Five names Notre Dame football should consider for its head coach opening

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman looks at Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly as he talks to an official during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick didn't have a list of candidates prepared when head coach Brian Kelly left his football program Monday for the same position at LSU.

When Swarbrick addressed reporters Tuesday morning after Kelly was officially named LSU's head coach with a 10-year deal worth $95 million before incentives, Swarbrick said he had yet to contact any potential candidates either. Plenty of folks has already reached out to Swarbrick though.

"I'm going to spend the day starting to reply to that outreach," Swarbrick said.

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While working to identify candidates, Swarbrick will be working on a list of characteristics he's looking for in Notre Dame's next head coach too.

"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 every search has its own dynamic and its own characteristics," Swarbrick said. "Last time we did a football search, we built a list of characteristics, I can't remember now, 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."

As Swarbrick narrows his focus in the coming days and weeks, the five coaches would be a good place to start for potential candidates.

Luke Fickell 

The Cincinnati head coach shouldn’t have to do much to win over Notre Dame’s administration or fans. Fickell showed his coaching process on Oct. 2 when he brought the Bearcats into Notre Dame Stadium and beat the Irish, 24-13.  

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell looks on in the second half of the NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats defeated Southern Methodist Mustangs 48-14.

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In his fifth season leading Cincinnati, Fickell has the AP No. 3 Bearcats (12-0) a win in Saturday’s AAC Championship against Houston away from a likely spot in this year’s College Football Playoff. Fickell has compiled a 47-14 record at Cincinnati. 

Hiring Fickell could allow Notre Dame to keep some of its coaching staff in tact as current Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens both worked for Fickell at Cincinnati before coming to Notre Dame in 2021 and 2020, respectively. 

Fickell, a native of Columbus, Ohio and former defensive lineman at Ohio State, belongs to the coaching trees of Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. Fickell even bridged the gap between their two tenures as Ohio State’s head coach as the interim coach in 2011. 

Fickell was promoted from co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach to interim coach for the entire 2011 season after Tressel resigned in May 2011 during an NCAA investigation into the Ohio State program for players receiving improper benefits. The Buckeyes struggled through a 6-7 season, which included Michigan’s last victory over Ohio State until this past weekend. 

Fickell stayed on Ohio State’s staff when Meyer was named head coach. He remained the team’s defensive coordinator until leaving for Cincinnati. 

Meyer, the current head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, doesn’t seem likely to be a candidate for Notre Dame even though he would have been as recently as 2017. But Meyer’s time at Ohio State ended on a sour note with him retiring following the 2018 season after serving a three-game suspension from the school to the start the season for mishandling domestic assault allegations made against former assistant coach Zach Smith. 

Meyer has continued to draw negative coverage during his tenure with the Jaguars. Meyer hired strength coach Chris Doyle, who previously left Iowa following allegations of mistreating Black players. Doyle later resigned from his position with the Jaguars. Meyer, a married man, was also caught on video during the season with a young woman dancing near his lap at a bar. Meyer later apologized for being a distraction to his team. 

Marcus Freeman 

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is likely to be a head coach for the first time in his career sooner rather than later. Maybe the Irish should give Freeman his first shot at leading a program. 

Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

That might be too much to ask under most circumstances. Head coaching experience should be at the top of any resume for a potential Notre Dame head coach. But Kelly is leaving the Notre Dame football program in a great position for the next coach who takes the reins. 

The same charisma that allows Freeman to be an elite recruiter of high school football players should play well as a head coach. It’s hard to leave a conversation with Freeman unimpressed by him. 

His resume as a defensive coordinator speaks for itself. After a rough start to the season, Freeman has the Irish ranked No. 11 in the FBS in scoring defense for allowing 18.2 points per game. Cincinnati finished among the top 25 in scoring defense in each of Freeman’s last three seasons as its defensive coordinator. 

Freeman opted to come to Notre Dame last offseason over an offer to be LSU’s defensive coordinator. He chose to stay in the Midwest where his entire coaching career has taken place. Freeman, a former linebacker at Ohio State, was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes in 2010 before taking jobs at Kent State and Purdue and then becoming Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. 

Retaining Freeman should be on the wish list of any incoming head coach. He will be the key to Notre Dame hanging on to many of its top defensive recruits in a 2022 class that’s ranked No. 4 in the country by both Rivals and 247Sports. Eleven of the 23 verbal commitments in the class are from defensive players. 

The last Notre Dame defensive coordinator to be promoted to head coach was Bob Davie before the 1997 season.

If Swarbrick is going to take a chance on a first-time head coach, Freeman makes the most sense. 

Matt Campbell 

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has been the media darling of the coaching carousel in recent years. Turning a downtrodden Iowa State program into a conference contender in the Big 12 should earn Campbell the opportunity to find a bigger job. 

Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell looks on as his defense holds TCU on a drive in the fourth quarter on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames.

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Should that job be as big as Notre Dame? Swarbrick would have to ignore a disappointing 2021 season for Iowa State. The Cyclones (7-5) finished the regular season in fourth place in the Big 12 after being voted to finish second in the preseason.  

Notre Dame showed the difference between itself and Iowa State in a 33-9 victory over Iowa State in the 2019 Camping World Bowl. The Cyclones bounced back by earning a trip to the Big 12 Championship in 2020 before losing in it to Oklahoma. 

Before taking over Iowa State for the 2016 season, Campbell turned Toledo into a pesky opponent for Power Five teams including a 2015 win at Arkansas. The Rockets never managed to win a MAC Championship under Campbell.  

Campbell has proven he can be a winning head coach with a 35-15 record at Toledo and a 42-33 record at Iowa State, but he’d need to prove to Swarbrick that he has won it takes to be a true championship contender at Notre Dame.  

The fact that Campbell came through the coaching ranks as an offensive line coach could carry weight in a Notre Dame program with a proud history at the position. Campbell, who played defensive line at Pittsburgh and Mount Union, started his coaching career as a graduate student at Bowling Green in 2003 before full-time assistant roles at Mount Union, Bowling Green and Toledo. 

James Franklin  

Penn State head coach James Franklin turned early openings on the job market this season into a 10-year contract extension. Maybe the Irish should consider just how locked in Franklin is to staying in Happy Valley. 

Nov 20, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin looks on from the sideline during the third quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Rutgers 28-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Despite struggling through the 2020 season with a 4-5 record and ending the 2021 regular season with an underwhelming 7-5 record, Franklin’s Penn State tenure has been filled with success. He’s won 11 games for the Nittany Lions three times including a 2016 season that resulted in a Big Ten title. 

Franklin finished his three seasons at Vanderbilt (2011-13) with a pair of nine-win seasons. The Commodores had won at least nine games in a season just twice prior to his arrival: in 1904 and 1915. His ability to compete in the SEC at a school with academic expectations would be a key selling point for Notre Dame. 

Franklin has been a strong recruiter at both programs. His current crop of commitments in the 2022 class are ranked No. 5 by Rivals. It will likely become the sixth recruiting class he signed at Penn State to finish ranked among the top 15 on Rivals.  

Pat Fitzgerald 

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald probably loves his alma mater too much to leave the position he’s held since 2006. But maybe after a 3-9 season, Fitzgerald may want to give something else a try. 

Nov 20, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald watches the game against the Purdue Boilermakers during the second quarter at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Fitzgerald, a two-time All-American linebacker for Northwestern (1995-96), has had to scratch and claw his way for every ounce of respect he’s gained leading the program in Evanston, Ill. It’s hard to be consistent at a program that outsiders expect little from in a Big Ten, which is why his career record of 109-90 won’t blow anyone away. Yet he’s won at least nine games for the Wildcats in five seasons. 

The Wildcats earned trips to the Big Ten Championship twice under Fitzgerald (2018 and 2020), but lost both matchups to Ohio State. Fitzgerald was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2018 and won the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award in 2020. 

If Fitzgerald truly wanted to push himself for a national championship run, he’d give Notre Dame some consideration. The biggest question from Notre Dame would be his ability to recruit at a national level. The Wildcats have been built to overachieve rather than have more talent that its opponents in the Big Ten. 

Maybe Fitzgerald wants to experience more wins in Notre Dame Stadium, which he did for Northwestern as a player in 1995 and a coach in 2014.