A chronological look at Marcus Freeman's journey to head football coach at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman led No. 5 Notre Dame onto the Ohio Stadium field Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022 to face No. 2 Ohio State, his alma mater.

It marks the beginning of his first full season as head football coach of the Irish after a rapid accent to one of the top college football jobs in the country.

Some 19 months earlier, its reasonable that many casual Notre Dame football fans had never heard of Marcus Freeman. 

Clark Lea was the Irish defensive coordinator, and his unit was ranked No. 12 nationally in scoring defense and No. 14 in total defense heading into a College Football Playoff Rose Bowl semifinal against Alabama.

► More:5 things to know about Notre Dame's new head coach Marcus Freeman

Freeman, 2020's 247Sports Defensive Coordinator of the Year at Cincinnati, began piquing interest from the Notre Dame fan base after Lea accepted Vanderbilt's head coaching job on Dec. 14, 2020.

As a player at Ohio State, he was a second-team All-Big Ten linebacker who lettered four times (2004-08) and played in two national championship games. 

► Freeman: We are going to be 'the most competitive team Notre Dame has ever put on the field'

After an enlarged heart diagnosis ended his pursuit of an NFL career, Freeman returned to Ohio State as a graduate assistant (2010) before serving two years as linebackers coach at Kent State, and then four years in the same position at Purdue, where he was also co-defensive coordinator in 2016.

Freeman's star really took off at Cincinnati under his former defensive coach at OSU, Luke Fickell, who hired him as defensive coordinator.

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman is interviewed on NBCSN in the first intermission during the Notre Dame vs. Ohio State NCAA hockey game Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

In four years Freeman helped build the Bearcats into one of the best defensive units in college football. He was nominated for the Broyles Award for top assistant coach three times and was a finalist in 2020. 

Following Notre Dame's Rose Bowl loss to Alabama, Lea departed for Nashville, and then-Irish coach Brian Kelly turned his attention to Freeman, who was in high demand. At one point it was reported Freeman was heading to LSU as defensive coordinator for Ed Orgeron before Kelly was able to coax him to South Bend. 

Nobody knew at the time that Kelly was hiring his eventual Notre Dame successor away from Kelly's eventual employer of LSU.

Freeman, who will turn 36 next month, was announced as the Irish program's 30th head football coach Friday morning, generating a surge of energy and Notre Dame pride into both the players and fan base that had been staggered earlier in the week.

"You realize when you go through this process, how many people are impacted by this football program and how many special people impact our student-athletes on a daily (basis) and our university," Freeman said Friday night during a televised interview. "It's been a whirlwind. ... But my focus right now is on our players, our football program and the future recruits of Notre Dame football."

Here's a look at South Bend Tribune and ND Insider coverage of Freeman since he was hired at Notre Dame. To read full versions of the articles just click on the headline links.

Jan. 8, 2021

► New Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman couldn't pass on Notre Dame a second time

Seventeen winters ago, Marcus Freeman was the one who got away.

On Friday, the former elite linebacker recruit who ultimately chose Ohio State over Notre Dame couldn’t pass on the Irish a second time.

Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (pictured) teamed up with ND cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens at UC and during their playing days in high school.

Once Freeman consummates the protracted Human Resources vetting dance, he’ll be officially named the football program’s defensive coordinator, the fifth of the Brian Kelly Era and perhaps even more coveted as a coaching prospect today than he was as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect and No. 31 recruit overall nationally in the 2004 class.

The university announced in a statement early Friday evening that a deal is in place for Freeman to leave the University of Cincinnati for ND. This time he opted for the Irish over LSU, which reportedly this week offered Freeman a four-year contract at $2.5 million per season.

Feb. 3, 2021

► His life in a blur, Marcus Freeman maintains a clear vision for building on Notre Dame's success

SOUTH BEND — Roughly a month ago, Marcus Freeman sat in Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s office, knowing he’d have a profound career decision to make.

Or so he thought.

In what was framed as a job interview for one of the most coveted ascending defensive coordinators in college football, Kelly instead turned it into a recruiting pitch — to Mrs. Freeman.

“I’ll tell you this, after one conversation I knew coach Kelly was a good recruiter,” said 35-year-old Marcus Freeman, who ultimately took the ND job on Jan. 8 instead of an offer from LSU as well as the comfort of staying at the University of Cincinnati for a fifth season.

“And it was funny, having my wife in his office, I think after the first five minutes the first question was: ‘Am I being interviewed or is my wife being interviewed?’”

After a few minutes Marcus Freeman was truly intrigued and Joanna Freeman was sold. Which, in turn, meant Marcus Freeman was sold.

It’s been a blur ever since.

April 20, 2021

► Marcus Freeman's defense at Notre Dame will match his aggressiveness on the recruiting trail

SOUTH BEND — There’s a humility that runs through Marcus Freeman’s words that masks how little regard he has for maintaining the status quo.

The first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator is all for tradition, mind you. But to build upon, not to genuflect over.

To best absorb how the 35-year-old Freeman has worked through 11 spring football practices so far to upgrade an Irish defense that finished in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense in three consecutive seasons for the first time in 50 years, pay attention to how he attacks recruiting.

It’s about not accepting limits. It’s about dreaming big and having a work ethic to back it up. It’s about not only fixing what ain’t broke, but reimagining ways to make it better than it’s ever been.

“At times it can be easy to recruit at Notre Dame, because you’re Notre Dame,” Freeman said Tuesday via a Zoom call with the media. “There’s a certain group of kids that would die to come to Notre Dame.

“For us to continue to elevate and continue to try to be national champions and be able to close that gap with Alabama, we have to continue to acquire some of the best football players in the country.

“Those guys might not always be dying to come to Notre Dame. But if we understand that they’re the right fit and we do our research and they can be successful here at Notre Dame, our job is to convince them — to let these guys know what makes the University of Notre Dame special.”

July 30, 2021

► Rising star Marcus Freeman resonates at Notre Dame before coaching his first game

In introducing his scheme to Notre Dame’s players, new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s first order of business was deception. 

“It starts with tricking them,” said Freeman, who was hired by head coach Brian Kelly in January after Freeman led Cincinnati to top 25 scoring defenses in the last three seasons of his four-year tenure with the Bearcats. 

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman looks on from the sidelines during the Blue-Gold NCAA spring football game on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Freeman knew replacing departed defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who left as Vanderbilt’s next head coach after guiding Notre Dame’s defense to two playoff appearances in his three seasons as coordinator, came with high expectations. Meeting those expectations started with Freeman putting his own stamp on the Irish defense. 

“Clark Lea had a scheme that was really good and really successful,” Freeman said. “In order to sell your scheme, you have to be able to be a little bit different. What I wanted to do was almost trick them mentally in saying, ‘This is basic football, man. This is very simplistic. I don’t want you to overthink things.’  

“They had a lot of questions, and I kept saying, ‘Don’t think about it. Just go play ball. Don’t worry about it. Go play ball.’” 

Aug. 11, 2021

► Analysis: Inside the evolution of Marcus Freeman's defensive scheme at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman’s vision for the Notre Dame defense, the one that helped the Irish climb to No. 1 in Rivals team recruiting rankings in the current cycle on Sunday and coaxed safety Houston Griffith into a transfer portal U-turn in January, is evolving.

In practical terms more than theory.

And Griffith, a senior and the highest-rated member of his 2018 recruiting class, is having all of it.

“It’s exciting,” he said Tuesday after practice No. 4 of training camp. “We were able to just learn the defense through February, March and April. And now, we’re able to fine-tune the small details. Now we’re going out there executing the play with high effort and just playing fast. ... 

“The whole winter I was just trying to push myself. The whole transfer portal thing, that’s in the past. I’m here and I came back for business. It's a business year, and I’m trying to go out and ball out and show all my talent.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman  and linebacker Bo Bauer (52) share a hug during Notre Dame Fall Camp on Saturday, August 07, 2021, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

That’s opposed to always planting Hamilton deep in the defensive backfield to erase mistakes and limitations of those around the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder.

“That’s the greatest weapon we have is that you can use him in so many different ways,” Freeman said Tuesday. “When you have those types of athletes — like (former Irish All-America linebacker) Jeremiah Owusu (Koramoah), like a Kyle Hamilton — they can do so many different things with their tools. It’s one of the greatest things you can have as defensive coordinator.”

Sept. 6, 2021 — First game

► Putting Notre Dame's defense, injuries, O-line and 'execution' into perspective

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman had his first bad 24-hour cycle on Twitter.

From “Marcus VanGorder” references, late Sunday night into Monday morning, to the sudden annulment of the rush to anoint the first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator as the head-coaching in waiting.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman directs players during Notre Dame's 41-38 overtime win over Florida State Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.

The statistical carnage defensively from No. 9 Notre Dame’s near come-from-ahead loss to Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., wasn’t any more forgiving.

After getting home at 4:30 a.m. Monday from ND’s eventual 41-38 overtime survival, Freeman woke up hours later with his defense’s No. 53 national ranking in pass-efficiency defense as its high-water mark.

The ugliest number heading into Saturday’s home opener with Toledo (1-0)? The No. 114 ranking in rushing defense. Sometimes even small sample sizes are telling. This doesn’t figure to be one of those instances.

Nov. 21, 2021

► How and who coaxed Notre Dame into the thick of the CFP conversation

In a 44-34 survival of North Carolina on Oct, 30, the Irish defense yielded the fifth-most yardage total (564) of the Brian Kelly Era and looked bad doing so, in what was the first full game of four so far without injured All-American safety Kyle Hamilton.

The next morning first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and the Irish woke up as the No. 76 team in total defense and No. 58 in scoring defense. In the three games since, those rankings have surged to 51st and 12th, respectively, and the Irish haven’t allowed a TD in any of those games (Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech).

Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (7) forces Georgia Tech's Jordan Yates (13) to fumble during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

“I’m not surprised,” Irish junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said of the turnaround. “You probably hear from coach Kelly about following the ‘traits’ all the time. That stuff is real. That’s what coach Freeman’s doing.”

Nov. 29, 2021

► Brian Kelly breaks a long-held promise to himself in chasing new dream at LSU

Yahoo’s Pete Thamel on Monday night was the first to report Kelly’s hiring at LSU after 12 years and a school-record 113 wins at Notre Dame, 54 of which have come in the past five seasons after a philosophical makeover brought on by a 4-8 bottom line in 2016 that required a midseason vote of confidence just to keep that recruiting class from completely dissolving.

Kelly had already changed his Twitter avatar to LSU colors before meeting with the Notre Dame players for 11 minutes on campus Tuesday morning at 7.

Nov. 30, 2021

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

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. 

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.

Dec. 1, 2021

► 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 established the first-year Irish defensive coordinator Tuesday as the betting favorite to eventually end up as Kelly’s successor.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick answers questions regarding Brian Kelly's resignation Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium.

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.

Dec. 3, 2021

► It's official: Marcus Freeman is named the 30th head football coach at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman is officially the new head football coach at Notre Dame. 

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman waves to people in the press box during the Notre Dame vs. Ohio State NCAA hockey game Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

After one season as the Irish’s defensive coordinator, Freeman has been promoted and will replace Brian Kelly who left after 12 seasons to coach at LSU, the university announced early Friday. 

Jan. 1, 2022

Freeman's first game as a head coach was a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, as the Cowboys erased a 21-point first half deficit. In the offseason Freeman got to work shaping the team in his own image, overhauling Kelly's staff.

More:Which Notre Dame assistant coach has the most Twitter followers?

Crafting his own identity

Ever since Freeman was named the 30th head football coach at the University of Notre Dame in December 2021, he's managed to move the program backward and forward at same time. 

All while relishing in the moment.

He's reconnected with the former Irish legends, bringing them back into the fold during spring and fall practices. 

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman claps during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

He's doubled down on recruiting, assembling some of the highest-rated future class commitments in the country ... for the time being, at least. 

And he's emerged as the face of the team. thanks in part to and elaborate school-sponsored social media blast, and his renewed energy.

At halftime Saturday, the Irish lead the 17.5-point favorite Buckeyes, 10-7.