Hansen: ND promoting Marcus Freeman is a gamble; not hiring him was more of one

Eric Hansen
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — A little more than three years after an enlarged heart diagnosis in 2010 truncated Marcus Freeman’s NFL dream before it could really gain traction, he was back in the office of his high school coach, Jay Minton.

On business.

Decked out in Purdue black and gold, Freeman, the Boilermaker assistant coach, came back to his alma mater — Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio — to mine talent from a coach that sent more than 100 players to Division I football programs in his 21-year run and helped develop 13 of them into eventual NFL players.

► Reports: Marcus Freeman expected to become Notre Dame football's next head coach

► Returning:Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees says he staying at Notre Dame

“Marcus had been in my office many times to visit after he had graduated, but this was the first time he walked in as Marcus, the recruiter,” said Minton, now the tight ends coach at the University of Dayton. “And I stopped whatever I was doing, and said, ‘Holy Crap.’

"I mean, we were blessed to have college recruiters come to our school — a ton of them — over the years, and Marcus blew them all out of the water.

“His passion, his appearance, his charisma. I’d known him since eighth grade, for goodness sake. I watched him develop as a player and as a man. But something was different about the way he carried himself that day and every time I’ve seen him since.

“That’s the day I knew he was going places.”

And on Wednesday, the pieces started coming together for the 35-year-old father of six to take Notre Dame along for the ride.

Eleven months after Freeman turned down then-LSU head coach Ed Orgeron to be his defensive coordinator and instead took the same position for Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, Freeman will be Notre Dame’s next head coach.

All that’s left is the exact timing of the official announcement and the introductory press conference.

It took ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick less than 48 hours following Kelly’s abrupt departure to LSU as Orgeron’s replacement to realize the gamble of hiring Freeman, a successor with no previous college head coaching experience, was a fraction of the gamble of NOT hiring him.

History be damned.

The last four coaches hired to head the Irish program without previous college head coaching experience were Charlie Weis (2005), Bob Davie (1997), Gerry Faust (1981) and Terry Brennan (1954). None of them ended well. Some went down in infamy.

Why Marcus Freeman is likely to change history starts with recruiting, but doesn’t end there.

And his first chance to show off the rest of his coaching chops in his first full season comes at his college alma mater, with the Irish opening the 2022 season at Ohio State on Sept. 3.

Defensive coordinator and soon-to-be Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman during the Notre Dame-Navy game, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

His staff started to come together piece by piece Wednesday, many pushing away LSU offers. Director of football performance Matt Balis. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Elston. Running backs coach Lance Taylor. Safeties coach Chris O’Leary. Tight ends coach John McNulty. Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens. 

Each confirmation was greeted by swarms of approving tweets by Irish recruits, current ND players, former ND players from all eras and notable alumni.

The groundswell for Freeman himself from those same parties started when he was merely an option to succeed Kelly, not a frontrunner to do so — except in Vegas.

“I’ve been in the recruiting business for four decades and following coaching changes all along the way,” said CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming on Wednesday night. “I’ve seen players and recruits get behind someone who they thought should be the next coach, but never anywhere close to this united, and never anywhere close to these proportions.

“What does that say about Marcus Freeman’s potential from the people who know him best? I’ll tell you what it says to me: Notre Dame can win a national championship. And as the best recruiter at Notre Dame since Vinny Cerrato (Lou Holtz Era), he can bring in the talent to get the Irish over the top.

“Brian Kelly could always beat the good teams. Consistently. He had trouble beating the great ones. And the difference in those games is the other teams had more difference-makers on the field. The talent in this 2022 class that’s about to sign (Dec. 15) and the 2023 class they’re building is going to allow them to compete in those games.

“Had Marcus Freeman left, those classes could have evaporated in the snap of a finger. I think he’ll be able to keep most of the 2022 guys. Now all they need is that elite quarterback in the 2023 class to add to what Tyler Buchner might become.”

Kelly undoubtedly deserves credit for helping to bring Notre Dame to this point. And for hiring Freeman in the first place. And for raising the standards and expectations of a program so many in the national media and ND’s own fan base had given up on when it came to being relevant for national titles.

Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman, soon to be elevated to Notre Dame's head football coach, greets players during Notre Dame football practice on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

If there was a blind spot in Kelly’s 12-year run of a school-record 113 victories against 40 losses, it’s not being able to see he was perhaps leaving behind an awakening giant.

“You know, when Marcus was being recruited in high school, it was hard for him not to go to Notre Dame,” Minton said. “I remember, he got a phone message from Tyrone Willingham, and he had me come over and listen to it, he was that excited.

“And then just last month, at Marcus and (cornerbacks coach) Mike Mickens’ invitation, I went to my first Notre Dame game ever — against Georgia Tech. And you know how people tell you how something’s going to be and it really never lives up to that?

New Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman (right) and ND cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens (left) share a moment after their college teams squared off in 2006, a 37-7 Ohio State win over Cincinnati. Freeman and Mickens were high school teammates in Ohio.

“This was the opposite. It was better than I could have ever dreamed. But the best part for me was seeing how much passion Marcus had for the place. I mean, c’mon now. I’m not a recruit. He doesn’t have to sell me. The passion was real.

“It takes more than passion to win, though, and Marcus has all of that too. I think it’s fair for people to wonder, because they don’t know him yet. But they will soon enough. He’s more than ready.

“He’s going places.”    

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI