The Journal Gazette
Friday, December 03, 2021 10:30 am

Irish make it official: Freeman to lead program

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

The deal is done. Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is the new head coach of the Irish. He will lead Notre Dame in their bowl game -- or the College Football Playoff -- this season and then into 2022.

The decision was announced barely three days after former coach Brian Kelly addressed the team in South Bend and announced he was departing to take the head coaching job at LSU.

“It is an honor to be named the head coach of Notre Dame Football,” Freeman said in a statement. “I am eternally grateful to both (Notre Dame president) Father John Jenkins and (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick for giving me the opportunity to lead the exceptional men who make this program what it is.

"Notre Dame is a very special place and I look forward to pursuing a national championship with the most outstanding student-athletes, coaches and staff in college football.”

The last line is notable for its contrast with Kelly's opening address to LSU players.

"I'm here because I wanted to coach the very best players in the country, that are afforded the best resources in the country, and play in the best conference in the country," the new Tigers coach said.

Freeman, 35, will be a head coach for the first time. The former Ohio State linebacker came to Notre Dame as the defensive coordinator in January after spending four years in the same job at Cincinnati.

In his one season as coordinator, he constructed a defense that ranks sixth nationally in interceptions (15) and defensive touchdowns (4), seventh in sacks (40), 11th in turnovers gained (23) and scoring defense (18.2) and 18th in opponent third-down conversion percentage (32.9%). The sacks mark is one short of the program record of 41 set in 1996.

Notre Dame players had known for several days Freeman was expected to be the next coach. He was formally introduced to them in that role this morning.

The Irish released a video of the introduction that began with strength coach Matt Balis addressing the full team in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

"(The coaching staff) is extremely proud of you guys," Balis says in the video. "Your focus, your ability to lock in all week long this week. It was awesome to see, it was awesome to be a part of. It shows your DNA, your mental toughness, your physical toughness, the way you compete, the way you care about each other....

"What I'm going to do now (is introduce) your brand new head football coach."

As Balis says the last line, Freeman walks into the room to loud cheers and applause from the players, who then swarm over him in celebration.

"Marcus' ability to connect with people, his fit at Notre Dame and the way he coaches young men set him apart as we went through our search process,” Swarbrick said in a statement. “I can't wait to see how the culture created by these remarkable student-athletes continues to grow under the tutelage of Marcus and his staff."

Notre Dame alumni, players, staff and recruits pushed for Freeman publicly in the days leading up to his hire. All-American safety Kyle Hamilton mentioned the coach's emotional intelligence, honesty and even-keel nature as factors in his leadership ability, while wide receiver Conor Ratigan extolled his combination of football know-how and approachability.

“I think he's going to have a really big impact on the program,” Hamilton said when it became clear Freeman would get the job. “I think people are going to love him. He's a real players' coach.”

On his podcast, "Inside the Garage," which he hosts with three Irish teammates, Hamilton discussed a moment in fall practice in which Kelly was angry at the offense for not executing.

Freeman told the defense, "'I'm glad he's mad, that means we're doing good,'” Hamilton said. “I was like, 'Dang. We've never experienced that here.' It was really early on in his career here, but I think at that point he got me. I was like, 'Bet. I want to play for this dude, he's a gamer.'"

Freeman will inherit much of the staff that was in place under Kelly, who was unable to bring most of his assistants to LSU with him. The former Irish coach reportedly offered to make Freeman the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country with the Tigers and offered offensive coordinator Tommy Rees a $400,000 raise to join him in Louisiana. Both are staying in South Bend, as are Balis, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston and, reportedly, running backs coach Lance Taylor, tight ends coach John McNulty, safeties coach Chris O'Leary and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens.

On "Inside the Garage," safety KJ Wallace marveled at how close the Irish staff and roster came to splintering.

“It was so close to falling apart,” Wallace said. “That's the crazy part. That's what I was thinking a lot about. It was one decision (Freeman leaving) away from everyone not being here. That sinking in was kind of crazy to me.”

The Irish are 11-1 and were No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday. They will learn their playoff fate Sunday morning. CFP committee chairman Gary Barta said Tuesday the committee can take into account the absence of coaches or players and how that might affect a team in the playoff when it makes its final rankings.

David Lacey, the father of Notre Dame defensive lineman Jacob Lacey, tweeted a photo of Freeman's celebratory introduction to the players this morning.

"To hear Jacob's voice on Monday (when reports of Kelly's departure surfaced) to see the Joy on his face in this picture and all the young men in this picture, is #Priceless. Monday crushed me as a Dad and Friday I'm PUMPED"

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