The beginning of the Marcus Freeman era has been covered ad nauseam but for good reason. Never before in Notre Dame’s history had a sitting head coach pursued a different head coaching position while under contract with the university. On top of that, never before had there been a defensive coordinator on staff ready to assume the head coaching position with such a cult-like following. There is simply no way to replace the coaching acumen that Brian Kelly has from years of being a head coach. Yet, mere months into his tenure, Freeman continues to show through his words and actions that he simply “gets” Notre Dame in a way that Kelly never wanted to or did.
Dating back to the earliest days of the program, Notre Dame, whether out of choice or necessity, has had to do things differently than most prominent college football brands. Many of the traditional powers are located in recruiting hotbeds, don’t have academic hurdles to jump through, possess a portion of boosters willing to win at nearly any cost, and are not universities that tout any religious affiliation. The previous regime loved to roll out excuses about recruiting, weather, academics, or the administration at the school as to why winning a national championship was an extremely hard task.
While there is merit to acknowledging the hurdles that do exist at a place like Notre Dame, these reasons/excuses should never be spouted off to the public as to why the football program isn’t winning national championships. The reality of the situation is that the landscape of college football has changed dramatically since the heyday of Irish football. However, Marcus Freeman entered the Notre Dame landscape looking for creative ways to overcome some of these hurdles in order to capture a national championship.
Over his career as an assistant, Freeman has built a national reputation as an excellent recruiter. Instead of adopting the party line of “shopping down a different aisle” when he arrived in South Bend, Freeman made it a point that he would be trying to bring the best possible players into the Irish program. He felt his job as a recruiter was to convince kids who don’t see themselves as Notre Dame kids to view the school through a different lens in an effort to convince them to come.
Although there will always be a small portion of elite recruits that simply will not be academically eligible at Notre Dame, Freeman’s main point was that there is still a good chunk of elite-level kids that fit the bill of a Notre Dame Football player. Freeman backed up the talk by convincing the likes of Jaylen Sneed, Jaden Mickey, Josh Burnham, and Tyson Ford to join the Irish in the 2022 class. He also helped secure verbal commitments from Keon Keely and Brenan Vernon for the 2023 class while he was still the defensive coordinator.
A consistent message from Freeman since he joined Notre Dame has been about the importance of recruiting, a trait he now expects all of his assistants to value as well. When the head coach is preaching the importance of the message, it is reasonable to think that the assistant coaches in the building will value what the head coach values. This is going to raise the level of expectation within the program of what is possible on the recruiting trail.
Freeman has also mentioned on several occasions how he expects to be the lead recruiter for any prospect looking to come to Notre Dame. This is a far cry from his predecessor, who rarely got involved with prospects until the final stages of the process. This tactic cost Notre Dame multiple highly ranked prospects who felt they had a better relationship with other programs due to their communication with the head coach throughout their recruiting process.
Per 247Sports, Notre Dame currently holds the #1 class for the 2023 cycle. There is a long way to go before recruits can begin signing their national letters of intent, but the early returns display that Freeman’s actions are backing up his words.
Besides recruiting, Freeman seems to be trying to build relationships with other departments across campus. Freeman has been seen at a variety of sporting events during his brief tenure. Most of these events have coincided with hosting recruits, yet how many times did you see Brian Kelly at other events? The position of head football coach at Notre Dame carries a ton of visibility and holds a lot of weight. Freeman’s presence around campus helps to build a greater sense of community and foster relationships with different portions of the university.
One way this seemingly paid off was during the process of bringing Brandon Joseph into the program. As it currently stands, Notre Dame can’t go out and bring in just anybody from the transfer portal due to the strict academic requirements regarding the number of credits that must be achieved at Notre Dame in order for someone to graduate with a degree. The administration has notoriously had the reputation for not being the easiest to work with when it came to making acceptance decisions regarding student-athletes, specifically football players. In Joseph’s case, they moved with lightning speed to make a decision to admit him to school so that the football program could proceed as they desired when he came on his campus visit.
This is not to say this wouldn’t have happened had Kelly been the coach. However, the program may not have even tried to land Joseph due to the belief that the administration wouldn’t allow it to happen. Joseph coming to Notre Dame displayed the forward-thinking desire to challenge the status quo, and the people skills that Freeman possesses. People are willing to put in the extra work or attempt to navigate unique situations if they are invested in the situation. A great way to create personal investment is to develop relationships across campus by meeting with different departments to make people want to buy into helping the football program succeed.
Freeman’s desire to push Notre Dame to catch up with other elite programs around the country should be lauded. However, Freeman also showed yesterday with the announcement that game day mass at the Basilica would return for the program during the 2022 season that he is going to embrace the things that make Notre Dame unique. The tradition had been eliminated under Kelly several seasons prior.
This decision isn’t going to make or break anything that happens on the field but continues to display Freeman’s feel for the university and acknowledgment of what makes Notre Dame Notre Dame. Other programs around the country probably offer some sort of mass or faith-based activity on game days. Yet as a very proud Catholic university, Freeman’s decision to reintroduce the tradition allows the football program to lean into one aspect of what may make it stand out amongst other blue blood programs. Small decisions like this that embrace the traditions of the university certainly play well with a good portion of the fan base, alums, and administration and increase the support for him.
Marcus Freeman continues to build up goodwill amongst almost everybody in the Notre Dame fan base with each decision he makes. However, come fall, he knows as well as anybody that failure on the field will not be tolerated for an extended period of time. Freeman could fall flat on his face and have fans clamoring for the return of Brian Kelly. On the other hand, if Freeman wins, his off-the-field decisions and demeanor are going to elevate him to Holtzian status. Let’s see how it plays out.