebuilding the roster and getting players, they had less than 40 scholarship players when they went to the Texas Bowl a year ago. There was so just much attrition, there were guys that maybe some people felt weren't all that injured that ‘tapped out’ and got surgeries before they needed to, or just decided they weren't going to play anymore, and academic casualties, and so with the transfer portal the biggest challenge was putting a competitive team on the field and finding guys that would be on board. But they’ve all meshed and they like each other and team chemistry has been good.”

Pritchett: “I think his biggest obstacle was after the Marshall game, for Freeman to continue to believe in himself, that he could do this, and believe in the message and the way he wanted to build this program. After those first two losses he mentioned that he had to take a step back, and he was a little overwhelmed, but he stuck with his plan and persevered. Maybe the biggest obstacle was him getting over that fact and saying, ‘We’re 0-2, what am I doing wrong?’ He figured it out, and for them to finish 8-4, that's pretty good considering where they were at week 2."

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images


What was their biggest win of the season?


Pritchett: “It was huge beating California for the first win, you could see the relief on Freeman’s face and in the press conference where he kind of exhaled, and said, ‘Thank goodness we got the victory, we can put this behind me.' I remember him talking about firsts, the first road game, the first home game, the first win, and he just wanted to get things back to normal. That first win against California was needed by the players, by the fanbase, but more importantly by Marcus so he could believe in what he was doing. But also beating Clemson with them being undefeated and being the favorite coming into the game. I think that was the one victory that really showed the Irish fan base that Marcus Freeman is a guy that can not only recruit, and be a great defensive mind, but he was able to keep this team and coaching staff together and beat a top 5 team.”

Doucet: “Without a doubt Alabama. If you are an LSU football fan, you know that you aren't getting to the SEC championship game and probably not getting to the national championship game if you don't beat Alabama. Alabama has been the standard in college football, and Nick Saban with his connections to LSU, it's the game that gets LSU fans the most emotional, and for them to win the game and in the fashion that they did, to make that gutsy call and to beat Alabama on a 2 point conversion, 100% is the biggest win of the year.”

Photo Courtesy of Crimson Tide Photos/ UA Athletics


What was their biggest loss of the season?


Doucet: “Had to be the Texas A&M loss at the regular season finale because at that point LSU was on the cusp of getting into the playoffs. If they win that game they’ve got a swing at Georgia in the SEC championship and without a doubt would be in. That was disappointing because they got pushed around and beat decisively when they were on the cusp of perhaps being in the college football playoffs.”

Pritchett: “That Marshall loss was one that a lot of us in the media said, you know if Brian Kelly was here, he probably would have figured out a way to win that game. And I think it might have been one of those moments where Freeman’s inexperience showed up and not being able to fix things on offense, like Brian was able to help on both sides of the football. So I think that loss hurt him early on, but that also eliminated them from playoff consideration. They still had some hope they could run the table, win the next 11, and be there with a shot for the playoffs, but that killed the playoffs, so that probably heightened the loss.”

Photo Courtesy of Michael Reaves/Getty Images


How well does he fit into the culture at their university?


Pritchett: “From the outside looking in he seems like a perfect fit because he has bought into what Notre Dame is all about. I know when Brian Kelly came in, he fought the system a little bit, he changed game day activities. Marcus has brought some of those back, so I think he understands what Notre Dame is all about and how important the traditions are on game day. I think Marcus being here for a year [defensive coordinator in 2021] got to see what it was all about up close, and when he took over as head coach he already had an idea, this is important or this may not be as important. I think that one year did a lot to help Marcus understand Notre Dame, preparing him for that opportunity to be a head coach.”

Doucet: “I don't think he needs to do that stuff, he just needs to win. Kelly's coaching show is a lot different than Coach O’s, it used to be that people would line up at the commercial break and get autographs signed, but that's not the case anymore. They draw a few names and a few select people go up at the break. That is not as warm and fuzzy as it had been in the past, and it was one of those things that was like, if he doesn't win this could go sideways. He’s been more amicable with the media than I envisioned, I don't know if 'makeover' is the right word, but he’s lost some weight, he dresses nicer, maybe because it's not as cold and isn't bundled up in a big coat, and at press conferences he hasn't snapped at any media members. He’s not out there as much as Coach O, but as long as he’s working and improving the program, he doesn't need to be high-fiving everybody on the street.”

Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Mailhes


Why do fans want their coach over the other?


Doucet: “Kelly is proven and Freeman isn't yet, this is his first opportunity. Kelly’s record especially when he gets deeper into the job is outstanding, he’s a proven winner and he’s adapted well. Marcus Freeman is obviously younger, cooler, does well on social media, and the ladies all seem to love him, but there’s a whole lot not known about him yet in terms of how well he’ll do.”

Pritchett: “For those die hard Notre Dame fans that eat, drink, and sleep recruiting they see how far advanced Marcus is compared to Brian and his recruiting, and I think it comes down to Marcus shows effort nonstop and Brian comes in more at the last second to finish things off. I think fans appreciate that more, otherwise it's going to come down to see if he can win playoff games and a national championship. We will always appreciate Brian bringing Notre Dame from a bad spot back to national status, and now the hope is Marcus can build on that and take the program to the next level.”

Photo Courtesy of @itsbrittb7


Marcus Freeman will win a national championship before Brian Kelly because…


Pritchett: "I think we are seeing early on that elite kids that may not have a love affair for Notre Dame are truly intrigued by Marcus Freeman, the person and the head coach. I think he is attracting individuals that previous coaching staffs have not been able to get. I think Marcus’s work ethic, from the start to the finish, of recruiting a kid is going to pay dividends. The way Marcus attacks every aspect of this program with passion and dedication, his work ethic is second to none, and if he gets great players into this program and continues to knock on the door, eventually he will win a national championship and if Notre Dame consistently gets to the playoffs, they are going to win a championship and Marcus seems like with the way he's handling this right now, he’s going to give his team a chance each and every year.”

Photo Courtesy of Michael Reaves/Getty Images


Brian Kelly will win a national championship before Marcus Freeman because…


Doucet: “It's easier to recruit at LSU than at Notre Dame. The climate is better, kids want to go where it’s warm. You play a lot of high profile games so because you play a tougher schedule maybe you can afford a loss, or even two. LSU plays a tougher schedule which enhances their resume and gives them opportunities. The fan bases and resources are pretty even, but I think Brian Kelly is a better coach and has a plan and has shown great progress in year one.”

Photo Courtesy of Brad Crawford 247Sports

Photo Courtesy of Brad Crawford 247Sports


It is interesting to note that arguably each team's biggest win of the season, Notre Dame defeating Clemson and LSU beating Alabama, both occurred on the same night, November 5th. That night the late ESPN Sportscenter led off with the World Series, then the Tennessee vs Georgia highlights, and finally LSU’s big win over Alabama. That night, Kelly’s new school got the headlines over his old one, but Notre Dame fans remain hopeful that Freeman will get the last word.


College football fans will have to wait at least another year before there is a possibility that Notre Dame and LSU battle it out on the field, perhaps in the playoffs, to determine which school got the better end of the Freeman vs Kelly deal. Until then, Notre Dame fans will hope that if JLo and Ben can make it work, maybe Marcus Freeman and Notre Dame can also.

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