Phone calls, Rome meetings and ‘the best culture in college football’ led Notre Dame to promote Marcus Freeman

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Marcus Freeman needed to talk to his wife. Director of athletics Jack Swarbrick needed to talk to Notre Dame’s seven captains. University President Fr. John Jenkins needed to finish previously-planned meetings in Rome.

It all made the hectic week behind an unexpected Irish coaching transition that much more chaotic, yet also more smooth.

Notre Dame publicly introduced Freeman as its new head coach Monday. At 35, Freeman is the third-youngest head coach in FBS, and he is the second Black head coach in Irish football history. The Monday festivities included all the pomp and circumstance conceivable, including the Notre Dame Marching Band playing as Freeman entered the building, former Irish All-American quarterback Brady Quinn serving as a master of ceremonies and what appeared to be the entire current roster in attendance.

“To Father Jenkins, Jack Swarbrick, thank you for challenging everything,” Freeman said in a moment that forced him to pause and regather his emotions. “Thank you for making a decision to believe in a 35-year-old first-time head coach, and I vow to work tirelessly to never disappoint you.”

They may have never had that chance if not for Freeman running all decisions by his wife and mother of his six children, Joanna, all of whom Freeman thanked for their support just before he turned to Jenkins and Swarbrick and he finally choked up.

When Brian Kelly called Freeman a week ago to tell him the former Notre Dame head coach was jumping to LSU, he also offered Freeman the defensive coordinator job in Baton Rouge.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I need a job, but can I talk to my wife?’” Freeman recalled this afternoon. “That’s all I said. ‘Can I talk to my wife?’ He said yeah. From that moment, it’s been a whirlwind.”

Less than 24 hours later, Swarbrick would sit down with the seven Irish captains. Theirs could be considered unique input, since of those seven, at most three might be playing for Freeman moving forward. Their opinion is more informed but also not biased by expected personal treatment next year.

Swarbrick was not seeking their nomination for a coaching candidate. He simply wanted to talk in broad strokes about the necessary characteristics of the next head coach, a common practice when he needs to make such a hire.

“They explained they had a different agenda,” Swarbrick said. “They were passionate, they were articulate, they were convincing. What they insisted I understand was that they had built the best culture in college football, that they have friends playing at other places around the country, (so) they have a way to make that assessment. They were confident that this culture in this program was the best in the country.

“They also wanted me to know that they owned that culture. They built it. It was theirs. Their message, stated clearly and convincingly, was, ‘Jack, don’t screw this up.’ I got the message.”

That mission statement led Swarbrick to commit to retaining strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis on Tuesday and then to negotiate with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees about remaining at Notre Dame while still negotiating with Freeman. Normally, those would be two hires only a new head coach would make, but Swarbrick was prioritizing the culture as much as he was the hire.

“To be sure, the perspective that those seven captains offered to me put a heavy finger on the scale in favor of coach Freeman,” Swarbrick said. “But that was only because they and I believe so strongly that Marcus is the perfect guardian of the very special culture you, the student-athletes, have built.”

Then it came down to a Zoom interview between Freeman and Jenkins, on a trip to Rome obviously for entirely different purposes. Jenkins’ takeaway from that interview may speak to why Notre Dame’s seven captains walked into Monday’s event behind Freeman. Jenkins asked Freeman, “Why do you coach?” and the answer began with the natural want to stay in football after an enlarged heart cut short his NFL career in 2009, his rookie season. That reason for coaching would not set Freeman apart from all that many others.

“However, as he did the job, he said he found the really gratifying part was a chance to work with young men, help them achieve their goals and grow into mature, responsible adults who bettered the lives of the people around them,” Jenkins said. “Marcus Freeman is clearly someone who influences young people by showing he cares about them, winning their trust, inspiring them and challenging them to do great things.”

Freeman’s emphasis Monday indicates his influencing of younger people will extend beyond college students. That will, in fact, be his top priority.

“It starts with we’re going to recruit at the highest level, and we’re going to recruit the best football players in the country that fit Notre Dame,” Freeman said. “You’re not going to change the standards of Notre Dame, but there are certain players out there that fit Notre Dame that might not know it. Our job as a coaching staff is being able to communicate with these younger people what Notre Dame can do for your life.”

But the culture those players talked to Swarbrick about, the culture Freeman is now in charge of “enhancing,” to use one of his preferred buzzwords, the culture that got the Irish into the Playoff twice in the last four years is a culture that will not accept a long-term plan based on future recruits. It mandates continued championship contention and an eventual championship, the one thing Kelly never accomplished in 12 years at Notre Dame.

“We’re close,” Freeman said. “We’re not there yet, we’re not there, but we’re close. It can be done right away. We’re not talking about a future long-term plan. This is talking about the urgency.

“I said, for now, finish this season off. And then next year, we have to have intentional efforts to make sure we’re doing whatever it takes to put this team in position to win a national championship.”

If Freeman follows through on that, he won’t have to call his wife. Swarbrick won’t have to wait to meet with the team captains. Jenkins will not need to conclude meetings in Rome. They will all presumably be on the same field celebrating, just like they were Monday.