Wednesday, July 6, 2022

With his Notre Dame honeymoon nearly over, Marcus Freeman looks to keep the hype train rolling

ST. LOUIS — There will never be a better summer for Marcus Freeman. How could there be?

Everywhere Notre Dame’s new coach goes these days there are back slaps, smiles, handshakes and applause. It’s the honeymoon period every first-year coach enjoys.

There’s no record to judge, no strategies to question. It’s just … the man himself, sans headset.

CBS Sports dropped in this summer as the Fighting Irish coach was chewing up a nationwide barnstorming tour. The Notre Dame faithful are gorging themselves on a new vision in the coaching afterlife of Brian Kelly.

On a humid night last month in one of Notre Dame’s strongholds — Catholic-heavy St. Louis — it was the duty of a portly, smiling, gregarious gentleman named Alvin Miller to introduce Freeman to a crowd of about 130 Irish alums in a swanky relic known as the Chase Park Plaza Royal Sonesta Hotel. 

“Within the first 48 hours of getting the job, Marcus called Tim Brown, the ultimate Notre Dame player,” Miller said. “Bam, Tim Brown goes, ‘Alvin, he’s the real deal.’ He said, ‘Miller, we got one.’ Different people for different reasons are telling me he’s the man.”

He’s the man, but is he the coach?

Freeman is a first-time head coach with one game on his record (a loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl). For one magic night in The Lou, he projected as vulnerable, opening himself up to let those fans see … the man. It is part of the dawning on Freeman that he has taken one of the most visible coaching jobs in the world.

“People view you differently,” Freeman confided to CBS Sports in a private moment that night. “Your words have more power. They act differently around you.”

That’s not a complaint, just an observation. Freeman is big on observations. He got to this point being as analytical as he is social. If you haven’t seen the viral video of Freeman meeting the Irish for the first time as their head coach, it’s a must-watch.

In one unvarnished moment, you’re witnessing the end of Kelly’s 12-year reign and the anticipation of a new age beginning under Freeman. Notre Dame players mobbed him. All of this after just one season as the program’s defensive coordinator.

You are probably aware this is not the first time the Irish have cast their fortunes with a first-time coach, but Freeman’s rollout seems different. He is trim, fit and only 36, closer in age to his players than some of his coaching peers.

This hype train is driving itself at the moment. Freeman loves to recruit. He has already mandated the return of a Notre Dame tradition: pregame mass prior to home games. He intentionally concludes runs across campus in front of the campus’ main building, the iconic Golden Dome that is topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary.

“That is such a moment for me. I’m really tired, but it’s a great reminder of the spiritual side of things,” Freeman said. “I make I sure run by and see ‘Our Lady’ at the top of the Golden Dome.”

The son of an Air Force officer was raised in a disciplined home. In addition to being Notre Dame’s second Black coach, Freeman is proud to note he is also the program’s first Asian-American coach. His father Michael Freeman met Marcus’ mother, Chong, while serving in South Korea.

Freeman is one of the net results of a crazy coaching carousel that braided legacies and jobs at Power Five superpowers. Perhaps Kelly is still at Notre Dame if Lincoln Riley hadn’t said no to LSU. But Riley still departed Oklahoma, instead taking the USC job. That left Notre Dame, which still held an outside shot at a College Football Playoff berth, in a lurch the week before Selection Sunday.

Kelly lobbied Freeman to join him as defensive coordinator at LSU. Instead, three days after Kelly left the Irish, Freeman was announced as the new coach. Initially, he mostly kept it to himself. After being offered the job, Freeman couldn’t tell anyone but his wife for the next 48 hours.

“It was tough because I had known on a Wednesday I was going to be the next head coach, but I was under strict orders to not talk to anyone,” Freeman said. “You had players reaching out to you. ‘Coach, is it true? Is true?’ And you couldn’t respond.”

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said there was no mystery to the gag order. After accepting the job, Freeman had to meet with key personnel and be vetted one final time, per school policy, even though he was already an employee.

“Our anti-George O’Leary process,” Swarbrick told CBS Sports with the driest of humor.

It was O’Leary who infamously lasted five days on the job in 2001 before it was discovered he lied on his resume.

It was Freeman who allowed the St. Louis Irish a glimpse of his vision for the hour or so he held court on stage of ballroom with Dolly Duffy, who is in her 11th year as executive director of the Notre Dame Alumni Association.

“Coach, before we start, I want to remind you this is my time,” Duffy chided.

Sorry, Dolly, but no. St. Louis is a town steeped in Notre Dame tradition. There is that big Catholic population. A former Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroad executive named Dan Barnard used to shuttle fans via train from St. Louis to South Bend, Indiana, for home games. That was more than 60 years ago.

Forty years ago, Miller came out of this city as one of its best prep players in history — a can’t-miss wide receiver headed for Notre Dame. A series of knee injuries limited him to 22 career catches.

“Don’t say Alvin Miller didn’t make it. I played in the NFL for a short stint, but that’s not the only way to make it,” Miller said. “I’ve got a lovely wife, nice cars, a two-car garage. Don’t have a picket fence … but anyway: Stop looking at the NFL, just look at life. The best way to attack life is with a Notre Dame degree.”

That is only a prelude as Freeman delivers his message. Notre Dame may not reach the top with the new guy, but it is not going to be embarrassed.

Martin Jarmond will tell you that all day. UCLA‘s AD was sitting in his office this week describing how he became somewhat of a mentor to Freeman. The two were together at Ohio State in 2010 — Jarmond an assistant AD, Freeman a graduate assistant under coach Jim Tressel.

The night Freeman got the Notre Dame job, Jarmond coached him through the process.

Reach out to the four biggest Notre Dame alums you can think of, Jarmond told him, Joe Montana among them. Do it tonight.

Jarmond employed a similar strategy when he became the youngest Power Five coach at Boston College when he was hired in 2017 at age 37.

“I know what it meant when I called Doug Flutie before I had my press conference at BC,” Jarmond said. “He told so many people about that.”

Next, call the five biggest donors. Make them feel special too, Jarmond said. Even if they don’t pick up, they can play the voice message from the Irish’s new coach to their friends.

After all, a coaching honeymoon lasts only so long.

“I still have those moments,” Freeman said. “I think it was [for] a couple of weeks. Every day I’d wake up and pinch myself and say, ‘I’m the head coach at Notre Dame.’ I think it was in January. I get to a hotel late at night. I remember just saying, ‘I’ll turn on the TV for 20 minutes and go to sleep.’

“They’re playing this ESPN 150 [series] about the history of Notre Dame football. I see the great coaches: Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, Brian Kelly. It’s really humbling.”

That 20 minutes lasted two hours. There is still a lot to learn for a guy still in the whirlwind portion of his career. But for now, the best that can be said about him is that he gets it — the academics, the responsibilities of the job, how to read a room.

Freeman is in the process of assembling what 247Sports has ranked, at the moment, as the No. 1 recruiting class for 2023.

As Cincinnati‘s defensive coordinator from 2017-20, Freeman had a significant hand in developing a Group of Five-record nine Bearcats selected in the NFL Draft this April.

With that has come the aforementioned humility. As a defensive assistant at Purdue, Freeman was part of nine wins in four seasons. As a 30-year-old first-time coordinator at Cincy, his unit finished 95th nationally.

Now, he has the best of everything at his fingertips. During the question-and-answer session at the alumni gathering, Freeman knew the question was coming. One alumnus wanted to know about Notre Dame’s training table, the perceived lack of which Kelly criticized in a conversation with CBS Sports.

“We have everything we need to be as successful as we want,” Freeman said sternly. “I will never, ever let anybody make an excuse for our shortcomings except we didn’t prepare well enough.”

He continued: “We haven’t won a championship since ’88, but we’ve been to the playoffs two of the last four years. You sell that. ‘Hey, we’re close.’ But you [also] sell the Notre Dame degree. You sell the network. You really open every door imaginable, if you can get young people to see past the present.”

For all his promise, Freeman is still in a silo with those other gentlemen who became first-time head coaches at one of the biggest pressure cookers in sports. Gerry Faust, Bob Davie and Charlie Weis combined to go 100-78-1 at Notre Dame. Not terrible but certainly not good enough.

“All of them had their failures and all of them had their success,” Freeman said. “All of them love to tell you what they did differently. They all understand the responsibility.”

The new coach is repeating a lot of what previous coaches have said. They all embrace the strict academic standards. They know this is a top-five job. Notre Dame lacks little. But some of the previous coaches have complained about those academic standards either privately, publicly or both. That circumstance is not going away.

“If you’re coming to Notre Dame because you think you’re going to benefit off your name, image and likeness and make a million dollars, you won’t be there for long,” Freeman said. “We have to make sure those young people that commit to this university and this football program value an education.”

There was applause all around as the coach laid out his vision. Freeman’s is not any different than dozens of his peers. However, the value of that Notre Dame education is in direct correlation with how many times those students can cross the goal line. Blending straight-line speed with academics has always been the challenge at places like this.

There is going to be a collaborative academic relationship. Freeman has huddled with Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment, and Chrissy Pratt, director of admissions.

“There are two people that admit every student at Notre Dame,” he said. “They go over every transcript, and they say yes or no. They want to be national champions of higher education. They want to compete against Ivy League schools, Duke, Northwestern.”

Given that, Freeman can’t go out and necessarily raid the transfer portal. The academic standards won’t allow him the opportunity. That puts Notre Dame in a similar situation to the one Stanford faces. Cardinal coach David Shaw told CBS Sports that undergraduate transfers are vetted like everyone else at Stanford, all the way back to their high school transcript.

“Is it fair to spend three years at Kansas, and you come to Notre Dame for a year, and you get a Notre Dame degree?” the coach asked.

That limits the transfer pool. Notre Dame has to be selective. It did land one of the best transfer talents in the country in Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph.

“You have to understand the value of that degree,” Freeman said. “If we’re bringing in people that can’t make it, then you’re doing that young man and our team a disservice. We’ve got to bring in the right kids. There’s no transcript that can just say he’s the right kind of kid. You got to talk to the kid. You’ve got to look at his tardies and his absences.”

You’ve got to look at reality. Kelly got Notre Dame to a sort-of championship purgatory shared by only 15 or so teams in the country: good enough to get to the playoff but not good enough to win it. The Irish have lost their three BCS Championship Game/College Football Playoff games since 2012 by a combined 72 points.

“I’m not saying from top to bottom, but the majority of our kids, they — I want to say this the right way — are pushed to learn and their study habits are formulated every day. You can’t cheat academics at Notre Dame.”

To make his point, Freeman brought up the two most significant football stops in this career before coming to Notre Dame in 2021. At Ohio State, Freeman played defensive back for Tressel, eventually becoming a fifth-round NFL Draft choice of the Chicago Bears. At Cincinnati, he earned a reputation as one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators.

“You don’t go to class [at places like that]?” Freeman said rhetorically. “OK, take some online classes, show up for your appointments. At Notre Dame, you’re forced every day to go to class.”

That raises larger questions about where Notre Dame fits into the future of college football. It is both in a leadership position and on a tenuous track. ACT and SAT requirements are trending toward going away as deregulation descends upon the NCAA. On their own, some states are doing away those tests as an indicator of potential collegiate success.

With that deregulation, conferences on their own could relax academic standards. It remains amazing, then, that Notre Dame has been able to compete at such a high level despite its requirements.

A foundation remains in place. Kelly was criticized for leaving the same week Notre Dame was still in the running for a CFP berth. (The Irish finished No. 5 at 11-1.)

Notre Dame is betting that Freeman is young enough, smart enough and accomplished enough as a new wave of first-year coaches takes over. Of the 29 hires during the last silly season, 15 are in the big chair for the first time.

Will it make a difference at Notre Dame?

“‘I’m going try to make a case to you for Marcus, and you’re going to have to tell me why I’m wrong. You have to pick it apart,'” Swarbrick told his inner circle as Freeman was being evaluated in those hectic 72 hours after Kelly left.

“They couldn’t. They didn’t.”

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