Hansen: Inside the rise of Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame's head football coach

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman walks in surround by his family, captains and administration for a press conference Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletics Center in South bend.

SOUTH BEND — Out of the corner of her eye, Joanna Freeman was tracking her six children rolling around in their dress clothes in the north end zone of the Irish Athletics Center Monday, her husband having already bolted from his introductory press conference to board a jet for a recruiting trip.

Just moments before, Marcus Freeman was on the dais sharing a behind-the-scenes moment in a whirlwind chain of events that led to the 35-year-old defensive coordinator ascending to one of the most high-profile, high-stress, high-scrutiny leadership positions in all of sports.

Notre Dame’s head football coach.

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He ended the anecdote, about the call from predecessor and former boss Brian Kelly last Monday evening, with a cliff-hanger.

“When coach Kelly calls and says, ‘Hey, I'm going to LSU. Will you go as my defensive coordinator?’

“I said, ‘I need a job, but can I talk to my wife?’ That's all I said, ‘Can I talk to my wife?’”

What Joanna Freeman said next tells you everything you need to know about what Marcus Freeman stands for.

“The first thing we both said to each other is, ‘Well, what happens to these kids? What happens with these guys?’” Joanna said of the fifth-ranked Irish (11-1), poised to play No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1 at Glendale, Ariz. 

“(Marcus said) We've got this bowl game coming up, we can’t — ‘I don’t want to leave these kids.’

“And so that’s the first time I really looked at him and thought, ‘He really loves Notre Dame. He really loves these kids. He loves Notre Dame, and he wants to be here.’ 

“And so I just kind of took a deep breath, and I knew he’s going to go after this job. Not for himself — but for these guys.”

Amid the cascade of questions Freeman was ready to answer Monday (his vision, his recruiting strategy, how viable ND winning a national title is) and those he wasn’t (what the assistant coaching lineup will be beyond the bowl, whether he’ll call plays in the bowl, whether star safety Kyle Hamilton will be a part of it), it’s clear faith and family — including Notre Dame family — are baked into his processes.

And to his ascent.

“He cares about you more as a person than he does as a player,” said super-senior nose guard Kurt Hinish, one of seven Irish captains who, point blank, told athletic director Jack Swarbrick, “not to screw up” the coaching search.

“When you see something like that,” Hinish continued, “it means a lot to you, because in this industry, you don’t see that a lot.”

That guarantees nothing in the way Freeman’s bottom line will eventually stack up to that of Kelly’s 113-40 ledger over 11 seasons and a truncated 12th. But what it does suggest is how he’ll get to wherever he’s going.

Leading with his heart.

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman holds a helmet while posing for a portrait with university president Rev. John Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick during a press conference Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

He choked back the emotion as he talked about how much it meant that athletic director Jack Swarbrick and ND president Rev. John Jenkins believed in him.

“It was emotional for me, too,” Swarbrick said later. “It hit me the same way when he had that reaction. He’s all about relationships. He’s all about people.”

And overcoming zero head coaching experience, something that’s been transcended at some of the other college football bluebloods in recent years — Ohio State’s Ryan Day, new USC coach Lincoln Riley when he was promoted at Oklahoma, former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart taking over at his alma mater, Georgia, and less recently Dabo Swinney elevated to interim and then eventually permanent head coach at Clemson.

“I am worried about that part of it,” Swarbrick admitted. “No one knows until they do it, right? I think he’s phenomenal. I have all the confidence in the world in him, but you don’t know until you do it.

“He’s going to have my full support. He’s going to have a lot of time, and I have every confidence that he’s going to do it. When you’re building a candidate pool, there’s a reason no one else in that pool wasn’t a head coach.”

And yet Freeman floated to the top of it.

“Last week during our search, I was in Rome,” Father Jenkins said. “I wasn't consulting on the search, but I had some previously scheduled meetings. When I interviewed coach Freeman by Zoom from my hotel room, my first question was simply, ‘Why do you coach?’”

Michael and Chong Freeman, Marcus’ parents, sat front-row center for Monday’s coronation, knowing the answer to Jenkins’ question but smiling when they heard it again anyway. 

“My current and former players, you are my ‘why,’” Marcus said. “You are my motivation. You are the reason I get up every day and work as hard as I can to see you all reach your goals. To see you all set a goal and live out a dream is what gives me my inspiration every day to do what I do.

“Last, but not least, my parents. I've kind of told you their story, but I just want you to know, when others say ‘Just be yourself,’ I am me because of you.”

And yet as long as Marcus has been in coaching — since 2010 as a graduate assistant at alma mater Ohio State after an enlarged heart diagnosis ended his fledgling NFL career — Michael was still taken aback when his son hugged him, said goodbye in a rush and said he had a plane to catch.

“Oh, OK,” Michael said. “I won’t have the opportunity to talk to him, I guess.”

And then the bewildered look was quickly replaced with a smile.  

“I think it’s a wonderful challenge,” the 26-year U.S. Air Force veteran said. “I’m glad I’m still alive to see this day. It’s beyond belief, really. When you’ve been around as long as I have and have seen the things I’ve seen in life, I’m really proud of him.”

So is Chong, whom Michael met when he was deployed in South Korea and eventually married. 

“As a kid, he never met a stranger,” Michael added when asked about the early signs that coaching might be something at which Marcus might excel. “Marcus has always talked to people and communicated with people. He's always been able to look a person in the eye and talk to them.”

Michael and Chong Freeman during a press conference announcing their son, Marcus Freeman, as the new Notre Dame head football coach Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

Michael’s military background helped shape Marcus and older brother Michael Freeman Jr. as well.

“Get up early,” the elder Freeman said. 

“Be on time. 

“Love your country. Love your community. 

“Those are things that we talked about at an early age. That’s what you get. 

“Talk to people and treat people the way you’d like to be treated. Those are the types of things we kind of practice in our household. We talk to each other. And that’s just the way it was.”

Was it easy and automatic?

“You learn by hard knocks,” Michael said with a big laugh. “We all learn.”

And Marcus Freeman is committed to perpetual learning, not having to be the smartest guy in the room.

“He’s comfortable being him,” Swarbrick said. “He’s a guy who’s never afraid to reveal what he doesn’t know. That’s his strength.”

That and Joanna, who Brian Kelly roughly 11 months ago pivoted to in the job interview for Marcus to succeed Clark Lea as Kelly’s Notre Dame defensive coordinator.

“That’s correct,” Joanna said with a smile.

Ironically, an offer from LSU was in play then as well — from then-LSU coach Ed Orgeron, eventually deposed six week ago, two seasons removed from a national championship.

“I knew that we were safe,” Joanna said of why the Freemans ended up in South Bend. “There are times in life that you don’t always know that you’re making the right choice as much as you know when you’re making the wrong choice.

“We didn’t get on the plane leaving South Bend and look at each other and go, ‘Yes, this is it.’ We thought about it all week. We prayed about it all week. We talked to our kids. And at the end of that week, we looked at each other and we had to make a decision.

“We said, when you go to Notre Dame, you are never going to make the wrong choice. The tradition, the history, the stability, the ability to raise your children in a place that’s safe and secure. 

“I think about my kids. I think about where are we going to be raising these kids? Marcus thinks about all the professional stuff, and I do too. But for the most part, I have six pairs of eyes looking at me and where they’re going to go to school and where they’re going to feel secure. 

“And so Notre Dame at the end of that week, we knew — no matter what happens — this will not be the wrong choice for our family.”

She then glanced down at her kids again, ranging in ages from 14 to 3, amusing themselves 50 yards away. And she took a deep breath.

“We’re tired,” she said. “Really, really tired. But you know what? It’s a good kind of tired.” 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI