Hansen: What matters most as Notre Dame's Freeman makes head coaching debut

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman (left) and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy talk to the media via Zoom on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, ahead of Saturday's Fiesta Bowl game.

Late in a mid-December press conference meant for Marcus Freeman to be able to put a bow on the Notre Dame football recruiting class that he helped assemble and then rescue from crumbling, a big-picture flash hit him.

“I was thinking about it today,” Freeman said of his new job, nine days after his introductory media gala as Brian Kelly’s successor as ND’s head football coach. “And I'm like, 'I don't know if I ever want it to be where it's, like normal.'

“I don't know. I think you'll undervalue, under-appreciate this opportunity. And so, I hope every day I'll walk into this office, I'm like, 'Man, I'm the head coach at Notre Dame.' You know?

“Because that, to me, is what drives me to make sure that I don't ever look past this opportunity that I have right now.”

The opportunity immediately ahead of the promoted 35-year-old Irish defensive coordinator is Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl matchup between No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) and ninth-ranked Oklahoma State (11-2) at 1 p.m. EST at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. ESPN has the telecast.

The Irish haven’t prevailed on a New Year’s Six stage since long before there the term “New Year’s Six” had come into existence. Freeman was 7 years old when Notre Dame last celebrated a victory in such a prestigious bowl game, the Cotton Bowl that concluded its 1993 season.

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He was roughly 9 months old the last time an Irish head coach debuted against a top 10 team — Lou Holtz vs. No. 3 Michigan, a 24-23 ND loss in 1986. Terry Brennan, facing a No. 4 Texas team in 1954, is the only other Notre Dame coach who’s a member of that club.

Meanwhile, less than an hour before Saturday’s kickoff, Freeman and the Irish are expected to receive a verbal commitment from junior safety Peyton Bowen of Denton, Texas — the eighth four-star commit out of eight in a 2023 class already ranked No. 1 nationally by Rivals.com.

It’s certainly more than a New Year’s Day footnote in the grander scheme of things.

The balance in Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and president Rev. John Jenkins honoring overwhelming player sentiment and taking the gamble on a first-time head coach is the elite recruiting prowess and recruiting vision of Freeman, who pledges to be ND’s lead recruiter as head coach.

“Almost all (your) success comes down to it,” said Charlie Weis, ND’s last first-time head coaching parlay, whose five-year run finished with a 35-27 bottom line.

Weis, who hosts a radio show weekday mornings on SiriusXM Channel 88, made the comments during an appearance as a guest on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast earlier this week, sharing the challenges, missteps and transcendent moments walking in the door in December of 2004.

Freeman spent much of the past few weeks toggling between bowl preparation and everything else on his docket, before really honing in solely on the game itself this week.

“Just focusing on the seniors and finishing the season the right way, everything else comes second,” Freeman said Friday during a joint Zoom session with Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. 

“The staff, the future staff comes second. The transfer portal comes second. Right now it's about preparing this group to finish as champions.

“And that's our mindset, and that's everything that we do, is let's finish this season off the right way. And we'll handle those other situations after the bowl game.” 

As it should be, but who Freeman ultimately hires as defensive coordinator/linebackers coach and special teams coordinator will go much further in defining the Freeman Era of Notre Dame football than the outcome of the game on Saturday.

So will whether he’s able to reel in “retired” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand in January for a second tour of duty at ND. Whether there’s a fit, an interest and an academic pathway for impending Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph — a 2020 consensus All-America safety — to end up in South Bend.

So too the lessons learned from the bowl prep and the bowl game on how Freeman has divided his time and what needs to be tweaked in the spring. And getting to the bottom of whether freshman QB Tyler Buchner has the kind of ceiling and career arc that not only can help the Irish get to a third playoff in 2022 and/or 2023, but win a game or two there.

“Inside the building, it was a very popular choice,” Weis said of Freeman's selection after Kelly bounded to LSU, “so you’re to have really good — I call it — mojo going into the offseason whether you win or lose the game. But if you win the game, it gives you that much of a better feel.

“If you lose the game, he then uses it as a teaching lesson and a motivational tool, if that’s the way he plays it. If you win the game, you say, ‘The best is yet to come.’ Either way you’re going to use it as a motivational tool and teaching tool.

“There’s not really a downside for what it’s going to mean for the program. It’s always better to leave with a good taste in your mouth than a bad taste in your mouth.”

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman (center) greets players during practice for the Fiesta Bowl, December 29, 2021, at Chaparral High School, 6935 E. Gold Dust Ave., Scottsdale, Arizona.
Ryan Barnes

Figuring out the logistics of how to make the lead recruiter aspiration work as a head coach should be priority No. 1 post-bowl, no matter what the bowl aftertaste turns out to be.

“My answer to that would be: How involved he is with the defense,” Weis said. “If he doesn’t have to be the defensive coordinator, it’s much easier to do than if he is the defensive coordinator.

“Whether he names himself the coordinator is not that point. If he’s running the defense and the team, you have less time to have that same type of freedom.

“In an ideal world, what he describes is utopia. You hire a staff around you. You have confidence in your staff that your staff can do it. You give your suggestions to the offensive coordinator. You give your suggestions to the defensive coordinator and special teams coach, and then you go recruit the hell out of everybody.

“In an ideal world, that would be a great way to be. He does such a great job on defense, I don’t think he should take himself out of the mix right off the bat when they first get started. I think you should transition to that so there’s no drop-off in performance.”

Perhaps having six kids in ages ranging from 14 to 3 will ease the culture shock for Freeman of being torn in so many directions now as the head coach. 

“The fact he’s been there for a year, has the lay of the land, has respect from the players — they already know him and his personality,” Weis offered. “I think that gives him a good start as he gets going into this first season as the head man.”

A good start, but hardly normal. Which is fine, because Marcus Freeman’s dreams for the program aren’t normal either.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI