Notre Dame officially names Marcus Freeman head coach, at 35 the third-youngest head coach in FBS

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Notre Dame has officially announced its promotion of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, 35, to head coach. Freeman is the second Black head coach in Irish football history. His promotion was first reported Wednesday night. He will coach Notre Dame in any bowl game, a destination to be announced this Sunday.

“It is an honor to be named the head coach of Notre Dame Football,” Freeman said in a statement. “I am eternally grateful to both (University President) Father John Jenkins and (Irish director of athletics) Jack Swarbrick for giving me the opportunity to lead the exceptional men who make this program what it is. Notre Dame is a very special place and I look forward to pursuing a national championship with the most outstanding student-athletes, coaches and staff in college football.”

Freeman has been at Notre Dame for less than a year, serving as defensive coordinator after holding the same role at Cincinnati the previous four seasons. He joined Brian Kelly’s staff rather than head to LSU to be the Tigers defensive coordinator, and now he will lead what is the majority of Kelly’s former staff rather than be the Tigers defensive coordinator under Kelly.

Kelly left the Irish abruptly and unexpectedly on Monday after 12 years as head coach, winning more games, 113, than any other coach in school history.

When Swarbrick hired Kelly in December of 2009, he made finding an established head coach a priority. He felt that experience was necessary to build a stable program in South Bend. In this coaching search, that was no longer the necessity.

Instead, Swarbrick began his coaching search by rattling off a list of five rather obvious qualities he would want in a head coach. To some degree, Freeman has demonstrated a handle on at least four of them.

“Fit at Notre Dame is number one,” Swarbrick said Tuesday morning. “This is a unique place and it is important that you understand and appreciate the uniqueness, and so that’s a critical element of this.”

Freeman has spent nearly a year in South Bend, giving Swarbrick a chance to gauge his “fit.” For that matter, no other candidate could display any understanding and appreciation of Notre Dame, challenges and perks both included. Freeman was the only one on any list of consideration who has experienced those challenges and perks first-hand and can thus express any understanding of them. More than any other of Swarbrick’s listed qualities, Freeman beats out the field in this respect.

“Increasingly, the role of college football coaches is a CEO role and so clearly understanding your approach to building and managing a staff becomes very important,” Swarbrick said.

Freeman has not needed to build or manage a staff, but some of that was taken care of for him in this process. By securing offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis before Freeman — Balis told the team on  Tuesday afternoon he would not be going to LSU, while Rees addressed the offense Wednesday evening — Swarbrick assured the first-time head coach would have some proven and established infrastructure supporting him.

“Next, what’s your approach to playing the game? What’s your style?”

Freeman’s defense did not give up a touchdown in November until the second half of the season finale at Stanford. It gave up 3.94 yards per play in November. Swarbrick got an up-close demonstration of Freeman’s approach to Saturdays.

“Then a whole list of things that relate to attracting and developing great student-athletes and especially the development of it,” Swarbrick said. “I’m really pleased with where our recruiting is today, and the improvements we made in it, the resources we put into it, but I still want to be a great development program.”

Notre Dame’s development was long one of its strengths under Kelly, and a few specific instances showed Freeman’s acumen in that respect this season. Most notably, piecing together a safeties group by not only moving sophomore cornerback Ramon Henderson but quickly starting him after star junior Kyle Hamilton suffered a knee injury allowed the Irish defense to withstand the absence of what had become their safety net, pun not intended.

When it comes to recruiting, Freeman’s impact has been most distinct. Much of the current roster was clear on social media, it wanted the defensive coordinator to become the head coach. Many committed recruits followed their lead just two weeks before they are expected to sign their National Letters of Intent during the early signing period beginning Dec. 15.

Currently, seven consensus four-star defenders are part of Notre Dame’s class of 2022, all of whom joined the class after Freeman’s hiring in January. Five of them are within the rivals.com top-250 rankings. In the previous three cycles, Notre Dame signed a total of eight defenders within their respective top-250 rankings.

Freeman’s 2023 recruiting has already yielded the commitments of three players within the top 40 of rivals.com’s rankings.

It is clear Freeman met all of Swarbrick’s hopes but one, his “fit” being more certain than any other candidate’s could be, his game day coaching already producing results this fall and his recruiting quickly standing out from any other coach’s in recent Irish history. With a built-in staff, one that seems to have largely coalesced around the idea of not joining Kelly at LSU, Swarbrick shored up Freeman’s greatest deficiency.