It’s impossible to know whether Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman will be the next Knute Rockne or the next Charlie Weis.
The 35-year-old Freeman has no head coaching experience and was a relative unknown less than a year ago before being hired as the Irish defensive coordinator to replace the departed Clark Lea.
But one thing we do know is Freeman won’t be Brian Kelly, and that’s a very good thing for the university and its national fan base.
You could tell Monday from the comments on the YouTube stream of Freeman’s introductory news conference that Irish fans are excited about the change. Some referred to “Bayou Brian” and called Kelly a “snake,” while Freeman was greeted like a conquering hero — and a good-looking one at that.
“I can’t decide who’s hotter,” one commenter said. “Marcus or Brady (Quinn)?”
It’s a new era, so maybe it’s time for the Irish to join it.
Notre Dame has gambled on risky hires and lost. The names Gerry Faust and Weis immediately spring to mind.
But those hires were from a prehistoric era, before playoff games and the “E-ZPass” transfer portal that allows players to move more freely from one program to another. Freeman seems like he belongs and is confident in his ability to lead.
“I’m ready,” he said Monday. “I’m ready for this challenge and I’m ready to lead this program to its greatest heights.”
It was a wild week for the Irish once the news broke of Kelly’s departure to LSU. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick acted quickly in promoting Freeman at the expense of a search that might have reeled in a bigger name such as Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell — Freeman’s former position coach at Ohio State and his boss with the Bearcats from 2017-20.
Swarbrick said Monday he spoke with Notre Dame’s seven captains about the “culture” the players had built in South Bend, and that made the decision easy for him.
“Their message, stated clearly and convincingly, was ‘Jack, don’t screw this up,’” he said. “I got the message.”
Swarbrick said Freeman “won the job” on his own, though the core of this Irish team made its voices loud and clear. He didn’t mention Kelly’s role in developing that culture — or Kelly’s name at all for that matter. Rev. John Jenkins, the university president, also didn’t mention Kelly during his remarks, which were bland enough for one YouTuber to comment: “Annnnd this is why I fall asleep in church.”
Kelly is the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, surpassing Rockne on Sept. 25 with a 41-13 win over Wisconsin at Soldier Field. But he knew what his legacy would be, even before fleeing to the bayou for a reported 10-year, $95 million deal at LSU.
“I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history,” Kelly said upon moving past Rockne. “The coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship. That’s where I’ll sit.”
That was back when Kelly spoke in plain English. He apparently decided to adopt a Southern accent to ingratiate himself with the locals and tried it out before Tigers fans at a basketball game last week.
By the time LSU’s 2022 season begins, Kelly might go full-on Jed Clampett and start yelling “Weeee, doggie!” during postgame interviews. We can only pray.
Meanwhile, Freeman will be trying to do what Kelly could not — win a national championship with a football program blessed with a built-in recruiting edge no one else has. Virtually every Irish game is guaranteed to be on national TV, including all of their home games on NBC (with the exception of a Sept. 11 win over Toledo that was streamed on NBC’s Peacock service).
Freeman fully expects to win a championship at Notre Dame — and quickly.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” he said. “And it can be done right away. We’re not talking about a future, long-term plan.”
There’s no reason for Notre Dame not to win a national title, and like Kelly, Freeman eventually will be judged on whether he can take the Irish to that level.
With a little luck, his first game could’ve been in this season’s College Football Playoff. Notre Dame beat everyone on its 2021 schedule except Cincinnati, but that head-to-head loss proved significant when the Bearcats finished unbeaten and made the CFP as the No. 4 seed.
Was the one-loss Michigan team really better than the one-loss Notre Dame team by the end of the season? We’ll never know, but hopefully an eight- or 12-team playoff will be adopted to settle such matters down the road.
Freeman spoke of creating a “golden standard” at Notre Dame, one that “will drive this football program to its 12th national championship.” The Irish have been stuck on 11 since way back in 1988, another era in college football and three years before Notre Dame’s unprecedented agreement with NBC to televise all of its home games.
NBC isn’t just a TV partner. Its broadcasts help sell the program, whether by continually lauding the school’s history or showing off the beauty of its South Bend campus with the colors turning on late fall afternoons. Touchdown Jesus gets more air time than any player.
There’s no cutting away from the game afterward for the next kickoff. Even during blowouts, Irish fans watching on NBC patiently wait for the game to end and the team to gather in the end zone to sing the school’s alma mater, “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” along with the students and fans.
And thanks to Hollywood and then-actor Ronald Reagan, the Rockne name remains the most famous in college football history. Whether it was actually uttered or not, Reagan’s “Win one for the Gipper” line from “Knute Rockne, All American” is one of sports’ most well-known quotes, on par with “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
You can’t buy the kind of publicity Notre Dame gets just for being Notre Dame, and when the football team is winning, the broadcasts can become a recruiting infomercial. Now comes Freeman to give the program a younger, hipper, more energetic and straighter-talking presence than his predecessor, while also promising to be a “relentless recruiter.”
With only one game left — the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State — we won’t really get to witness the Freeman Effect until next season. He’s not a larger-than-life character like Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, but Freeman has a chance to become one if he can get Notre Dame back to the promised land.
With all the noise on Twitter and message boards, the job is harder than ever. After being pasted 31-14 by Alabama in last year’s CFP semifinals in the Rose Bowl played in Arlington, Texas, Kelly complained about the “narrative” surrounding the program being too negative.
“Everybody can keep saying, ‘Notre Dame is not good enough,’” he said. “Well, you know what? You’re going to have a problem because we’re going to keep winning games, we’re going to keep getting back here and we’re going to break through. And then I’m going to be terrible to be at a press conference with. Terrible!”
Now he’s gone, and the Freeman era has begun.
Luck of the Irish at last.
The most annoying college sports traditions
21. Big heads (San Diego State)
20. The Tomahawk Chop (Florida State)
19. Curtain of Distraction (Arizona State)
18. Calling the hogs (Arkansas)
17. Cameron Crazies (Duke)
16. Couch burning (West Virginia)
15. OH-IO (Ohio State)
14. Throwing tortillas (Texas Tech)
13. The pink visitors locker room (Iowa)
12. Barking (Georgia)
11. The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (Stanford)
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A detailed view of a Notre Dame Fighting Irish player's helmet showing the CFP logo during the College Football Playoff Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against the Clemson Tigers at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/TNS)