Marcus Freeman on controversial hockey outing: 'I wouldn't change that if I had to'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Gerad Parker speaks to media Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, after being named Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator for the football team by Irish Head Coach Marcus Freeman.

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman has no regrets about the well-publicized hockey outing on Feb. 10 with Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

While Ludwig ultimately opted to stay with the Utes, the public perception was that Freeman stepping out in public with another program’s high-profile employee backfired. At Monday’s formal introduction of Gerad Parker as the newly promoted offensive coordinator, Freeman pushed back on that narrative.

“(Ludwig) decided to make a decision that was best for him,” Freeman said. “I wouldn’t change that if I had to. … We brought guys in that we want, correct? We bring our top recruits into this place and guess what we did with them on Junior Day? We took them to the hockey game because coach (Jeff) Jackson does an excellent job and that’s a great environment.”

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Kansas State offensive coordinator Collin Klein, who opted to stay with the Wildcats after traveling to South Bend on Feb. 8-9, wasn’t spotted at any Irish sporting events during his two-day interview. That led to the misinterpretation that Ludwig’s public appearance with Freeman and a contingent of high-ranking officials from the athletic department meant that the veteran assistant’s departure from Utah was imminent.  

“We’re not hiding the point that we brought a guy in that we wanted, so we took him to the hockey game,” Freeman said. “He ended up not coming here. That’s OK. I don’t want to hide because I’m worried about, ‘Well, somebody might think that this guy turned us down or this guy said no.’ He made a decision that’s best for him.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator candidate Andy Ludwig, second from left (top row), takes in a Notre Dame hockey game Friday, Feb. 10 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. Seated next to him is Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker (left) and ND head football coach Marcus Freeman (right). Ludwig is currently the OC at Utah.

“But I don’t want to hide the fact of what makes Notre Dame great. If we’re going to bring our top recruits to the hockey game, then why not bring an offensive coordinator candidate to the hockey game? Because why, if we don’t get him, people are going to say, ‘Well, you tried, you lost’? That’s life.”

Ludwig, 58, traveled back to Utah and reportedly met on Feb. 13 with Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, his boss for eight combined seasons (2005-08, 2019-22) over two separate stints. ESPN reported the evening of Feb. 13, three days after the hockey outing, that Ludwig was staying at Utah.

Freeman was adamant that the blowback from Notre Dame’s failed attempt at hockey diplomacy would not alter his strategy in future job searches.

“We want to put our best foot forward,” Freeman said. “We’re not trying to hide and say, ‘Hey, let’s interview guys and we don’t want anybody to know because somebody might say you didn’t get the guy you’re going after.’ We won’t hide that. in the future, if we’re interviewing somebody else, guess what, we’re going to put our best foot forward and try to show them everything’s that’s great about this place. Why hide? That’s not what we want to do.”

'Jack Swarbrick has never shied away'

As for multiple reports that Ludwig’s hefty buyout provision kept Notre Dame from making an outside hire, Freeman disputed that interpretation as well.

“At no time during this process did I not have the support of (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick and the administration,” Freeman said. “I want to be very crystal clear about that. At no point during this process, or since my time that I’ve been here, do I not feel that I’ve had the support of our administration and Jack. He has offered to pay whatever buyout there’s been.”

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Ludwig’s three-year rollover contract included a 75-percent buyout (roughly $2.9 million) of the remaining base salary through Feb. 1, 2026. Utah offensive line coach Jim Harding, reportedly Ludwig’s choice to replace the retiring Harry Hiestand, would owe Utah more than $950,000 in “liquated damages” should he make a lateral move to another college program before the end of his contract.

While not offering specifics, Freeman was adamant that buyouts didn’t prevent Notre Dame from hiring Ludwig. Swarbrick attended Freeman’s news conference but did not address the media.

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“Jack Swarbrick has never shied away from paying a buyout,” Freeman said. “In our line of business … we negotiate buyouts. Any coordinator or position coach that has a buyout, we talk about those things and we discuss it, but that’s not the reason why somebody didn’t choose Notre Dame.

“Let’s make sure we get that out there. Two individuals (Ludwig and Klein) decided that it was best for them to stay where they’re at and much credit to them. Congratulations. We found the guy I feel is the right guy for us. I just don’t want the narrative to be that somebody didn’t choose Notre Dame because of a buyout. It’s just not true.”

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick walks off the field after the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

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'This guy is it'

Parker batted third in the interview lineup, but he made resounding contact when he finally had a chance to state his case on Valentine’s Day.

“We put him through a long, tough interview,” Freeman said. “It was halfway through the interview and my mind was made up. I said this is our next offensive coordinator, but I wanted to take some time and really sleep on it and think about it and not make an emotional decision.”

Irish Head Coach Marcus Freeman speaks to media Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, as Gerad Parker is introduced as Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator for the football team. Parker was the tight ends coach last season.

Freeman said he called Swarbrick early on Wednesday morning and said, “I think we found our next offensive coordinator.”

Parker’s detailed answers about every aspect of the Irish offense, from game-plan installations to staff development to mindset and culture, sent Freeman’s mind into overdrive.

“There were so many different points,” Freeman said. “I said, ‘Man, this guy is it.’ I might not have paid too much attention toward the end of it because I knew at that moment.”

Freeman later conferred with “some people that I really trust and know that were in those interviews” and made sure he wasn’t just hearing what he wanted to hear. Feedback from those colleagues assured him that his instincts were correct.

“There’s a lot of (coordinator candidates) out there that have had success in maybe not the type of offense that I want to run here at Notre Dame,” Freeman said. “To have somebody that can understand where we’re at, to help our guys with the learning curve and really convey how we’ll improve is really why I chose (Parker).”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.