Two Black football coaches will make Notre Dame Stadium history — 'What a great representation'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman won’t just be making personal history Saturday afternoon when he leads eighth-ranked Notre Dame onto the field for his first home game since being named head coach.

This matchup with Marshall and second-year coach Charles Huff will mark the first time two Black coaches have been at the helm for a regular-season game at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I didn’t know that until you just brought that up,” Freeman said Thursday on a video conference call with reporters. “What a great representation it is for minority coaches, young and old, that you know what, if you work hard, you do things the right way, there’s no cap to where you can go in this profession of coaching.”

Tyrone Willingham led the Irish against Bobby Williams and Michigan State two decades ago, but that 21-17 Notre Dame win on Sept. 21, 2002 came on the road in East Lansing. Williams was fired later in 2002, and none of the other 35 games Willingham coached during his three-year tenure came against fellow minorities.

Notre Dame assistants Deland McCullough and Al Washington were appointed head coaches for the Blue-Gold Game in April and spoke then about the personal significance of that honor.

Freeman, 36, and the 39-year-old Huff, a standout center at Hampton University during his playing career, are among just 15 Black coaches (11.5%) leading the 131 FBS programs. Virginia’s Tony Elliott and Temple’s Stan Drayton also are in their first year at the helm.

Herd head Coach Charles Huff as The Louisiana Ragin Cajuns take on Marshall University Herd in The 2021 R & L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.  Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

Like Williams, Huff is a protégé of Alabama coach Nick Saban. Huff, who also served stints with James Franklin at both Vanderbilt and Penn State, made additional stops at Mississippi State, Western Michigan, Maryland, Tennessee State and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Huff is best known for his work with running backs Najee Harris, Saquon Barkley and C.J. Spiller. Marshall went 7-6 last season and is making the transition from Conference USA to the Sun Belt.

“They’re an extremely well-coached team,” Freeman said. “You don’t see them making a lot of mistakes. Credit to coach Huff and where he’s come from and the job he’s done. Hopefully the focus is obviously on the game, but I think it’s a great representation of minority coaches in the coaching profession.”

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Mindset of 'guarantee games'

This marks the first of two straight weeks for Notre Dame in which it entertains opponents being paid to show up.

According to USA Today, Marshall will receive $1.25 million and Cal Berkeley is guaranteed $1.9 million when it visits the Irish on Sept. 17. The Bears, according to the report, are guaranteed “by far the largest payout to a Power Five school playing at its opponent’s stadium” in 2022.

Freeman, who experienced the opposite effect as an assistant at Cincinnati and Kent, was asked how that dynamic might factor in as a rallying point for the visitors.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ve never heard it called a ‘guarantee game.’ I like it. Listen, I’ve been on the other side, when you’re the underdog and you have a chip on your shoulder. It’s the mindset of believing you can come in here and win. That’s what you do when you’re a competitor and you’re a leader and you’re a coach.”

Notre Dame is also contractually obligated to pay $1.35 million to UNLV for its Oct. 22 trip to South Bend. Taken together, that’s $4.5 million the Notre Dame athletic department must shell out for three expected victories over teams that went a combined 14-23 last season.

“You make sure your team has the mindset and belief that they can come in and win the football game,” Freeman said. “I’m sure — 100% sure — that Marshall will come in here with that mindset. Our kids, our players, respect the team that’s coming in here on Saturday because they’ve shown it on film. They’re a really good, talented football team that’s going to be hungry. They’re going to be fearless.”

Jarrett Patterson set to make 2022 debut

Left guard Jarrett Patterson, who missed the opener with a sprained right foot suffered on Aug. 15, has practiced each day this week and is expected to play Saturday, Freeman said.

“Unless something crazy happens in the next 48 hours,” Freeman said. “He’s had a good week of practice.”

Wide receivers Joe Wilkins Jr. (April 1 foot surgery) and Deion Colzie (strained left knee) are still working back to full health.

“Joe is continuing to heal,” Freeman said. “He’s ahead of schedule and he’s continuing to gain confidence in his foot. I hope he goes out and he can perform at the level he feels he can and (that) the coaching staff expects him to.  His foot will continue to be a focal point for us.”

For Colzie, who averaged 16.8 yards on his four receptions as a freshman, there’s a “gradual progression,” Freeman said, in returning to the regular rotation.

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and on TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.