If this coaching cycle has taught the college football world anything, it is that nothing can be considered too surprising anymore. December’s early signing period accelerated the coaching carousel a few years ago, the development of the transfer portal has increased the urgency to move on from struggling regimes, and both the present and coming influxes in television contract money make no buyout, extension or salary offer unmanageable.
Anything can happen, and has.
So when suggesting candidates to replace Brian Kelly at Notre Dame after he left the Irish for LSU after 12 years in South Bend, neither certainty nor incredulity should be placed on any possibility.
Nonetheless, the proverbial list on director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s desk likely begins with three names before any others: Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
LUKE FICKELL: The fifth-year head coach at Cincinnati has spent his entire coaching career in Ohio, beginning as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Ohio State, in 1999 before moving to Akron for two years as defensive line coach. Fickell then returned to the Buckeyes, working his way up the coaching staff, until he took over the Bearcats in 2017.
He has gone 47-14 in his five years, including a 21-1 stretch over the last two seasons, highlighted by beating Notre Dame in early October.
As a result of that win, Fickell and Cincinnati stand on the precipice of the College Football Playoff, seemingly assured a bid if they can beat No. 24 Houston in the AAC championship game (4 ET; ABC).
That may be the biggest hurdle to Fickell, 48, following in Kelly’s footsteps, as much literally as figuratively. One of the hottest names in coaching circles for two years now, Fickell has turned down opportunities with an eye on staying in the Midwest. Notre Dame may not be his alma mater, but the latter is unlikely to need a head coach anytime soon. Furthermore, not that this matters on Saturdays or should greatly influence Swarbrick’s search, Fickell is Catholic, conceivably making Notre Dame a more appealing job to him despite the difficulties of the job that presumably played a part in Kelly’s departure.
If the Bearcats win on Saturday, though, would Fickell leave them on the eve of a Playoff appearance? That was once thought beyond comprehension, but then Kelly left the Irish with the Playoff still a possibility for them.
Cincinnati Bearcats coach Luke Fickell on the Notre Dame HC vacancy:
"There is no speculation. Is the job open? I guess it is. But I wouldn't know if somebody didn't tell me." pic.twitter.com/FyPSyZZyBW
— Keith Jenkins (@MrKeithJenkins) November 30, 2021
MATT CAMPBELL: The sixth-year head coach at Iowa State has also spent his entire coaching career in the Midwest, only leaving Ohio to take over in Ames in 2016 after he won two MAC West Division championships in 2014 and 2015 at Toledo.
If one of the more reliable ways to gauge a coach’s effectiveness is how he compares to a program’s historical track record, then Campbell, 42, is one of the country’s best. In the three years before his arrival, the Cyclones won a total of eight games. With a bowl win this season, Campbell would win at least eight games for the fourth time in the last five years, the exception being the 7-6 season in 2019 that ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the Camping World Bowl.
Before Campbell, Iowa State last won eight games in a season in 2000, when it went 9-3, a win total never otherwise matched in Cyclones history until they went 9-3 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, culminating in a 34-17 Fiesta Bowl victory against No. 24 Oregon. Iowa State finished No. 9 in the polls.
Yet Campbell’s coaching carousel buzz may have been higher before struggling to a 7-5 posting thus far this season. The Cyclones were expected to be Big 12 contenders, instead losing four times in conference play to end up fourth in the final standings.
MARCUS FREEMAN: The first-year Irish defensive coordinator is beloved by his current players, many of them taking to social media Monday night advocating for his hiring as Kelly’s replacement. That is far from the only thing Swarbrick will consider, but it at least demonstrates how quickly Freeman, 35, can relate to and bond with a roster, given he was hired by Kelly less than a year ago. (And it warrants noting: Freeman chose Notre Dame over LSU.)
The players indeed learned about Brian Kelly's departure through social media, but they don't fault him for that. They criticize the media who rush to break this news first.
And yeah, I get that. The rush takes away at least some of the literal time Kelly has to do it "right." https://t.co/L9OewMWIwI
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 30, 2021
He joined Kelly’s staff after serving as Fickell’s defensive coordinator for four years. Again, a Midwestern background may bolster Freeman’s profile in Swarbrick’s considerations. The furthest Freeman has strayed as a coach from Ohio State, where he played from 2004 to 2008, has been Purdue, where he coached from 2013 to 2016.
A geographic background like that matters, just as it does regarding both Fickell and Campbell. It suggests recruiting relationships in the general region, an indifference to winter weather and perhaps some familial ties.
Freeman has been a master recruiter for Notre Dame in his one year on staff, a primary piece of how the Irish have put together the No. 4 recruiting class this cycle, per rivals.com. Since he was hired, Notre Dame has landed commitments from eight defensive four-star recruits.
Most, if not all, of those recruits are expected to sign with the Irish on Dec. 15, the beginning of the early signing period. This coaching turnover obviously puts some of their pledges into some limbo, perhaps a thought in Freeman’s favor and certainly one in favor of a quick coaching search.
But Freeman has never been a head coach, and he has been a Power Five defensive coordinator for less than a calendar year, possibly making him too inexperienced for Swarbrick’s tastes.
After those three, the candidates list becomes more of a guessing game. Some names that will populate the chatter in the coming days — if this even takes that long; given the nature of both this cycle and the looming early signing period, an efficient search may be a Swarbrick priority — are simply fodder from agents looking to get clients raises or higher profiles. Others may pass through Swarbrick’s consideration without any genuine outside notice.
A sampling of such names would include current assistants, retired notables, fringe NFL possibilities and a few Power Five head coaches not currently at blue-blood programs. To give some context, but not to inspire any conjecture …
Tommy Rees: If Freeman is going to be considered, then so should the second-year Irish offensive coordinator. He may be only 29, but Rees was on Kelly’s staff for five years, giving him more Power Five experience than Freeman. He has now twice handled delicate quarterback situations, both the 2018 swap to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush and the 2021 balancing act between Jack Coan, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner requiring the deftest of touches.
Then again, Rees is only 29.
See also: Mike Elston, Brian Polian.
CHRIS PETERSON: This is nothing but the thought of who could Swarbrick swing at that would qualify as a big get and yet be unexpected. The retired Washington head coach would check just about every box imaginable, including age as he is only 57, but he has also not expressed much of a desire to get back into coaching.
See also: Bob Stoops.
Matt Rhule: Another name that would check all those boxes as well as be a notable hire, the second-year Carolina Panthers head coach may enjoy not having to recruit teenagers too much to return to the college game.
See also: Pete Carroll.
Dave Clawson: The eighth-year Wake Forest head coach just signed an extension, something he shared with his team on Friday and has an ACC championship game to worry about, but at 54 and with a proven track record, Clawson continues to hear his name pop up on the outskirts of these conversations.
Mark Stoops: Similar to Clawson, the ninth-year Kentucky head coach has taken a historically-middling program to more respectable heights, if not to any title contention. Stoops, 54, has won at least eight games in three of the last four years, a stretch the Wildcats faithful are happy to keep rolling. Stoops was widely considered an LSU possibility if the Tigers continued to strike out on bigger targets until they convinced Kelly to take the job.
Okay this is dumb b/c 1) Unlikely to make the Playoff and 2) Georgia but … If ND were to win the national title this year … Who is the sixth statue of??? https://t.co/InwhaF00FR
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 30, 2021
A few names need not be mentioned: Neither the current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach nor the recently-departed Las Vegas Raiders head coach will be remotely considered by Swarbrick given their off-field actions.
See also: Ed Orgeron.