Story Poster
Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 1, 2021

When Marcus Freeman was named defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, it was a huge win for the program. The top DC on the market had his choice of where he wanted to go, but ultimately chose the Irish.

It didn’t take long for people to recognize that he was special. He was making an impact as a recruiter within the first couple of weeks and that hasn’t stopped the entire time he’s been on staff. Then when the season started and things didn’t go so well in the first couple of weeks, it was clear that some had cooled on him as a coach.

But then he did what he did at Cincinnati. He adapted. His defense got better. The final regular season stats say it all in regards to how the players played for him down the stretch.

Before Brian Kelly to LSU was even on anyone’s radar, keeping Freeman was on the minds of Notre Dame fans. His value to the program was obvious and his star was rising. He was going to be a head coach soon and if Kelly was still around for the foreseeable future, that wouldn’t be in South Bend.

Kelly leaving opened up the possibility that Freeman’s time as a head coach could be right now. He’s (about to be) the new head football coach at the University of Notre Dame and after the announcement that Tommy Rees is staying at offensive coordinator and Matt Balis staying on to head up strength and conditioning, the program has the foundation in place that can build on the success of recent years.

Is he ready for the job? We won’t know until we see him actually do it. We do know that he is going to outwork most of the head coaches in the country when it comes to recruiting and that is already an upgrade on the guy who held the position previously. Most of the rest of it we will have to wait and see.

The greatest fear for many followers of the program is that Notre Dame hasn’t had success with first time head coaches before. That’s a myopic way to view this, though.

The idea that Notre Dame isn’t a job where a first time head coach can succeed is all based off of Bob Davie, Charlie Weis, and Gerry Faust. That’s unfair to Freeman, or anyone, to lump him in with them. Those guys weren’t successful because they weren’t ever going to be great head coaches. None of them succeeded after Notre Dame either. The experience they gained didn’t make them much better at their next gigs. They were simply bad hires.

There are numerous assistants who have been elevated in recent years who have done very well as head coaches. As Mike Frank mentioned on our YouTube live video we recorded yesterday, eight of the top-14 in the College Football Playoff rankings were first time head coaches when their schools hired them.

The risk with promoting Freeman is that he’s never been a head coach before and he’ll make mistakes because of it. There’s no indication that he would even make close to the same mistakes Kelly made with his original staff or that another coach with more experience running a program wouldn’t also make mistakes transitioning to Notre Dame.

In addition to understanding the culture of the school and the program, check and check for Freeman there, the number one priority should be about finding the guy who can take them to that next level to win a national championship.

Everyone can agree that upgrading the overall talent via recruiting is the best way to get there. Freeman has already proven he can deliver in that aspect. Now we get to watch and see if he and his staff can take this thing to the next level

2. Tommy Rees is not going to be the next head coach at Notre Dame, but he certainly understands the program as well as anyone. I think he has done an outstanding job while being dealt a tough hand in his two seasons as offensive coordinator.

The first year it was the injuries at receiver. The second year was with the issues on the offensive line and uncertainty at quarterback. He’s adjusted to the strength of his players and never been stuck in playing to a particular scheme.

I believe he’ll only get better as a play-caller and he’s making a bigger impact as a recruiter as well.

Keeping him on the staff is extremely important in my opinion. Not just because he’s a good coach, but because he has knowledge of what it takes to be a player at Notre Dame and the inner workings of the program. That is invaluable.

There’s the notion that someone who hasn’t been a head coach should want to have someone on his staff with head coaching experience to help him navigate the new responsibilities. I’d argue that it’s even more important to have someone around who can help him navigate the uniqueness of Notre Dame. Rees can help Freeman a lot in that sense.

3. The fact that the staff isn’t running off to Baton Rouge with Kelly says something about how they feel about Freeman, but probably says even more about how they feel about the players.

Kelly abandoned those players. Not only that, he just used his opening press conference to spout a bunch of stuff he had said about Notre Dame and recycled it to gush about how great LSU is. 

The team overcame a lot to get to the point where they have a shot at making the College Football Playoff. They deserved better than to have their coach quit on them and I don’t think the other coaches on staff would want to do that. Who would if they had any kind of moral compass?

Maybe the whole band will stay together with Freeman next year or maybe some of these guys will end up leaving for other opportunities when the season is over. Coaching can be a cut throat business so I wouldn’t blame any of these men if they chose to eventually pursue another job somewhere else.

At the moment, it doesn’t look like anyone is leaving with Kelly. Good. This isn’t a team that is playing the Bahamas Bowl (apologies to the good people who run the Bahamas Bowl for catching a stray there). This is a team that could still play for a national championship.

The right thing to do is for the staff to stay on and finish with these players.

4. The Brian Kelly era could have ended on a high note. Instead it ended just like his time at Cincinnati did with him leaving his former team despite having more goals left to accomplish.

We should have known. He came to Notre Dame that way so it made sense that would be how he left.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t looked at other options previously. His name had been thrown out there for other jobs over the last dozen years and it’s fair to assume that he would have left for an NFL job if an NFL franchise wanted him. It just felt like, at age 60, he was going to ride it out in South Bend and try to win a championship before he walked away.

That didn’t happen and now we can finally talk about the legacy of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame knowing that there is no more to add to the story. And while the way he left is certainly part of how he’ll be remembered, it’s really only a small part of it.

So, what should his legacy be? We can start with this:

While other blue-bloods have been on a roller coaster ride of mediocrity, Kelly built Notre Dame into a program that was capable of contending for the College Football Playoff regularly. That took much longer than many would have liked, but it did happen.

He didn’t recruit anywhere close to a top-five level, but he put together a strong staff that helped identify and then develop talent to put them in a position to be a top-five team on the field. That’s a pretty significant accomplishment even if there were plenty of bumps on the road along the way (4-8, the collapse in the second half of 2014, Brian VanGorder, and more).

That’s the first piece of it. The second piece is that he didn’t really come close to winning a championship. Whether it was depth, not developing an elite quarterback, or deficiencies at specific positions, he never built a roster that could hang with big dogs during his time at Notre Dame.

He was 1-8 against Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State. When he coached against programs that had truly elite talent all over their roster, he couldn’t win those games. Yes, Kelly did a good job winning against Notre Dame’s chief rival, USC. But he had the benefit of coaching against USC after Pete Carroll.

He never had to face USC when they would have been included with that first group of four. He’s not going to leave with a statue because he never did enough to beat those top tier programs and that encompasses everything from recruiting to game day coaching.

Kelly left the program a lot better than what he inherited and we may say that in a few years that he set it up for Freeman to do the things Kelly couldn’t do to finally get over the hump. If that’s how he is remembered, I’m sure he won’t like being a footnote in the story of a championship coach. He no longer has control of that, though.

A guy who won 10 games in five straight years chose to leave so he doesn’t get a say in where the story goes from here. The work he put in was substantial, but remains unfinished. It’s now up to the next coach to take over to complete the mission.

5. I think Kelly will do well at LSU. I think there’s a good chance he finally wins a championship. The last three coaches all won at least one there so I don't see why he couldn't do the same.

He can bring stability and competency to their program, which hasn’t always been the case there when they’ve been down. He might not be able to bring many of the staff he has worked with from Notre Dame to LSU, but I doubt he’ll have a tough time building a strong staff with their budget.

The big thing is that Kelly, specifically in the last four years, has beaten all of the teams he’s supposed to. I don’t see why that won’t happen at LSU. He’s lost when his teams haven’t been able to match up and they should be able to do that better if his staff can recruit at a similar level to the previous one.

Like all coaches there, so much will depend on if he can keep the top talent in the state home. There are seven top-100 prospects from Louisiana in the 2022 cycle. There are six in the 2023 cycle. It’s a different world down there with recruiting and if he can navigate that well enough, he’s going to end up with a team that has top-5 talent on paper.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he had to overcome some rough patches at the start, but he’s walking into a situation that should have them ready to compete right away to contend in the SEC.

6. Oklahoma has had seven players decommit from the 2022 and 2023 classes since it was announced that Lincoln Riley was headed to USC. They’ve also added three former high profile recruits in the transfer portal on top of that.

As The Athletic’s Jason Kersey described it, Oklahoma football is teetering on the brink of chaos. It will likely only get worse until they hire a new coach.

That hasn’t happened at Notre Dame and with the promotion of Marcus Freeman and by keeping Rees, Balis, Elston, and everybody else, it’s not going to happen. It’s exactly why it’s not just about “fit”. It has to also be about “fast”.

The longer it would have taken to name a new coach, the more it opened up the possibility for the recruiting class to fall apart and for players to look elsewhere. People may not like that, but that is the reality of college football today.

Uncertainty is the cousin of risk. In general, most individuals try to avoid risk and sticking with Notre Dame and not knowing who the coach might be for a lot of these young players would have been a risk if they didn’t know who the coach was going to be. The risk was only going to shoot up when it got to the early signing period, which is only two weeks away.

Notre Dame is in a strong position right now for next season and beyond if they can keep the roster and the recruiting class together. They put themselves in a position to do that with the moves they’ve made this quickly.

They could have been Oklahoma, but now they have a chance to put themselves in an even better spot than they would have been in with Brian Kelly.

subscribe Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.