Hansen: Breaking down the compelling people and next steps in ND's life after Kelly
SOUTH BEND — The most compelling figure in football life after Brian Kelly at Notre Dame is Marcus Freeman.
And not just because SportsBetting.ag established the first-year Irish defensive coordinator Tuesday as the betting favorite to eventually end up as Kelly’s successor.
It’s the swelling support of the Notre Dame players for him to do so. It’s the risk he represents, if athletic director Jack Swarbrick rode that wave — not of Freeman’s own doing, but because of the insidious track record of Irish head coaches with no prior college head coaching experience.
It’s his unabashed swagger on the recruiting trail and the results to match. It’s hope. It’s continuity.
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It’s the closest thing Notre Dame has to a face of the program to sell the recruits that Swarbrick has insisted the entire staff of Kelly assistants keep visiting while he cranks up the coaching search.
And as Kelly — LSU’s new 60-year-old head coach with a 10-year, $95 million contract — tries to train his taste buds to stomach his first bucket of crawfish.
Betting odds aside, Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell — Freeman’s longtime mentor — appears to top the pool of candidates Swarbrick professed Tuesday at a morning press conference to be just forming now, not stuffed in a drawer long ago and edited when needed.
“Sometimes I think I'm the only AD in the country, but I don't keep a list of people because my experience has been (that) every search has its own dynamic and its own characteristics,” Swarbrick said at a Tuesday press conference at Notre Dame Stadium.
“So last time we did a football search (in December of 2009), we built a list of characteristics. I think it was 11 or 12, that we built first, and then we screened candidates against that list, and high on that list was rebuilding a program.
“Now, rebuilding a program doesn't even show up on the list this year, and so a different focus takes you in different directions. That's where I'm pleased to say we are today.”
Chasing Fickell, though, isn’t without complications. The 48-year-old Ohio State alum, per a source close to the UC coach, wouldn’t entertain a phone call before the unbeaten Bearcats (12-0) take care of business Saturday in the AAC Championship Game against Houston (11-1).
Even then, he may insist on coaching Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff — if the Bearcats are selected — on Dec. 31.
Could Swarbrick and Co. wait that long? Should they wait that long?
In December of 2009, Swarbrick couldn’t. The recruiting cycles were different — with signing day in February.
So turning the Charlie Weis firing into a Kelly hiring in a week and a half 12 years ago fit both the profile and timeline. Swarbrick said Tuesday that there is no timeline this time. The reality is there likely is one, though with more flexibility built in, but Swarbrick wasn’t about to talk his way into a corner on Tuesday.
About that or anything else.
It’s curious he hasn’t named an interim head coach, though he left himself the option to do so at a later date if so warranted.
Getting the right permanent head coach supersedes everything else. But not giving the next steps the attention they deserve now can create headaches for that coach down the road, not to mention logistical challenges with an 11-1 team headed for a Peach or Fiesta bowl date at the very least.
Here then is the checklist that requires immediate attention.
From the time California wide receiver C.J. Williams committed to Notre Dame on Aug. 8 until early November, Notre Dame sat atop Rivals.com’s team recruiting rankings. The Irish are still among the elite, at No. 4, today. And their 2023 class ranks No. 2 early in that cycle.
LSU, incidentally, is 20th and 15th, respectively.
But what happens if/when Kelly tries to flip Notre Dame’s recruits into his class? And what happens if he starts offering positions to current assistants, who don’t know whether the new regime at ND will have an interest in them?
The early signing window is Dec. 15-17.
There has to be a plan to address that. Case in point, in the Tyrone Willingham-to-Weis transition in 2004/2005, recruiting very much became a back burner issue. And while Weis and the Irish shocked the world in a good way in the fall of 2005 with a BCS appearance, they shocked the world in a bad way in 2007.
A contributing factor to the 3-9 record that year in Weis’ year three was that small and star-crossed class in 2005 was now in its junior year and not ready or able to ascend when the roster turned over after the 2006 season.
If the 2022 Irish class does hemorrhage significantly, Notre Dame may have to scan the portal hard this winter. Florida four-star defensive back Devin Moore was the first to decommit, on Tuesday afternoon.
Again, the potential tug-of-war involving Kelly wanting to take assistants with him to Baton Rouge or assistants looking at other outside opportunities mitigates Notre Dame’s chances of maximizing its potential in a postseason game — playoff or otherwise.
And these players deserve better.
So what’s the plan to keep that from happening?
Hearing the players’ voices
Swarbrick said Tuesday that he’d ask the current Irish players’ input about the qualities they’d want in a new head coach, but that he didn’t plan to involve them in the actual selection.
That may be a detail he’ll want to rethink.
The more they’re involved, the better chance Notre Dame doesn’t take a half step back because of attrition, even if Swarbrick ultimately chooses someone different. At least they would have been heard. And that matters.
So does at least giving Freeman a chance to interview for the job. When Swarbrick rattled off the qualities he was looking for — a Notre Dame fit, understanding how to build and manage staff, a X’s and O’s philosophy that works, and the ability to recruit and develop players — the only gray area with Freeman is building and managing staff.
“We have never been in a better position to take the next step in building this program into a consistent contender for national championships," Swarbrick said, "and I am excited with the opportunity to attract the next leader to do that.”
Freeman, 35 and father of six, may not ultimately be the answer. But definitely needs to part of the question Swarbrick asks himself in the days ahead.
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI