By Stiofán Mac Fhilib
In the wake of him losing the Fiesta Bowl in his first game as head coach, Stiofán looks at how Notre Dame went from Brian Kelly to Marcus Freeman in the blink of an eye, and what it means for The Fighting Irish going forward:
May You Live In Interesting Times
There’s some debate over whether or not this really is an old Chinese curse, but what’s not in doubt for Notre Dame Fighting Irish and LSU Tigers fans is that the week after Thanksgiving in 2021 was more than just a little interesting. After all it’s not every year, or indeed decade, that your head coach leaves for another team for the first time in 114 years. Or that you replace a HC with a National Championship ring earned less than two years ago with the coach with most career CFB wins among active coaches, who won more games at Notre Dame than Knute Rockne.
What’s particularly interesting as well is the how the whole situation has played out among all the relevant parties. It’s not often that a coaching switch such as this is ultimately so well-received by pretty much all involved.
Some people think success is the most important quality that fans desire. But I would disagree. Success is great for sure. But it can be a relatively fleeting thing. As LSU fans wistfully sticking on their 2019 season highlights while watching a 6-6 season in 2021 can testify. And yes, Alabama IS the exception that proves the rule. No, the thing that sports fans want, and more importantly need, most is hope.
For Irish fans the biggest barrier to finally breaking through to National Championship success is better recruiting. Marcus Freeman in his short time in South Bend so far has demonstrated he’s more than capable of that. ND fans can now legitimately dream of future classes with the talent able to go head-to-head with the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State. Now whether or not the associated player development and in-game coaching will be good enough to win it all, that is the gamble that remains to be seen. But what is indisputable is that the Notre Dame fan base has not been more excited, energised, and united in, well, all my time following the team.
And just as ND fans are delighted at replacing an outgoing HC with one who excels at his predecessor’s biggest weakness, LSU fans are similarly pleased to have a guy coming in who is a mature, experienced CEO with a great record of building up programmes. And no predilection for propositioning wives of senior university officials; nor for appointing coordinators without bothering to interview them. Win-win all round really.
Ditto Coaches Freeman and Kelly. A year ago, in one of life’s more delicious ironies, Kelly was persuading Freeman to eschew the attractions of the Bayou for a Defensive Coordinator role at Notre Dame. The idea of his potential grooming for a future ND HC vacancy was mooted very soon after his arrival, such was his immediate impact on his environs. But not even he expected it to come to fruitions so soon, I should imagine. No matter. He’s now the 35 year old HC at Notre Dame, on a contract said to be worth around $28m over five years. An amount that will likely increase significantly should he achieve the kind of success he was appointed to bring.
Brian Kelly meanwhile has the second biggest smile in Baton Rouge, after his bank manager. A base salary of $95m over ten years, with various incentives would be enough to get most people to speak in whatever accent you like. And the Boston native is no different. Better still, even if LSU decide they want to replace him in the morning, 95% of his contract is guaranteed immediately, giving him at least $85m, no matter what. I think I’d like to be a CFB head coach when I grow up.
That Was The Week That Was
Well, I say week, because technically it was seven days from the announcement of Brian Kelly’s departure for LSU and the ceremony to formally introduce Marcus Freeman as the 30th Head Football Coach of Notre Dame. But in reality all the key events were pretty much compressed into a roughly 72 hour span that began with Kelly in the middle of an awkward meeting with a recruit in the Pacific North West and ended with the news of Freeman’s rapid succession in northern Indiana. With a rather memorable basketball game in Louisiana in between.
One of the most fascinating things that invariably follows a coaching transition is the information that comes out around the participants, and their previous tenures, that otherwise would never have seen the light of a laptop screen. Veteran followers of the game will, of course, long since have realised that when both parties to a divergence of HC and school are busily spinning their own narratives and back stories, there are always three versions. So let look back over how events transpired and try to assess where everyone involved goes from here.
Sweet Home Louisiana
Brian Kelly was in the home of a recruit in Notre Dame’s 2022 class when the LSU coaching searching was finally reaching its conclusion. Accompanied by two of his assistants, including OC Tommy Rees, that was quite the awkward dinner with the Merriweather family. And an even more awkward car and plane journey back afterwards. But this was merely the culmination of events that has been brewing for a number of months it seems.
Kelly signed an extension to his c. £7.5m per year ND contract in 2020 that would see him through to 2024. In it he had also stipulated some facilities improvements, particularly around dining and mental health provisions. These add-ons had not been delivered on schedule (though they are still on track for eventual completion) due to the massive financial impact of the pandemic. Then the 2021 season saw some other, less successful coaches, leverage their own schools into massive new contracts.
Once Kelly had surpassed Rockne’s all-time ND win record in late September his agent, Trace Armstrong, was straight on to Notre Dame Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, to seek a further increase to his client’s contract. Swarbrick’s response is said to have ben along the lines of ‘win a national championship and come back to me’. And from there it now appears the die was effectively cast.
When Kirk Herbstreit was publicly suggesting before Thanksgiving that USC pursue Kelly, the reaction of most ND fans was a mixture of amusement and irritation. But no one thought it was a remotely serious notion. Yet in reality Armstrong was quietly speaking not only to the other half of CFB’s greatest inter-sectional rivalry, but also to the likes of Florida. And LSU. Was Kelly LSU’s first choice? Quite possibly not, given the smoke around Lincoln Riley and Jimbo Fisher. But no AD likes a big splashy hire like LSU’s Scott Woodward and he certainly delivered.
Fans Can Be So Fickell
Once Jack Swarbrick took Kelly’s call informing him that he was leaving, the second coaching hire of his time as AD commenced. Twelve years ago, the priority was finding someone with the experience and skills to build the program back up to where it had been under its last successful HC, Lou Holtz, a man who had left Notre Dame in 1995, before any of today’s team had been born. This time round Swarbrick was in the market for someone with a different skillset.
In recent years Notre Dame staff (from both the football coaching/recruiting and admin areas) have met with their counterparts in Clemson on several occasions, visiting each other’s campuses, to discuss a range of topics around culture, recruiting and general football strategy. ND sees the Tigers as the one school, out of all the current top tier of regular playoff qualifiers, that is the closest cultural fit to the Irish. And inter alia Swarbrick took away some fresh perspectives on what qualities are needed in a HC to coach successfully at that level; qualities that had evolved since his previous coaching search in 2009. When quizzed on them at the press conference at Freeman’s unveiling, he explained succinctly: “recruiting”.
His list in his little black book of potential replacements for Kelly was pretty short. Luke Fickell, Matt Campbell and Marcus Freeman. A year earlier Freeman was on a different list – potential Defensive Coordinator. Or rather, the preferred choice at DC. That he managed to upgrade himself in eleven short months says a lot about the qualities he possesses and their alignment – if Brian Kelly will excuse my copyright breach – to what Swarbrick felt was now needed.
Out of those three, the Cincinnati HC and his former DC were 1a and 1b. Swarbrick had long had a high regard for Luke Fickell, and his team’s performance in South Bend in October did nothing to reduce that. Had his team not been in the first ever playoff game a G5 team has reached then it may have been interesting to see in which direction Swarbrick would have headed. However, meeting with the seven ND team captains, together with strong support from several key donors, helped cement the idea in the AD’s mind that Freeman had the ability to maintain the culture that his predecessor had done such a good job building. And then enhance with his more effective approach to recruiting.
Key to this strategy was securing the services of two key members of staff. First the strength coach, Matt Balis, beloved by the players as well as by the fans who have witnessed the significant improvements his five years in the post have brought. The second was OC, Tommy Rees, who ultimately put his loyalty to his Alma Mater ahead of other job offers (plural) elsewhere. Both Rees and Balis, along with Freeman and DL Coach, Mike Elston, all had offers from Kelly to join him at LSU. Keeping them in South Bend was huge in terms of putting together a team that would entice Freeman to accept the Notre Dame HC position.
And so, it came to pass. Within 48 hours of Kelly’s departure Balis, Rees, Elston, RB Coach, Lance Taylor, TE Coach, John McNulty, CB Coach, Mike Mickens, and S Coach, Chris O’Leary all announced they were staying, and it was clear which direction Swarbrick had chosen. The decision was ‘officially leaked’ on the Thursday though it took another day for the official public announcement, a delay that you can thank the George O’Leary debacle in 2001 for.
By this stage Freeman had passed his final ‘test’, a Zoom interview with school president, Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C. The official public unveiling of the new HC was then set for the following Monday; it couldn’t be held any earlier because the president was in Rome. Which is about as on brand as you can get for the leading Catholic school in college football!
One aspect of the process that was markedly different from 2009 and before, was the impact of social media. The concerted campaign by the players – and even some recruits – in favour of Freeman was not the deciding factor but it did not go unnoticed either. And the school has already appropriated their “#FreemanEra” hashtag for its own use. The video of Freeman being introduced to his players as their new head coach went viral within hours. If he can harness that same energy into on-field performances, then laissez les bon temps rouler as they say down in Baton Rouge…
As Far As Who Can Go?
For all the snark and at times bitterness from some Notre Dame fans towards their erstwhile HC, the one thing that pretty much everyone (including, I should imagine, the man himself) would agree upon is that Brian Kelly had taken Notre Dame football as far as he could. And in fairness, that was quite far indeed, considering what he inherited in 2009.
The $64,000 question, or whatever that is now, adjusted for inflation, is whether or not as far as Kelly could take them is as far as the football program can go full stop. This will be the key factor in ultimately deciding the future ND legacies of both Kelly and his successor.
Kelly has begun to assemble his new staff in Louisiana as he looks to take on a fresh challenge that will present different issues to those in South Bend. To date only one assistant coach from Notre Dame has joined him: Brian Polian, his Special Teams coach. It is anticipated that ND OL Coach, Jeff Quinn, and possibly WR Coach, Del Alexander, will be released by the Irish after their Fiesta Bowl game, though Kelly already has an OL Coach in Brad Davis. They may yet find a home in the Bayou.
Recruiting should be easier at LSU in terms of the raw talent within driving distance of the campus. And given Kelly’s reputation as a CEO with a distinctly ‘hands-off’ approach to that side of the job, coupled with his geographic unfamiliarity with the region after a career spent in the mid-west, it’s essential he puts together a staff with tenacious recruiters who have local knowledge. Especially after losing two of his better ones in Mickey Joseph to Nebraska and Corey Raymond to conference rivals, Florida.
One of his first moves was to persuade McNeese State HC, Frank Wilson, considered by many as the top recruiter in the state, to return to Baton Rouge as Associate HC. He still has several key spots to fill, and it seems some of these are earmarked for coaches still with big games to finish. Matt House, the Kansas City Chiefs LB coach, will be his DC. The OC is expected to be Cincinnati OC, Mike Denbrock, who coached under Kelly previously at both Notre Dame and at the DII level at Grand Valley State.
Kelly was used to dealing with ‘student athletes’ in his previous job, in an environment where his motto was ‘graduate champions’ and he was judged on both elements of that phrase. It will be interesting to see how soon ‘student athletes’ become ‘players’ in a new setting where his win-loss record will assume far greater importance compared to the school’s APR. The tools he seemed to feel he lacked in South Bend should now be within his reach. The extent to which he can take them and turn them into the championship teams he didn’t think possible at Notre Dame will be fascinating to observe in the coming seasons.
Low Floors & High Ceilings
Every coaching hire is a risk, they say. And they say it mostly because it’s very true. Even Nick Saban wasn’t expected to achieve what he has at Alabama back when he assured everyone that he would not be the next head coach at Alabama. With Marcus Freeman, his hire removes some short-term risks, compared to going with the likes of Luke Fickell, but also introduces different new ones.
Had anyone but Freeman been appointed, and appointed quickly, the Irish may have lost up to around half of their 2022 recruiting class. Coaching appointments should not – and at Notre Dame are not – made on the basis on one recruiting class. But all the same it was a helpful bonus not to have to engage in some program rebuilding at the start of a new head coaching tenure. Especially when you see the attrition suffered by the likes of Oklahoma, Oregon and Florida after their HC changes.
Under Kelly Notre Dame’s twelve recruiting classes were ranked: 9, 17, 5, 11, 13, 15, 10, 10, 15, 18, 9 and 7. An average of 11.6. Or 12.0 if you exclude the most recent season with Marcus Freeman on the staff. Kelly’s best class was the 2013 one, signed in warm glow of a BCS Championship Game appearance and a 2012 regular season that finished with Notre Dame ranked #1. Outside of that, however, Kelly generally struggled to crack single figures. One of the attractions of Freeman’s initial hire as DC was his recruiting prowess. That he managed to play such a key role in ND improving from a 12.0 average to the 7th ranked class for 2022 was a not insignificant part of his job interview. And that the Irish currently have the #1 ranked class for 2023 recruits – at this ridiculously early stage – gives realistic hope to Irish fans that we can crack the top five on a much more regular basis in the future.
That’s why ND sees such a high ceiling for Freeman’s appointment. Higher than for Kelly and even maybe for Fickell, who would have been the absolute ideal candidate had Notre dame been in a similar situation now to that in 2009.
That said, when you appoint a 35 year old with zero head coaching experience there are obvious risks that give rise to a lower floor for such a hire. And while Freeman learns on the job, he will have plenty of high profile opportunities to do so. The same opposing fans who like to perpetuate the myth that ND doesn’t play a hard schedule are also equally keen to point out the poor record of the Irish (under Kelly) in games against top ten opposition (4-11). Well, Freeman may end facing almost as many top ten opponents in his first four seasons as Kelly did in twelve, especially if USC fulfil their potential under new HC, Lincoln Riley.
By December 2025 Freeman will have faced: USC (x4), Ohio State (x2), Clemson (x2) and Texas A&M (x2). And Miami (FL) twice, which could improve significantly under Cristobal. And Miami (Ohio) once. Though I suspect we can probably chalk that one up as a likely win.
All in all though I think the Chinese have a point. For both Notre Dame and LSU fans, the coming few seasons should definitely prove to be interesting times indeed.
A VERY LONG-DISTANCE SUBWAY ALUMNUS OF NOTRE DAME, COUNTY ANTRIM-BASED STIOFÁN HAS BEEN A FAN OF THE FIGHTING IRISH SINCE 2000. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SMACFHILIB.