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The Notre Dame - Cincinnati Coaching Link - Part 2

Written by Connor Regan ⏐ Senior Staff Writer ⏐ Twitter/X: @thatconnorregan

Photo by The Irish Tribune



The Freeman Tree

While Brian Kelly didn't establish the Notre Dame-Cincinnati coaching link, he was the first to establish a consistent funnel between the two. He's also responsible for this relationship's second most influential coaching tree, the Freeman Tree. One of Kelly's final hires before his departure for LSU was then Cincinnati Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman. Although unknown at the time, this hire would open the floodgates between Cincinnati and South Bend.


Freeman would quickly grow his own coaching tree with the Irish, starting even before he got the head coaching job. Much of the Freeman coaching tree derives from his former head coach, Luke Fickell. His time in Cincinnati was instrumental in his future staff building, much like his predecessor, Brian Kelly. As of 2024, the current Notre Dame staff has eight former Bearcats personnel (including Freeman). Each of these coaches had a different path to South Bend, starting with the head coach himself.





Head Coach Marcus Freeman - Cincy (2017-2020) / Notre Dame (2021-Present)

Freeman had a successful college career at Ohio State, where he played linebacker, but due to an unfortunate health issue, his professional career was cut short. This roadblock was what pushed him into coaching so quickly. At only 24, Freeman began his coaching career at his Alma Mater as a grad assistant but quickly moved on to Kent State, where he earned a promotion to linebackers coach. After two seasons with the Golden Flashes, Freeman moved up to longtime Notre Dame rival, the Purdue Boilermakers. 2013-2016 was an admittedly rough time to be at Purdue. The team would go 1-11 in 2013, 3-9 in 2014, 2-10 in 2015, and 3-9 in 2016. Despite the poor records, Freeman was instrumental in building the linebacker core into the highlight of the defense, coaching future NFL players Danny Ezechukwu and Ja'Whaun Bentley. His skill with the linebacking group earned him a promotion to co-defensive coordinator for his final year with the Boilermakers in 2016. 


Freeman's next stop was our common thread, Cincinnati. In 2017, Luke Fickell brought Freeman on as the Bearcat's new Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach. Freeman would spend the next four years in Cincy, and during this time, he'd encounter several future Irish staffers, which will be covered in detail below. After a rough 4-8 showing in 2017, the Bearcats squad would quickly turn things around. Fickell, Freeman, and Denbrock led the Bearcats to an 11-2 record in 2018, an 11-3 record in 2019, and a 9-1 record during the 2020 COVID season. Due to 3 straight years of success with an AAC program, culminating in a trip to the Peach Bowl against Georgia, Freeman's name started popping up in coaching discussions across football.


Considered the highest profile hire of Brian Kelly's Notre Dame tenure, Marcus Freeman's arrival in South Bend brought changes immediately. Freeman was considered one of the hottest coordinator prospects in the country, and while only in his early 30s, he'd already proven himself as one of the biggest names in recruiting. 2021 marked Freeman's arrival in South Bend, where he'd helm both the Defensive Coordinator role and the LBs position coach. This penchant for recruitment quickly progressed from athletes to fellow coaches, even before he'd become the Head Coach of the Fighting Irish.





Director of Recruiting Chad Bowden - Cincy (2017-2020) / Notre Dame (2021-Present)

In his first move at Notre Dame, new Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman convinced the Irish to bring his then Director of Recruiting at Cincinnati, Chad Bowden, with him to South Bend. Bowden got his start in Cincinnati when then Director of Recruiting Brian Mason brought him in as an intern at the recruiting office. Over the next four years, Bowden would take over for Mason as the Director of Recruiting so Mason could become the Bearcat's Special Teams Coordinator, and this is where he'd truly make a name for himself and grow increasingly closer to Freeman as they pursued recruits together.


Although Bowden took a step down in title when he arrived in South Bend, the new Irish "Defensive Recruiting Coordinator" would soon find himself changing titles again. Once Freeman assumed the role of Head Coach following Brian Kelly's departure for LSU, Bowden would be promoted once again to Director of Recruiting, this time at a top-tier program. Since he arrived in 2021, Bowden has seriously impacted current Irish players but has most notably aided in completely transforming the Irish recruiting department. In 2022, Notre Dame had the 7th-best recruiting class, followed by the 12th-ranked class in 2023 and the 9th-best class in 2024. As of right now, Bowden's efforts have helped the Irish secure the current No. 1 class for 2025, with 18 commitments, 10 of which are 4-star recruits.


In early March of 2024, Notre Dame formally promoted Bowden to "General Manager" of the Fighting Irish football team. This deserved promotion came in the wake of news that Michigan's new head coach, Sherrone Moore, pushed hard for Bowden to join the Wolverines. Thankfully, Freeman's relationship and the program's grander plans for Bowden prevented his move to the reigning National Champions. In this new "General Manager" role, Bowden will essentially continue with the same responsibilities as before, but now under a restructured umbrella that allows for greater direction of the department. He remains the Director of Recruitment, focused on high school players, but the title change extends his formal list of duties to cover the college transfer portal, which includes maintaining the current roster to prevent transfers and keep players engaged.





Special Teams Coordinator Brian Mason - Cincy (2017-2021) / Notre Dame (2022)

Mason got his start at Ohio State in 2015 as a graduate assistant, a position he'd hold for two years before his promotion to Director of Recruiting and transfer to the University of Cincinnati in 2017. During his first year with Cincy, Mason met Marcus Freeman, the Bearcats Defensive Coordinator at the time, and the two built a relationship that would ultimately lead to a reunion years later. In 2018, the Bearcats promoted Mason to Special Teams Coordinator, where he'd really begin to make a name for himself. Freeman left the program after the 2020 season for the Notre Dame DC position, and Mason would go on to put up his best season coaching yet. 2021 would see the Bearcats go 13-0 en route to a CFP appearance, and Mason was nominated as a finalist for the Special Teams Coach of the Year award.


Mason's stellar leadership helped the Bearcats special teams post the 7th most blocked punts, the 3rd best punt return defense (1.53), 2nd in the AAC in net punting (41.7), and tied for the most blocked punts in the nation. Needless to say, the 2021 season made Mason a hot commodity on the coaching market, and his relationship with new Notre Dame Head Coach Marcus Freeman made a move to South Bend a logical next step. Ultimately, Mason would join Freeman's staff for the 2022 season as the new Special Teams Coordinator. 


Despite a few bumps in the road, the 2022 season was a solid 9-4 showing by the Irish, but it was a particularly good season for Mason and his group. Again, Mason led a special teams unit that tied for 1st in the nation in blocked kicks with 7 (a Notre Dame program record) and 6th in special teams efficiency. These stats earned him the 2022 Special Teams Coach of the Year award. In a move that surprised both Notre Dame and Mason himself, the Indianapolis Colts offered Mason their Special Teams Coordinator position. After only one year in South Bend, Mason departed for the Colts, where he remains today. Many factors led to Mason's departure, none of which was a lack of desire to be with the Irish. Ultimately, the move was a promotion, a pay raise, a move closer to family, and a chance to coach his favorite NFL team.





Cornerbacks Coach and Defensive Pass Game Coordinator Mike Mickens - Cincy (Player - 2005-2008 / Coach - 2018-2019) / Notre Dame (2020-Present)

Technically, Mike Mickens was originally a hire of Brian Kelly, but there are a few reasons why he falls more comfortably into the Freeman coaching tree.


The relationship between Freeman and Mickens is the oldest on this list. The two first met at Wayne High School in Dayton, Ohio, where they both ran track and played on the football team. Although Freeman was two years ahead of Mickens, they both played on the same team for two years, Freeman at LB and Mickens at DB. Mickens later earned a football scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where he'd play for four years. After a year in the NFL and a year on the CFL Calgary Stampeders, Mickens put on-field action behind him and began his career as a Defensive Assistant at his Alma Mater. 


Mickens made a 1-year stop at Indiana State in 2012 before being promoted to Cornerbacks Coach at Idaho in 2013. His first long-term stop was at Bowling Green from 2014-2017, where he'd really cut his teeth. Following the 2017 season, Mickens would once again return to his Alma Mater, but this time, as the Cornerbacks coach. Mickens would be a part of the same Bearcats teams in 2018 & 2019 as Freeman, Denbrock, Mason, Bowden, Gino Guidugli, Max Bullough, and Mike Brown. Being a part of the (11-2) 2018 season and the (11-3) 2019 season was proof enough for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly that Mickens had what it takes to join the Irish coaching staff. 


2020 was his first year in South Bend, and the Irish went 10-2 with a loss to Bama in the College Football Playoff. Cam Hart, Ramon Henderson, and Tariq Brady highlighted the first crop of Notre Dame secondary talent Mickens got to coach. 2021 would see Freeman join his old friend on the defensive side of the ball as the new Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator, leading to an 11-2 season with a close loss to Oklahoma State and the rise of Freeman to Head Coach. Despite going to high school together, another reason Mickens is being considered a part of Freeman's coaching tree is that he stayed on amid Kelly's departure. Mickens played a sizable role in recruiting standout CB recruits Benjamin Morrison, Jaden Mickey, Micah Bell, and Christian Gray. In addition to his Cornerback Coach duties, he was recently promoted to "defensive pass game coordinator" in 2023.





QBs Coach and Pass Game Coordinator Gino Guidugli - Cincy (2001-2004 - Player / 2017-2022 - Coach) Notre Dame (2023-Present)

Guidugli had the longest playing career of anyone on this list and went about it in a pretty unique way. The lifelong QB played his college ball at none other than The University of Cincinnati from 2001-2004. Guidugli holds the Bearcats record for both passing and total offense and ended his career with 11,453 yards on 880/1,556 passes (56.6%) for 78 passing touchdowns and 5 rushing touchdowns. Following his collegiate career, Guidugli signed with the Titans in 2005 but was ultimately let go the same season. In 2007, he joined the Green Bay Blizzard of the Arena Football League but moved on to the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League in the same season. He'd play two years with the Lions before returning to the Blizzard for two more years. Guidugli would make stops with the Milwaukee Iron, Milwaukee Mustangs, Chicago Rush, and San Antonio Talons before retiring following the 2014 season.


While Guidugli chased his dream of playing QB professionally, he'd also enter the coaching realm as a Graduate Assistant with Central Michigan between 2010-2012. He even received a promotion to Running Backs Coach in 2013, all while still playing football himself. Following the 2016 season at Central Michigan, Guidugli joined Luke Fickell and the rest of the soon-to-be Irish staff members at The University of Cincinnati. 2018 would mark Guidugli's move to QB's Coach, a position he would hold throughout the rest of his time with the Bearcats. He added the title of Passing Game Coordinator in 2020 and, following Denbrock's departure for LSU in 2021, added the Offensive Coordinator role to his resume. 


Denbrock, Mason, Brown, and Guidugli were all a part of the 2021 Bearcats team that came to Notre Dame Stadium and stunned the Irish in a 24-13 upset in Marcus Freeman's first season as Notre Dame's DC. The Bearcats went undefeated in the 2021 regular season and made their first-ever CFP game, where they ultimately fell to Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Guidugli spent a short period of time with Luke Fickell and his new team in Wisconsin before being named the Quarterbacks Coach for Notre Dame following Tommy Rees' departure for Alabama in early 2023. The 2024 season will be Guidugli's 2nd complete season with the Irish. 



Defensive Line Coach and Run Game Coordinator Al Washington - Cincy (2017) / Notre Dame (2022-Present)

Washington played college ball at fellow Jesuit Catholic school Boston College from 2002-2005 as a part of their defensive line. He was a three-year starter for the Eagles and, shortly after graduation, got into coaching. Washington made stops at RPI, NC State, Slippery Rock, and Elon before returning to his Alma Mater in 2012 as their Defensive Line Coach. His time with Boston College (2012-2016) was the longest he'd spent coaching in one place. Washington worked on every side of the ball as an Assistant Special Teams Coordinator, Defensive Line Coach, Running Backs Coach, and ultimately, the full-time Special Teams Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach. 


After five seasons with the Eagles, Luke Fickell brought Washington in as the Bearcats new Defensive Line Coach in 2017. That 2017 season was also Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman, Running Backs Coach Gino Guidugli, Director of Recruiting Brian Mason, Recruiting Assitant Chad Bowden, and Offensive Coordinator Mike Denbrock's first season with Cincinnati. After only one season with the Bearcats, Washington moved on to Michigan as their Linebackers Coach. Washington was then hired onto the Buckeye's staff in 2019 as their Linebackers Coach, where he'd stay for three seasons. During his time with Ohio State, Washington was a part of 2 CFP berths and 1 Championship appearance in 2021. Following Mike Elston's exit from Notre Dame, new Irish Head Coach Marcus Freeman called on his former Cincy colleague Al Washington to become the Irish's Defensive Line Coach and Running Game Coordinator.


Following the 2023 season, Boston College had a head coaching vacancy, and Washington was 1 of 3 finalists for the Job. He ultimately lost the position in a close battle with former NFL coach Bill O'Brien and will stay with the Irish for the 2024 season.





Linebackers Coach Max Bullough - Cincy (2019) / Notre Dame (2023-Present)

Bullough played linebacker at Michigan State from 2010-2013 and was named team captain for his final two years. 2013 was one of the most successful Michigan State seasons in recent memory, and Bullough helped lead the Spartans defensively. He notched 76 tackles and 9.5 TFL in his senior campaign, was named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and secured Academic All-America honors. By the end of his college career, Bullough had notched 53 games with the Spartans, 299 tackles, 8 sacks, and 3 interceptions. All this to go along with a win against undefeated Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship and a Rose Bowl win over a favored Stanford squad.


After four years and stints with the Houston Texans and the Cleveland Browns, Bullough turned his attention from playing football to coaching it. Luke Fickell's Bearcats squad brought Bullough on as a Graduate Assistant in 2019, where he'd go on to work closely with then Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman, Cornerbacks Coach Mike Mickens, Offensive Coordinator/Tight Ends Coach Mike Denbrock, Wide Receivers Coach Mike Brown and Quarterbacks Coach/Passing Game Coordinator Gino Guidugli. After only a year, Bullough moved to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the same role, where he'd go on to be a part of the 2020 National Championship coaching staff.


Following the 2022 season, Freeman brought Bullough on as a Graduate Assistant, where he'd work closely with Al Golden and Notre Dame linebackers JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau, and Jack Kiser. Freeman named Bullough the new Linebackers coach for the 2024 season, charging him with developing the next batch of Irish linebackers, Jaylen Sneed, Drayk Bowen, and Jaiden Ausberry, who will all see a more significant role this coming season. Although he was a spartan in his college days, Bullough's grandfather, Jim Morse Sr., played for Notre Dame Head Coach Terry Brennan (1954-56), and his uncle Jim Morse Jr. played cornerback for Dan Devine (1976-1977).





Wide Receivers Coach Mike Brown - Cincy (2019-2022) / Notre Dame (2024-Present)

Like most football coaches, Brown was a player himself from 2008-2011 at Liberty University. His skills at WR earned him a spot on the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2012-2014, followed by a short stint with the Carolina Panthers in 2015. Brown started his coaching career with Michigan as a Graduate Assistant in 2016, and quickly moved on to Delaware in 2017. His first real promotion came when he moved on to his Alma Mater in 2018 as their Running Backs Coach. 


Head Coach Luke Fickell brought Brown on as a Wide Receiver's Coach with the Bearcats in 2019, and this is where he first entered Marcus Freeman's orbit. The two worked on the Cincy staff together for two seasons, alongside Mike Denbrock, Gino Guidugli, Mike Mickens, Al Washington, Chad Bowden, and Max Bullough. In 2021, Brown joined the Bearcats on a trip to South Bend, where they upset the Irish 24-13 and ultimately secured their first-ever trip to the College Football Playoff. Brown added the title of "Passing Game Coordinator" to his resume in 2022, increasing his contact with then Bearcats OC Mike Denbrock.


By the end of his four years with Cincinnati, the Bearcats won 42 games, and Brown sent three wide receivers to the NFL, 2nd round pick Alec Pierce in 2022, 3rd round pick Tre Tucker in 2023, and 4th round pick Tyler Scott in 2023. Brown followed Fickell to Wisconsin for the 2023 season, but after the Irish parted ways with former WRs coach Chansi Stuckey, Brown was top of the list to replace him. Freeman successfully lured Brown to the Irish for the 2024 season and eventually brought Brian Kelly's OC at LSU, Mike Denbrock, back to South Bend. As Freeman's newest hire, we have yet to see an Irish receiving corps benefit from Brown's expertise.



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The Irish currently have eight former Cincinnati personnel on staff as of April 2024, bringing the total shared coaches between the two schools to a whopping 19 since 1973. Except for a few outliers, most of these 19 coaches fall into either the Kelly or Freeman coaching trees. While the two programs have no formal ties to one another, it goes to show just how consequential two coaches making the leap to another school can be. Kelly and Freeman's moves helped create one of the strongest coaching links in all of college football.


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