Commentary: Notre Dame's Freeman Era fires up well before his Fiesta Bowl debut

Dec 28, 2021; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman runs with players during practice for the Fiesta Bowl, December 28, 2021, at Chaparral High School, 6935 E. Gold Dust Ave., Scottsdale, Arizona. Mandatory Credit: Mark Henle-USA TODAY Sports

As Marcus Freeman prepares to direct his first game as a head football coach Saturday, it is hard to fully comprehend the rapid succession of events that brought him to this New Year’s Day stage in the desert.  

Or what it means for the future of the Notre Dame program as the No. 5 Irish start the Freemen Era in the Fiesta Bowl against No. 9 Oklahoma State at 1 p.m. EST in Glendale, Ariz. 

A month ago, to the day, Freeman didn’t know where he’d be working today. He was still the popular and progressing defensive coordinator for the Irish, but Brian Kelly’s sudden and shocking succession to head coach at LSU plunged a program that had soared to an unprecedented stretch of five 10-win seasons in South Bend into a sudden and aggressive nosedive.  

► More:Former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly isn't unpopular to Tommy Rees

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

Irish fans grabbed for their oxygen masks as the turbulence threatened to unravel an up-and-coming coaching staff, unnerve what had been a Top 5 2022 recruiting class set to sign in a couple weeks and undo the steady progress that finally had the program consistently cruising in college football’s elite altitude.  

Freeman, along with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, had offers to join Kelly in Baton Rouge. They thought about it. They considered it. Ultimately, they rejected it, choosing instead to flip Notre Dame’s historic narrative into a fresh, new-age of possibility at the coaxing of Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. 

At a university where football, family and faith are seemingly stitched into the same cloth, the lure of something bigger than themselves won out for Freeman and Rees. 

"I would much rather be in this seat than not be in this seat,” Freeman said of his new job as Notre Dame’s 30th head football coach. "I'm just taking it day by day and task by task.” 

New Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman is recognized on the court during a timeout during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

The task at hand, Freeman has insisted since his unveiling on Dec. 6, is winning Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl for this team, for this group of guys and “finishing as champions.”  

That is a tall order against a Cowboys’ team that came within a couple inches of possibly qualifying for the College Football Playoff and boasts one of the stingiest defenses in the country, even if the Irish are two-point favorites in Vegas.   

But it’s certainly possible because of the energy and continuity that Freeman created and salvaged, respectively with his hire. He admittingly will be learning on the job. And he’ll be doing it without arguably his top offensive and defensive players in running back Kyren Williams and All-American safety Kyle Hamilton who both opted out of the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the 2022 NFL draft.  

Even history lingers in the backdrop as Notre Dame has lost nine New Year’s Six Bowls in a row dating back to a Jan. 1, 1994 win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Four of those losses have been in the Fiesta Bowl. None have been close. 

Whatever happens Saturday, Freeman’s hiring ultimately points to the future. To Kelly’s credit he left the Notre Dame program in much better condition than what he found it in 2010. And it stands to reason that as Freeman – who turns 36 in January – collects his head coaching bearings, the Irish are set up for sustained success and a reasonable expectation of eventually competing for a 12th national championship and first since 1988. 

Photos: Marcus Freeman's introduction as Notre Dame football coach

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

Winning or losing Saturday against Oklahoma State will not change that. Neither would a loss to open the 2022 season. 

Freeman’s first two games as a head coach will be against two Top 10 teams away from Notre Dame Stadium. After debuting against the ninth-ranked Cowboys in Glendale, Freeman’s Irish start the 2022 season at the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio, against Ohio State, likely to be a Top 5 team at the time. 

No Irish coach has faced such a daunting start. Only two – Terry Brennan in 1954 and Charlie Weis in 2005 – have opened their ND head coaching careers against consecutive Top 25 teams.  

Brennan’s squad beat No. 2 Texas before losing to No. 19 Purdue. Weis’ team crushed No. 23 Pittsburgh, 42-21, and edged No. 3 Michigan, 17-10, both on the road.  

Tyrone Willingham won his first game as coach in 2002 by beating No. 21 Maryland, 22-0, at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands. He would win his first eight games and finish the year 10-3 before being fired after three seasons.  

The highest-ranked team a Notre Dame coach has faced in his debut was No. 3 Michigan in 1986. Lou Holtz’ squad took the Wolverines to the brink in a controversial 24-23 loss at Notre Dame Stadium. Despite the outcome, the Irish had a completely refreshed look from the pedestrian Gerry Faust era before. 

Freeman’s task looks nothing like what Holtz walked into, but somehow already feels just as refreshing as the optics four weeks ago coming from South Bend and Baton Rouge couldn’t have contrasted more. 

Kelly left the shadow of the Golden Dome to inherit an SEC powerhouse that has floundered in the two seasons since winning the 2019 National Championship.  

In video released by LSU, Kelly spoke to his team like a stogy, old-school football coach. He was roasted on social media for the way he ditched Notre Dame after 12 seasons and addressed a Tigers’ basketball crowd in what sounded to many like a fake Southern accent.  

But with Freeman, everything Notre Dame did in the Kelly aftermath seemed to turn to gold. And when Freeman busted through the Notre Dame locker room door to meet his team for the first time, the floor shook and a Notre Dame family that had been staggered days earlier stood up taller than ever.  

And a new era in Notre Dame football began right there.  

Michael Wanbaugh is sports editor of the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @mwanbaugh

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl 

Who:  No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) 

Kickoff: Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. EST 

Where: State Farm Stadium; Glendale, Ariz. 

TV: ESPN 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 2