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Notre Dame Football: Marcus Freeman is a bigger work in progress than most thought

And that’s not a bad thing — it’s just frustrating right now

Stanford v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

If you didn’t get the memo, Notre Dame is having some trouble this season. There’s no need to rake it all over the coals because you don’t need the memo — you’ve watched it. Irish fans became comfortably uncomfortable with double-digit win seasons over the past five seasons and six out of the last seven. Always winning games Notre Dame should win, became a Brian Kelly trademark, but so too did losing most big games.

Brian Kelly, for all of his faults that you want to point out (and me), changed the culture of the Notre Dame football program during his tenure in South Bend. The Davie/Willingham/Weis era was a thing of the past, and Notre Dame was more or less a top-10 program (which was a huge upgrade).

The problem is... Brian Kelly’s culture change wasn’t something that lasted past him. Freeman wasn’t born on third thinking he hit a triple like John Harbaugh so famously (and accurately) said about Ryan Day at Ohio State when he took over after Urban Meyer left town. I think many of us thought it could be a situation like that, but now we have learned otherwise.

A post-loss press conference from Marcus Freeman is a bit cringy. He’s abnormally honest and appears to talk out his issues on stage. That’s great for a human being, but as a head coach of a blue-blood program, it can be a little jarring. It does, however, give us really good insight into what he’s thinking and why he does the things he does.

When Mike Berradino asked Freeman about any contact he has had with Jim Tressel, I have to admit that I was worried my eyes were going to roll out onto the floor. That feeling didn’t last very long, as Freeman’s answer was extensive and had much more meat on the bone than seasoned head coaches usually offer.

“We talk often, weekly. I won’t get too in-depth on our conversations, some are football, some are his opinion. He’s like, ‘I’m gonna give you my opinion,’ and I respect his opinion. But more so about, ‘Hey, you’ll be fine, man.’ He struggled his first year. I think back to our first year at Cincinnati, it was a struggle. I keep telling myself, to build something the right way and I can’t build on what’s been done in the past. What coach Kelly did here was tremendous. The wins and and the success he had here, but I can’t come in here and say, Okay, I have to be Brian Kelly. I got to be Marcus Freeman. It’s different, so I got to build this thing with the current players that we have, the great players that we recruited in the past, but you’re still building your foundation from the ground up. You have to go through some of these growing pains. It’s something new. We have to make it ours. We got to make it mine. Anything worthwhile, I believe it’s gonna take some growing pains to get us where you want it.”

It’s a sentiment that he shared earlier in the press conference.

“You’re going to have to be able to really stand your ground during these tough times. There’s been change. Our program is different this year than it was in the past. To really establish something that’s special, you’re going to have to go through some challenges and difficult times. I’ve been through them. I’ve been at new places. I’ve been in new situations where you have to hit these tough times. Again, nobody wants to go through them, but I know we’re going to be better because of it. As I told the team, you have to understand you can’t always win it easy. Nobody wants to lose a game, but this is going to build this program and our foundation to where it needs to be. They’re encouraged. We’re going to be OK. We watched the film and evaluate and say we did not play to our standard. We know that. We have a good football team. I was a completely different person after Marshall. We lost to Ohio State. We lost to Marshall. After that, I was struggling. Listen, the past three games, the second half of Cal, North Carolina, BYU - we have a good football team that we have to get to perform consistently. We have to do it consistently. The culture of this program is we’re going to have to embrace these tough times and these growing pains of getting this program to where we want it to be. How do you get it there? We have to do a better job of executing. We have to do a better job of preparation and on Saturday, we have to make sure we execute the things we really worked at.”

The only real difference between the Tressel answer and the one about the culture of the program is when Freeman invoked the name of Brian Kelly. It’s a bold move, but one that was also kind of needed to help reset what fans, alumni, and media members maybe thought we were getting this season.

We don’t have to look far for what something like that may look like (best-case scenario) and it ain’t Lou Holtz. In 2008, Dabo Swinney took over the Clemson Tigers on October 13th after Tommy Bowden walked away. Those first two full seasons at Clemson saw Dabo and his Tigers go 15-12 with a one Music City Bowl win and having a 24th ranking as their best finish. It took another two years to have a top 10 finish, and then two years after that — Clemson beats Notre Dame in a monsoon, and the Tigers go on to win its first national championship of two over the past six seasons.

It’s kind of a fairytale, and one many programs around the country look to as a way to move forward — but it’s also something that works, so of course, we do. The Clemson program IS the Dabo program. Maybe that kind of dynamic will be hard to swallow at Notre Dame, but the winning wouldn’t be.

The point is... Marcus Freeman is a much bigger project than we thought. I was sold a bill of goods that said Notre Dame could win right away, and I turned around a sold it right back to anyone else that would listen. It’s frustrating, for sure, but now that I have a much better understanding of what Freeman is trying to change within the program, I can at least appreciate the attempt — I’m just waiting on Marcus Freeman’s execution. Notre Dame won’t be as patient as Clemson was ten years ago.

Freeman’s full press conference is below with news and notes about:

  • Injuries.
  • Freeman’s understanding of the offense.
  • Recruiting.
  • Insight into the struggles.
  • And more.