After 12 regular-season games, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are 11-1 and on the cusp of making their third trip in four years to the college football playoff — should a few things go their way this weekend. When the playoff rankings were released this week, the Irish were jumped by the Oklahoma State Cowboys less than 24 hours after we found out Brian Kelly was leaving for the LSU Tigers, and it really felt like people were trying to close the book on the 2021 Notre Dame football season.
That all took a drastic change on Wednesday.
Momentum from all over the Notre Dame universe for Marcus Freeman to be named the next head coach of the Irish came quickly and with a volume unseen in my lifetime. While Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is certainly not someone that bends to the will of the masses — it honestly felt that any other move made was going to cause a mutiny by fans, players, and alumni.
It was destiny manifest, and it didn’t stop with Marcus Freeman. Tommy Rees staying on at Notre Dame as the offensive coordinator was what was next on the wish list by the Irish players. Tommy, as well as Marcus, had an offer from Brian Kelly to join him in Baton Rogue. On the surface, it would have been easy for Rees to leave. The elevation of Freeman meant a passing over of Tommy, and a lot of people could see that as a reason to head elsewhere — but Tommy didn’t leave. He announced that he was returning to Notre Dame and then gave a short, heartfelt speech to the team to let them know what he was doing.
The momentum continues.
In short order, more and more Notre Dame assistants took to social media to announce their decision to continue to coach at Notre Dame under Marcus Freeman. After Marcus and Tommy, the most important coach on the board was arguably Mike Elston. The defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator has been in South Bend since day one of the Brian Kelly era, and had been with Kelly since 2004 at Central Michigan. As far as the culture of the program is concerned and the entire “family feel” that surrounds it, Mike Elston and his wife Beth have been extremely important to the nurturing and implementation of that culture.
So four (Matt Balis included) of the most important coaches announced they are staying at Notre Dame, and it didn’t stop there. As of right now, the only coaches that have not openly declared that they are returning next year are Jeff Quinn, Brian Polian, and Del Alexander. It’s important to note, however, that none of those three are expected to leave Notre Dame before the end of the season either.
Not one Notre Dame assistant has been reported to be following Brian Kelly to LSU. While Jeff Quinn could eventually leave for LSU, it won’t be before the final whistle of the 2021 season.
How insane is that? Compare that to the Lincoln Riley situation with Oklahoma and USC, and we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome over the past few days. There was actually a possible issue of the playoff committee keeping Notre Dame out of the playoff — even if the games this weekend break the Irish way. The concern was that the protocol for selection would allow the committee to count Kelly’s departure against Notre Dame. That concern was actually protested by many writers out there that, for lack of a better term, are known “Notre Dame haters.”
The committee somehow turned Irish detractors into Irish proponents. The hiring of Marcus Freeman as the head coach not only makes the committee's point moot, it also was good enough to keep those same former detractors looking forward to some chaos to allow Notre Dame in the final four (for now).
This upcoming conference championship weekend is the most important conference championship weekend in Notre Dame football history — and that includes last year when the Irish PLAYED in the ACC Championship. What transpires this weekend could catapult the Irish into one of the truly fell good stories of the season. Just one month ago, this scenario would have been the grandest fan-fiction of all time — and it has a great chance of actually being a reality.
No matter where the Irish land in the postseason, this will likely be the most focused and motivated Notre Dame team in recent memory. The desire to play for the brotherhood of Notre Dame football, and for these loyal and beloved coaches, is something that makes the Irish better than what they were just a week ago with Brian Kelly at the helm.
It’s an exciting time, and a time that I didn’t think was possible. We are almost at the end of a season, and yet we are joyously celebrating the beginning of a new era at Notre Dame. For a university where the “greatest story ever told” usually means something different than a football season, it’s certainly on the table for the guys wearing the golden helmets.