Captains left mark on Notre Dame's football program in pushing for coach Marcus Freeman

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Jack Swarbrick asked Notre Dame’s seven captains what characteristics they were looking for in the next head coach of their football program. 

Most of the seven captains — wide receiver Avery Davis, safety Kyle Hamilton, nose guard Kurt Hinish, center Jarrett Patterson, defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, linebacker Drew White and running back Kyren Williams — won’t be back at Notre Dame next season. It’s possible at least one of them — Hamilton — may never play another game in a Notre Dame uniform. 

That didn’t prevent each of them from making a strong argument to Notre Dame’s athletic director in support of then-defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. 

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“We asked him what the hiring process would look like,” graduate senior Hinish recalled of the conversation they had with Swarbrick less than 24 hours after news broke of head coach Brian Kelly’s departure to LSU. 

“He said, ‘What are the characteristics you want as a head coach?’ Before we even talked about those, I said, ‘I want coach Freeman to be the head coach.’ I said more than that, and then we went around the table and everyone said the same exact thing and everyone said why.  

“Then after that it was kind of like, ‘Well, I guess we know who these guys want.’’ 

At Freeman’s sumptuous introductory press conference Monday on a temporary stage in the Irish Athletics Center hosted by former quarterback Brady Quinn, Swarbrick pushed back Monday at the suggestion that Notre Dame’s players selected Freeman as the program’s head coach. That’s because Swarbrick wanted to make clear that Freeman earned the job with merit. 

“He won the job in the way he prepared himself through each of his coaching experiences,” Swarbrick said. “He won it during the past year when I was able to observe him as a colleague, coach, mentor, and educator. And he won it in his interviews with me, (ND President) Father (John) Jenkins, and the others who participated in that process.” 

Notre Dame’s Kurt Hinish (41) during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

Notre Dame’s captains, who followed close behind Freeman as he made his way to the stage Monday, were convincing too. They made it clear the culture that’s been built in the program didn’t leave with Kelly. It lived with the players and could continue to be amplified with the right head coach.  

Those captains who won’t return to Notre Dame next season fell short of their national championship goal. The hope remains that their support for Freeman will help push the Irish to reaching the title eventually. 

“When you’re a Notre Dame captain, you have the responsibility to bring this program to its greatest potential,” graduate senior White said. “I love Notre Dame. I’ll love Notre Dame forever. I want to see this place win a national championship. So it didn’t really matter if I was leaving or not. I have a special place in my heart for this university.” 

Just as Freeman has earned a special place in the heart of many Notre Dame players since arriving from Cincinnati in January. Freeman could be described as a players’ coach. But he brings with him a demand for discipline and accountability, which was instilled in Freeman by his Air Force veteran father, Michael, and coaches who knew how to push him during his playing career at Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne and Ohio State. 

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Freeman packages that all together into his authentic version of a football coach. 

“He has that contagious energy,” White said. “You can feel it. That’s why he has so much success in recruiting.  

“It’s not fake. He tells it how it is. He will tell you the truth and sometimes it might be a tough truth. But he’s upfront with you. There’s not fakeness about him. That will bring him success.” 

Notre Dame’s players gave that energy right back to Freeman when director of football performance Matt Balis introduced the team to its new head coach Friday morning. Players mobbed him in a congratulatory celebration. 

“It was special,” Hinish said of the moment in Notre Dame’s locker room. “He’s a special guy. He means a lot to this program. He means a lot to us.  

“It says a lot. It wasn’t just the defensive guys getting excited about the new hire. It was the offensive guys too.” 

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) celebrates with fans after the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

Williams, a junior in Notre Dame’s offensive backfield, has some decisions to make ahead of him. Williams could — and maybe should — leave Notre Dame after this season as an early entrant in the NFL Draft. “As of right now,” Williams said, he plans to play in No. 5 Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl appearance on Jan. 1 against No. 9 Oklahoma State. 

Even though Notre Dame’s players played such an important role in Freeman’s promotion, the focus Monday wasn’t on them. It was a celebration of Freeman, the son of a Black father and Korean mother, what he represents for the future of Notre Dame football and what he means for the players who fought for him. 

“It means everything,” Williams said of playing for a Black head coach. “For a person of color like myself and the whole team — we have a lot of diversity — it means everything to where we’re moving forward here at this University of Notre Dame. We’re expanding our horizons and being able to accept more and different as well.  

“It’s a step in the right direction for us as a program and as a school. We need to keep going in the right direction.” 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.