'Free and Julio' — Why every day is 'Marcus Freeman Day' for local barber Julio Rodriguez

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

MISHAWAKA — Customers walking into Exclusive Studios on the Monday after Easter were in for a surprise along with their haircuts.

Joining them in the modest but comfortable waiting area was Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman, taking a break from spring practice and spending time with his six children as they took turns in the barber chair.

“The cool thing is he just chilled in here with all his kids,” Julio Rodriguez, owner of the salon at 110 North Main Street, said a few days later. “Literally, he was in here for like two hours. Literally, sitting here.”

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Double takes were plentiful.

“People were walking in,” Rodriguez recalled, “and they were like, ‘Freeman? What are you doing in here? Let’s take a picture!’ “

Rodriguez, 26, has become something of a celebrity himself as his client base has rapidly expanded to include a Who’s Who of modern-era Notre Dame football and basketball. More than a dozen framed jerseys, most autographed with personalized notes of appreciation, line the walls of the well-lit, galley-style, 12-chair studio that opened in August 2019.

Julio Rodriguez, who has been the barber for Notre Dame coaches, players and others for years, stands in his shop, Exclusive Studios, on Thursday, April 14, 2023, on North Main Street in downtown Mishawaka.

Stars from Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to Chase Claypool and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah have sent their NFL jerseys for Rodriguez to add to his museum-style collection. Pro Football Hall of Famer Tim Brown, Notre Dame’s last Heisman Trophy winner in 1988, is part of the display as is NBA rookie Blake Wesley.

Visitors never know when they’ll encounter a former Notre Dame great or the shop’s most famous client of all: Freeman.

“I cut the kids every two weeks and I cut him every week — sometimes twice a week,” Rodriguez said. “Every other time I cut Freeman, I’m always at either his office or his house, but he tries to stop in because he always says he wants to feel normal.”

More than just the go-to barber for the extended Irish football family, including assistant coaches, support staff, athletic department officials and much of the 110-player roster, Rodriguez has become a trusted confidant for the energetic 37-year-old coach.

“We keep Julio busy,” Freeman told last summer. “Julio’s been awesome, man. He’s a great ambassador for this town, a guy that’s South Bend through and through. And he’s reliable. Julio and a couple of his barbers will come in during the season and have the opportunity for our players to get their hair cut.”

Those Thursday evening sessions, 20-minute windows booked solid for three or four hours, have become a game-week tradition. Some players will escape campus long enough to beat the rush.

“Our players all go to him,” Freeman said, “and our players love him.”

Many jerseys of former Notre Dame players hang as a tribute to Julio Rodriguez, who has been the barber for Notre Dame coaches, players and others for years. His shop, Exclusive Studios, is located on North Main Street in downtown Mishawaka.

Friday mornings are reserved for the assistant coaches, analysts, graduate assistants and other support staff. Does Rodriguez ever offer any football suggestions?

“I think Julio knows right away,” Freeman said with a smile, “that’s not going to be welcomed to me.”  

Instead, he and Rodriguez talk about almost anything but football. Topics range from professional wrestling (“Freeman’s a big WWE guy”) to energy level (“He’s always drinking coffee”) and fatherhood (Rodriguez’s daughter Madelyn will soon turn 3).

“When I’m cutting his hair, it’s nothing stressful,” Rodriguez said. “I literally can ask him whatever I want — literally. That’s how I feel, but do I? He’s somebody I definitely look up to — straight up. I pay attention to his habits. I always ask him for advice, and he always gives me advice.”

The Governor and the Barber

Christian Gray had only been on campus for a few weeks when a fellow early enrollee, wide receiver Jaden Greathouse, sent him to Exclusive Studios.

“I didn’t know where Julio was until Greathouse came in with a really fresh cut,” said Gray, a cornerback from St. Louis. “I’m like, ‘Who do you go to?’ He said, ‘Julio in Mishawaka.’ I’m like, ‘Dang.’ He hooked me up, and I had an appointment with him.”

Early-enrolled freshman cornerback Christian Gray (29) goes through drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

Gray’s review?

“That was an amazing cut,” he said. “That’s the best cut.”

The wise-cracking Gray and the easygoing barber hit it off immediately, even though Rodriguez admittedly “got thrown off” by the big personality of such a recent arrival.

“I was like, ‘What?’ “ Rodriguez said. “I didn’t expect that from him, but he’s a really nice guy. All these guys are just storming in here.”

It’s part of the unofficial orientation process.  

“I like how Julio is as a person and how he talks to me without football,” Gray said. “Just like, ‘Do you miss home? How are you? Who do you want to be around?’ Julio’s a good person to be around, and his shop is just amazing.”

Early-enrolled linebacker Drayk Bowen (34), 2022 IndyStar Mr. Football, goes through drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

Drayk Bowen, the two-sport freshman linebacker/baseball infielder and 2022 IndyStar Mr. Football, earned the nickname “The Governor” for the way he built relationships with fellow recruits in the 2023 signing class. Not surprisingly, the Governor and the Barber connected right away.

“He’s just a personable guy, gives a great haircut,” Bowen said. “It’s pretty cool just having somebody that’s been around the team before, talked to the guys and then opens himself up to us. We’ve only been here for a week, and he’s already (saying), ‘If you ever need a cut, let me know.’ He really makes you feel like you’re at home.”

'One of us'

DJ Brown, back for a sixth season at safety, joins long snapper Mike Vinson among Rodriguez’s longest-term loyalists on the current Irish roster.

“I’ve gone to him since I got here, my freshman year (2018),” Brown said. “A while. Long time.”

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At 23, Brown is just three years younger than Rodriguez. What has it been like to see his friend’s reputation grow to the point where he’s a local ambassador?

“It’s dope,” Brown said, borrowing one of the leading Julio-isms. “His role definitely stepped up. It’s cool to see. I’ve seen his whole process from cutting out of his basement to having his own shop. It’s awesome.”

And it all happened organically.

“He’s real personable and he feels like one of us, one of our guys,” Brown said. “I’ve always just gone to him.”

Julio Rodriguez, who has been the barber for Notre Dame coaches, players and others for years, stands in his shop, Exclusive Studios, on Thursday, April 14, 2023, on North Main Street in downtown Mishawaka.

Rodriguez makes house calls as well. Sometimes those visits are purely social and include former Irish safety Kyle Hamilton, coming off a strong rookie year with the Baltimore Ravens and back on campus as he works completing toward his degree.   

“We’re so cool now,” Rodriguez said of Brown. “Like, ‘I’ve known you for six years, buddy.’ I’ll go to DJ’s house with Kyle because they stay over there and we’ll play video games a little bit, hang out. That’s my friend now. I’ve known DJ for a long time. It’s awesome.”

That proximity and familiarity is something senior safety Ramon Henderson noted right away.

“Before he had his shop, he was just the guy who was around campus,” Henderson said. “He was cutting up everybody from the jump. And then he grew up with the team as they progressed. There are people in the league now that he still cuts. I think that's why his name got so much credibility.”

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Unlike most of his teammates in recent years, Henderson is willing to branch out when it comes to his hair.

“There's some good barbers in South Bend,” Henderson said. “I’ve been to Barber Joe (Davis). Barber Joe’s pretty smooth. But you know Julio gets you lined up pretty smooth, gives you a clean cut. That’s what you need for Saturdays. He's a part of our big culture. Coach Freeman goes to him. Pretty much everyone goes to him.” 

Peer pressure is a powerful motivator.

“Even if you're a recruit and you're here, the thing is, ‘Aw, you have to go to Julio,’ “ Henderson said. “If you're an incoming freshman, you get here, within the first few weeks you need a haircut. The guy thrown at you is Julio, so you might as well just embrace it.”  

Notre Dame football head coach Marcus Freeman speaks to the team Wednesday, April 12, 2023, during spring football practice on the Notre Dame campus.

Asked if there’s a rivalry between Barber Joe and Julio, Henderson laughed.

“Not at all,” Henderson said. “It’s just whoever’s schedule is more open. If one’s (booked), I’ll go to the other. But Julio is always around. He’s involved with us, the basketball team. He’ll be here at practices. He’ll be at our games. He’s a good guy. I recommend him.”

New hairstyle for Sam Hartman

When it comes to customer satisfaction, Rodriguez said, barbers and bartenders have something in common.

“A bartender (also) has to be a good listener,” he said. “Don’t say too much. Don’t disagree too much. Just listen and be honest.”

His Notre Dame football clients appreciate that approach.

“I’m not over there asking: ‘What plays are you guys running?’ “ he said. “They’re tired of that stuff. They come in slaughtered, man. Crazy. Like, so beat up (mentally and physically). I’ll be like, ‘Bro, I know you’re tired.’ I get a little personal but in a smoother way. They feel comfortable.”

Tommy Tremble, left, and Ian Book talk during Notre Dame's Pro Day workout on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Then there’s his creativity with the clippers. Former Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book was a breakthrough client of sorts.

“People were actually coming in and asking for Ian Book’s haircut,” Rodriguez said of the winningest quarterback in program history. “A lot of little white kids were like, ‘Let me get the nice fade of Ian Book.’ That was crazy.”

Sam Hartman, the graduate transfer quarterback from Wake Forest who enrolled in mid-January, quickly found Rodriguez’s shop.

“Julio’s my guy, for sure,” Hartman said. “Does a good job every time. Consistent.”

Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman (10) Wednesday, April 12, 2023, during spring football practice on the Notre Dame campus.

An established NIL pitchman whose latest endorsement deal is with Dove men’s care products, Hartman has the résumé and the personality to make this fall quite interesting.

“I can’t wait for that,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been cutting him a lot lately. This is my opportunity. This is my advertisement right here, so I make sure he likes what he’s getting.”

Their collaboration has national reach.

“When Sam first came in, I asked so many questions,” Rodriguez said. “I want to get his hair cut perfect because I know he’s going to feel better and it’s going to look good. All it takes is focus: ‘Do you want this shorter? Do you want this longer?’ It’s details. Literally, details.”

There’s a pause and a knowing smile.

“He’s doing a mullet right now,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why I’m excited. He’s doing the sides, and then the back is supposed to be growing. I think at Wake he did it but imagine that: ‘Yo, who’s doing his mullet?’ I love every minute of it. I’m like, ‘Yo!’ I want him to do that.”

Former Notre Dame punter Tyler Newsome, a 2018 captain, is the prototype.

“You remember Tyler Newsome’s hair?” Rodriguez said. “He had the mullet with the two lines. Yeah, I did that.”

Notre Dame’s Tyler Newsome (85) unbuttons his shirt before the Florida State-Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

And soon Hartman might as well.

“I just can’t imagine him ballin’ out there with a mullet,” Rodriguez said, grinning at the thought. “Like, dude, that’s going to be the best. I love it, man. They can use NIL nowadays for all this stuff.”

When the NCAA opened the floodgates for name, image and likeness in July 2021, Rodriguez was among the beneficiaries.

“When I started cutting, (Notre Dame) was a little worried,” he said. “Compliance was calling me like, ‘Yo, you can’t use our players as advertisement for your business.’ And then I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t have a business. This is just having fun.’ Nowadays, I don’t ever hear from anybody, so that’s great.”

'Freeman Day'

Rodriguez, whose rate starts at $40 and climbs from there, got his start a decade ago in his parents’ basement. Connections with former men’s basketball standouts Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem expanded his reach on Notre Dame’s campus, and gradually word began to spread.

Julio Rodriguez talks about working with Notre Dame athletes while cutting Aldair Alonso’s hair in his basement studio Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 on the southwest side of South Bend.

Mike Brey was a regular customer, often stopping by the new shop until resigning after 23 seasons as men’s basketball coach. Former Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly used a different barber, but Rodriguez handled haircuts for Kelly’s kids.

“But now with Freeman?” he said. “That’s just on another level.”

The appointment typically takes 30 to 45 minutes, Rodriguez said.

“Just to make sure it looks nice,” he said. “I can’t afford to give him a bad haircut.”

 The fastest? Maybe 20 minutes.

“I’ve had to rush his haircut before, because it’s in between meetings and Zoom calls,” Rodriguez said. “I live five minutes from his house, and he knows it. The craziest thing was when he was named the head coach. He was like, ‘Yo, I need it right now. Like, ASAP. I got a press conference, me and my kids.’ ”

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Rodriguez, who schedules 50 to 75 appointments in a typical week, calls Sunday his “Freeman Day.”

“I can take my time and text him when I wake up,” he said. “Somebody (on Twitter) was like, ‘He must be flying a barber in. There’s no way he’s getting that cut in town.’ So many people say a lot of things about his haircut. It’s so funny.”

Rodriguez has Freeman’s ear when it comes to his hairstyle, which has been compared to the Will Smith Fade.

“If you look at pictures, Freeman used to be bald,” Rodriguez said. “He used to have a curly Afro, but it’s been this same style since he started here (in January 2021). I’ve asked him, ‘Do you ever want to switch it up?’ He’s like, ‘Nah.’ I’m like: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ ”

Rodriguez has teased Freeman about his relatively modest lifestyle.

“I’m always asking him, ‘Hey, Freeman, you’re rich now. Why don’t you buy you a cool car, a Lamborghini or something? Why don’t you buy designer clothes or cool shoes?’ “ Rodriguez said. “He always tells me it’s not about the money and he’s just working so hard so he can chill later on in his life.”

Julio Rodriguez, who has been the barber for Notre Dame coaches, players and others for years, stands in his shop, Exclusive Studios, on Thursday, April 14, 2023, on North Main Street in downtown Mishawaka.

With the Blue-Gold Game coming up Saturday, Rodriguez and his barber crew will be at the Guglielmino football building on Wednesday for another three to four hours of fresh cuts. The well-coiffed frontman of the Notre Dame football program wouldn’t dream of leading a scruffy team out of the tunnel.

“That’s a Freeman thing, for sure,” Rodriguez said. “He tells me, ‘Man, I’m happy to get this cut.’ Imagine the players. Right before a game? Freeman knows how important it is. He’s the one that’s like, ‘Yo, I want my players to feel the same as I do.’ “  


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