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New Notre Dame Football Head Coaches & Season Openers

A look back at Season Openers for some of Marcus Freeman’s new head coach predecessors.

Bob Davie Portrait

One of the most anxious parts about starting a new school year is figuring out what to expect from new teachers/professors. There were many awkward first days spent in auditoriums and dorm common rooms homeroom assignments and course schedules and homeroom assignments with the hopes of putting together the perfect semester.

After four years of playing the Hunger Games of course selection at ND, I can definitively say none of those plans ever worked out as intended. But every semester I’d show up, armed with hours of research and consultation only to have it instantly derailed by a missed alarm or slowly decimated by the reality of a semester’s worth of 8am required attendance lectures.

Gearing up for the start of another ND football season is similar in some ways. Typically, only the most involved of fans end up doing deep dives into coaching staffs and assignments, with most of that energy being concentrated with team’s players. The one big exception to this is the head coach position.

The NCAAF head coaching carousel is probably one of the most wonky and volatile aspects of the sport’s media and fan coverage. Factor in the truly special level of involvement that ND football’s student, fan and alumni bases bring to even the smallest details of the program along with the extent to which media folks (both for and against) cover Irish football, and you often end up with an outsized amount of preseason ideas thoughts and rumblings about the ND head football coach job and whoever is occupying it.

This season we find ourselves in a particularly unique and rare position in this regard. Compared to some other programs, a change at the head coaching position isn’t that frequent of an occurrence for Notre Dame football. Between 1964 and 2021, the Irish have only started eight seasons with a new head coach leading the team out of the tunnel.

For the 2022 season, we get to add a ninth individual to that list, Marcus Freeman. Excepting his leadership of the team during last season’s Fiesta Bowl, Coach Freeman will be the first new head coach of the ND football program since 2010. So here’s a little bit of a dive back through the data for the eight new head coaches that preceded Coach Freeman. The data and vizs focus mostly on the teams’ performances during season openers but also takes a wildly premature look at overall season outcomes. The list of coaches starts with Ara Parseghian who kicked off his inaugural season in 1964 and wraps up with Brian Kelly who got his Irish start in 2010.

Outcomes and Performance

Of the eight season openers for new head coaches, 88% (7), turned out in an Irish victory. ND outscored opponents by an average of 14 points in these contests. The only loss ended up being attributed to Lou Holtz, with an extremely close final outcome (final score of 23-24 and razor thin point difference of -1).

Summary of Season Openers outcomes for new ND football head coaches.

Game Locations

Fifty-percent of new ND football head coaches kicked off their tenure at home in Notre Dame Stadium. Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine started off the period playing their inaugural season openers away in Madison, WI and Foxborough, MA respectively. The longest stretch of home game season openers for new head coaches ran through Gerry Faust (1981), Lou Holtz (1986), and Bob Davie (1997), coming to an end with head coach Tyrone Willingham in 2002. During that season, new head coach Willingham kicked off the season at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. Charlie Weiss would also kickoff his inaugural season away from South Bend, taking the team to play at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. Brian Kelly would be the first new head coach since 1997 to start his opening season at home.

Summary of Season Openers by game location for new ND football head coaches.

Coach Freeman will find himself in the amongst the minority of this group, jumpstarting his first full season at in unfamiliar territory. He’ll be leading the team into what’s expected to be an “energetic” crowd at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, OH. It’ll be the first time the Irish have played the Buckeyes in football on their home turf since 1995. Given the many different variables involved, most disciplined data folks would say it’s all up in the air from this vantage point. But here on OFD, my Irish fandom outweighs all of that and I’m gonna jump out on a limb and say this set of indicators calls for a resounding Irish victory.

Specific Opponents

When it comes to the specific opponents new head coaches have faced during their season openers, there aren’t a lot of trends. Between 1964 and 2010 there were no repeat opponents but the conference membership turns out to be the most common thread. Fifty-percent (4) of the opponents either did or currently claim membership in the Big Ten. Ara Parseghian began his inaugural campaign against Wisconsin and was followed up with Lou Holtz playing Michigan, Tyrone Willingham playing Maryland (a more recent Big Ten addition) and Brian Kelly playing Purdue. The ACC (Boston College, Georgia Tech, Pitt) makes up the bulk of the remaining opponents, with Gerry Faust’s SEC matchup against LSU in 1981 being the outlier.

Summary of Season Openers by opponents and their current conferences for new ND football head coaches.

Marcus Freeman has some company with regards to being a new Irish head coach going into the season playing a Big Ten opponent, this time Ohio State. And the current circumstances surrounding the matchup being whatever they may be, I’d say a 75% win rate for new head coaches in the past against Big Ten opponents coaches is promising.

Maiden Season Outcomes

Any preseason analysis these days is nothing without making some observations or setting expectations for what we can expect to see when the dust is all settled at the end of regular season (and hopefully post season). A look back at the full season outcomes for new ND football head coaches produces a really mixed bag. Ara Parseghian lays claim to the most inaugural season success, winning 90% of the Irish’s games.

The bulk of coaches ended up settling into 2 general groups, though. The first group includes Dan Devine, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weiss, all three of which who rounded out their opening seasons with 73-77% of games won. The second group consists of three consecutive coaches, Gerry Faust, Lou Holtz and Bob Davie, who finished up with total win percentages between 46% and 54%. Brian Kelly sits somewhat in the middle of these two groups, winning 62% of games played during his first season as the program’s head coach.

Summary of Inaugural Season win %s for new ND football head coaches.

Projections for where Marcus Freeman and the 2022 Irish team will end up when its time to call this season done are all over the place and I’m going to hold off (not for long) on my journey down that glorious rabbit hole. But for now, I hope that some of this gives us some talking points and courage to go into our respective subways, bars, lunch rooms and comment sections in pursuit of creating chaos on behalf of ND football. It’s not always the most glamorous work but somebody’s gotta do it.