Noie: What is Notre Dame getting in new head coach Marcus Freeman? Everything

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND – Way before the start of a college football season that would hold so many plot twists that few could fathom — overtime, last-second wins, quarterback roulette, a coaching change — there was a certain Saturday in August. 

Away from the scrutiny and the stadiums, far from the spotlight and the highlights, Marcus Freeman went to work in the only way he knows. With passion. With poise. With purpose. 

We never saw any of that, never saw any of him, in spring thanks to the global pandemic. No practices to analyze, no chances to study the new guy fresh from a successful stint as defensive coordinator down the way at Cincinnati. Spring game? One in name only. We were kept at a distance, everything so distant for any of it to really register. 

August and everything after, though, we saw it. All of it. All of him. 

That first day of preseason practice in the Irish Athletic Center was the first time the media attended practice since days before the global pandemic hit in March 2020. Your eyes, your attention, your focus couldn’t help but be drawn to the Irish first-year DC. 

The energy. The enthusiasm. The everything. 

Way back then, when everything still was so new and so unknown in terms how it all would fit, you couldn’t help but watch the 35-year-old. Not during goal-line or nickel or all-out blitz situations. Those would arrive down the line. 

What you were drawn to that first day was how Freeman carried himself … during pre-practice stretch lines. 

He weaved in and out of them like a Chicagoan in rush-hour expressway traffic, slipping into a spot here, another there, then handing out hugs and handshakes like a certain big guy in a red suit will do with presents later this month. One for you and you and you and you. It didn’t matter if it was one of his own guys, say nose tackle Kurt Hinish, or someone who played on the other side of the ball in fellow team captain/running back Kyren Williams. Freeman offered everyone equal attention. 

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman walks in for a press conference Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Center in South bend.

So it went as the stretch lines worked their way down the 30 or 40 yards of FieldTurf inside the facility. Hinish and Williams were long past Freeman, but the coach kept moving. Kept getting with different guys. It could be a starter, or a backup. It could be a scout team member. It could be a fifth-year team captain or a freshman getting ready to begin his first college practice with the gold helmet on. It could be a walk-on whose name will never be known by fans.  

Didn’t matter, but to Freeman, they all did. He didn’t discriminate. If a guy passed by Freeman during the stretch drill, Freeman made sure to connect with him. 

It was inspiring to watch. Honestly, it also was bittersweet. 

For the first time, you saw first-hand how easily the rookie defensive coordinator connected with players. That’s what made it hard. The way you saw Freeman work, the more you wondered what he might be like two, three, four years down the line – as a head coach. Nobody knew what he’d be or where, but the odds were long and nowhere near strong that he’d still be at Notre Dame. 

He was too good. He just had that “It” that guys in this profession rarely have. You could see it. You could sense it. 

Marcus Freeman definitely was a short-timer in South Bend. Here today as the DC, gone tomorrow as an HC. 

► Freeman speaks:What he said in his first ND presser

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman listens during a press conference Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend.

What a production, and a day

That first Saturday was nearly four months to the day when Monday arrived, the day Freeman first met the media. As a first-year college head coach. At Notre Dame. Inside the Irish Athletic Facility. On the same FieldTurf where months earlier he’d given something to each of the guys. 

Those are now his guys. 

Those of us who’ve been around Notre Dame for this long — 30 years and counting for some, even longer for a few — have never seen anything like Monday. Garage-like door on the north end of the facility opens, Freeman and his family and his security guy and the athletic director and the university president and a few of the team captains walk through a tunnel of band members belting out the Notre Dame Victory March.

Freeman taken to the massive dais on the east side of the building near the 50-yard line. Coaches and administrators and big hitters from across campus sprinkled throughout the facility. All watching. All likely impressed. 

It was such a big deal that they held a walk-through rehearsal to make sure they got it all right. For a football presser. At Notre Dame. 

We’ve seen something similar to this around here in terms of the hiring of a head coach with no previous college experience, be it Bob Davie or Gerry Faust or Charlie Weis. We may look back on all that was Monday and think, what were they thinking? 

Five years from now, Freeman may still be the guy. He might not. But for this team, for this program, for this moment, he’s absolutely the guy. 

Freeman's debut:No. 5 Notre Dame will play No. 9 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl

He’s got the goods. He’s that good. Now he gets the chance to chase greatness. 

He may not be the next Davie or Weis or Faust, but the first Marcus Freeman. That may be something. 

Monday’s media moment was limited to 25 minutes, with master of ceremonies (???) Brady Quinn, the former Irish quarterback, calling an audible just as a reporter was preparing to ask a question. 

That’s it. It’s over. Thanks for coming, folks, drive home safely. 

Time was running short. Freeman had to get back across the street and inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex for a team meeting that started at 3 p.m.. By 4, he was back aboard a private plane and in the air, off to recruit. There’s a New Year’s Six bowl game (PlayStation Fiesta Bowl) to prepare to play. There are future Irish out there. Time to work.

For one of the few times since a week ago prior, when Brian Kelly left for LSU and asked if Freeman might follow as his defensive coordinator, the Notre Dame football world returned to his normal axis. All seemed right again. The whirlwind — for now — had ceased. 

It’s Freeman’s program. It's Freeman’s time. 

How did we get here, from that first Saturday in August to the first Monday in December? Doesn’t matter. We’re here. 

So is Freeman. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI