Inside Marcus Freeman’s rise to Notre Dame football head coach

SOUTH BEND – Out of the corner of my eye, Joanna Freeman followed her six children rolling in their street clothes on Monday in the northern area of ​​the Irish Athletics Center, her husband having already left his introductory press conference to go up to board a jet for a recruiting trip.

Moments before, Marcus Freeman was on the stage sharing a moment behind the scenes of a swirling chain of events that led the 35-year-old defensive coordinator to become one of the most prestigious, stressful and most students. -control management positions in all sports.

Notre-Dame’s head football coach.

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He ended the anecdote, about the call of predecessor and former boss Brian Kelly last Monday night, with a cliffhanger.

When Coach Kelly calls and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to LSU. Are you going to become my defensive coordinator? ‘

“I said, ‘I need a job, but can I talk to my wife?’ That’s all I said, “Can I talk to my wife?” “

What Joanna Freeman Said Next tells you everything you need to know about what Marcus Freeman stands for.

“The first thing we both said to each other was, ‘Well, what’s going on with these kids? What’s going on with these guys? ‘ Joanna said of the fifth-ranked Irishman (11-1), set to play No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.

“(Marcus said) We have this bowling game coming up, we can’t – ‘I don’t want to leave these kids.’

“And so this is the first time that I’ve really looked at him and thought, ‘He really loves Notre Dame. He really loves these kids. He loves Notre Dame and he wants to be here.

“And so I kind of took a deep breath, and I knew he was going to get this job. Not for himself, but for these guys.

Amid the cascade of questions Freeman was prepared to answer on Monday (his vision, his recruiting strategy, how viable ND is to win a national title) and those he was not (what will the roster be? assistant coaches Beyond the Bowl, if he goes the call plays in the bowl, safety star Kyle Hamilton be a part of it), it is clear that faith and family – including the Notre Dame family – are integrated into its processes.

And on its rise.

“He cares more about you as a person than as a player,” said super-senior noseguard Kurt Hinish, one of seven Irish captains who at close range told sporting director Jack Swarbrick, “not to spoil” the training. to look for.

“When you see something like that,” Hinish continued, “it means a lot to you because in this industry you don’t see a lot of that.”

That doesn’t guarantee anything in how Freeman’s bottom line will eventually align with that of Kelly’s 113-40 ledger over 11 seasons and a truncated 12th. But what it does suggest is how it will get to where it will go.

Lead with your heart.

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman holds a helmet while posing for a portrait with university president Reverend John Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick at a press conference on Monday, December 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

He stifled the emotion as he explained how much that meant athletic director Jack Swarbrick and ND chairman Reverend John Jenkins believed in him.

“It was emotional for me too,” Swarbrick said later. “It hit me the same way when he had this reaction. It’s all about relationships. It’s all about the people.

And overcome no head coaching experience, something that has been transcended in some of college football’s other bluebloods in recent years – Ryan Day of Ohio State, new USC coach Lincoln Riley when he was. promoted to Oklahoma, former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart taking over from his alma mother, Georgia, and less recently Dabo Swinney elevated to interim and then finally permanent head coach at Clemson.

“I’m worried about this part,” admitted Swarbrick. “Nobody knows that until they do, right?” I think he’s phenomenal. I have all the faith in the world in him, but you don’t know until you do.

“He’s going to have my full support. He’s going to have plenty of time, and I have every confidence that he will. When you create a pool of candidates, there’s a reason no one else in that pool was a head coach. “

And yet, Freeman floated to the top.

“Last week during our research I was in Rome,” said Father Jenkins. “I was not a research consultant, but I had a few appointments already scheduled. When I interviewed Coach Freeman via Zoom from my hotel room, my first question was simply, “Why are you training?” “

Michael and Chong Freeman, Marcus ‘parents, sat in the front row for Monday’s coronation, knowing the answer to Jenkins’ question but smiling when they heard it again anyway.

“My current and former players, you are my ‘why’,” Marcus said. “You are my motivation. You are the reason I wake up everyday and work as hard as I can to see you all achieve your goals. Seeing you all setting a goal and living a dream is what inspires me every day to do what I do.

“Last, but not least, my parents. I kind of told you their story, but I just want you to know, when other people say “Be yourself” I’m me because of you. “

And yet, as long as Marcus was a coach – since 2010 as a graduate assistant at alma mater Ohio State after an expanded heart diagnosis ended his fledgling NFL career – Michael was surprised when his son hugged him, hurriedly said goodbye to him and said he had a plane to catch.

“Oh, okay,” Michael said. “I won’t have a chance to talk to him, I guess.”

And then the stunned gaze was quickly replaced by a smile.

“I think it’s a wonderful challenge,” said the 26-year US Air Force veteran. “I’m glad I’m still alive to see this day. It’s beyond belief, really. When you’ve been there as long as I have and seen the things that I have seen in life, I am really proud of him.

The same goes for Chong, who Michael met when he was deployed to South Korea and eventually married.

“As a kid he never met a stranger,” Michael added when asked what the first signs were that training might be something Marcus could be good at. “Marcus has always talked to people and communicated with people. He’s always been able to look a person in the eye and talk to them.

Michael and Chong Freeman at a press conference announcing their son, Marcus Freeman, as Notre Dame's new football head coach on Monday, December 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

Michael’s military background also helped shape Marcus and his older brother Michael Freeman Jr.

“Get up early,” said Elder Freeman.

“To be on time.

“Love your country. Love your community.

“These are things we talked about from an early age. This is what you got.

“Talk to people and treat them the way you would like to be treated. These are the kinds of things that we sort of do in our homes. We talk to each other. And that’s how it was.

Was it easy and automatic?

“You learn through hard knocks,” Michael said with a big laugh. “We are all learning. “

And Marcus Freeman is committed to constantly learning, without having to be the smartest guy in the room.

“He’s comfortable being him,” Swarbrick said. “He’s a guy who is never afraid to reveal what he doesn’t know. This is his strength.

That and Joanna, who Brian Kelly around 11 months ago pivoted to during Marcus’ job interview to succeed Clark Lea as Kelly Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator.

“That’s right,” Joanna said with a smile.

Ironically, an offer from LSU was also in play at the time – from then-LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who was finally dismissed last month, two seasons away from a national championship.

“I knew we were safe,” Joanna said of why the Freemans ended up in South Bend. “There are times in life when you don’t always know you are making the right choice as much as you know when you are making the wrong choice.

“We didn’t get on the plane from South Bend to look at each other and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. We thought about it all week. We’ve been praying about it all week. We talked to our children. And at the end of this week, we looked at each other and had to make a decision.

“We said, when you go to Notre Dame, you will never make the wrong choice. Tradition, history, stability, the ability to raise your children in a safe and secure place.

“I think of my children. I’m thinking where are we going to raise these kids? Marcus thinks of all the professional stuff, and so do I. But for the most part, I have six pairs of eyes watching me and where they go to school and where they are going to feel safe.

“And so Notre Dame at the end of this week, we knew – no matter what – it wouldn’t be the wrong choice for our family.”

She then took another look at her children, aged 14 to 3, having fun 50 yards away. And she took a deep breath.

“We are tired,” she said. “Really, really tired. But you know what? It’s a good kind of fatigue.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI

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