Let’s talk about the promotion of Notre Dame tight ends coach Gerad Parker to offensive coordinator, and let’s talk about it with some nuance, shall we?
The consensus opinion seems to be that this whole situation is an embarrassment from a national perspective and never should have gotten to this point. That’s valid, from the flaunting of Utah OC Andy Ludwig in public at a Notre Dame hockey game to Jack Swarbrick having to issue responses to angry emails.
Also a prevailing sentiment, most Irish fans seem to feel a bit sorry for Parker considering how this played out. No one envies the position in which Parker now finds himself, but there are no excuses. Yes, he was the unheralded fourth or fifth OC option whose limited track record generates zero excitement from the fanbase. But he’s still the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, so he better produce results regardless of the circumstances of his appointment.
So that’s the consensus reaction to the offensive coordinator search. A minority reaction is that shared by avid Marcus Freeman supporters, the ones more concerned with the head coach’s embrace of Notre Dame than his early results. I think that sentiment is best summarized by one Pete Sampson of The Athletic:
“What matters most moving forward is that Freeman makes Notre Dame football more his own by hiring coaches who understand what he wants this program to be. To that end, Parker brings more to the table than the reaction to his promotion might suggest.”
Um… no. Spare me the spin cause I’m getting nauseous.
Before we really delve into this propaganda, I’m going to say the quiet part out loud. Sampson, like most other professional media members, has relationships with figures in the Notre Dame athletic department that need to be maintained if he wants continued access to stories and information. That’s the way it is at every high-level sports organization in every league around the world, which means that reporters aren’t always truly objective in their criticism. And to be fair to Sampson, he has (to a degree) criticized how the OC search process played out for the Irish.
But assuming that what’s in print is his genuinely held viewpoint, it’s genuinely ridiculous (with all due respect).
As beautifully as that glowing “#1” on top of Grace Hall shines, aesthetics are not the be-all and end-all for the Notre Dame football program. The ultimate goal is not to shape the program more in the image of Marcus Freeman; the goal is to win a national championship. Freeman pulling the university into the modern era of college football’s arms race is a means to an end, not an end in-and-of-itself.
If it’s been said once it’s been said a thousand times: Notre Dame isn’t part of any conference, so there’s only one championship that the Irish are playing for. Therefore, what matters most regarding the offensive coordinator decision is Freeman making the correct hire—i.e., the one that puts Notre Dame in the best position to win a national championship. And the “correctness” of this offensive coordinator decision boils down to two factors.
The first (and more important) question is whether the pairing of Parker and new quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli will get the most out of Sam Hartman—because that development has a direct bearing on whether Notre Dame makes and wins games in the College Football Playoff. The second question, of less priority relative to the Hartman dynamic but crucial nevertheless, is whether Parker has the playcalling and recruiting prowess to put together quality offenses for years to come.
Granted, Parker could very well end up acing both questions and proving himself to be the correct hire. He isn’t necessarily the wrong option just because Freeman has a previous and extensive professional relationship with him. But that same relationship doesn’t make Parker’s promotion the de facto correct choice, even considering the no-win situation in which Freeman found himself once Ludwig’s hire fell through.
As Shakespeare wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Freeman is certainly true to himself, so he’s apparently embraced the philosophy that the best way to live your life is to follow your own internal compass. Well, his internal compass also led to losses against Marshall and Stanford, so maybe it isn’t a foolproof philosophy for hiring an offensive coordinator. (And, for what it’s worth, Shakespeare’s words were spoken by a guy named Polonius who ended up getting stabbed to death two acts later).
Obviously, Freeman wasn’t a perfect head coach (if such a thing even exists) during his first season helming Notre Dame. But with a midseason turnaround during a 9-4 campaign as the only evidence of Freeman’s growth, can we really say that he has evolved enough as a head coach to blindly accept an in-house promotion at such an important position with a candidate whose previous work is less-than-reassuring?
Contrary to what has been suggested, offensive success next season is not guaranteed just because Notre Dame has Sam Hartman, Joe Alt and Blake Fisher. Never underestimate the power of coaching incompetence to ruin accumulated talent (see, e.g., an Irish defense featuring Jaylon Smith which happened to be coached by Brian VanGorder). I’m not saying Gerad Parker will be an incompetent offensive coordinator, but his track record is neither robust nor impressive enough to definitively say that he won’t be.
What makes the situation so precarious is the fact that Parker will be running the as-of-yet-unseen “Marcus Freeman offense,” whereas Freeman inherited the “Tommy Rees offense.” To be fair, last season was the first time the Rees offense lacked input from Brian Kelly, but at least a foundation had already been laid. The Freeman offense will undergo a trial by fire in 2023.
Freeman may have an idea of what he wants his offense to look like, but has he seen enough in one season to know what he needs his offense to like? If so, then I’ll gladly eat crow. But until we find out if the Parker hire was correct, one thing is for sure: the sign on top of Grace Hall won’t be shining for the football program.