Friday at 4: Marcus Freeman’s first run down the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium and the natural comparisons to be made
No Notre Dame coach has ever started his career 0-3, though the last coach to start his Irish career 0-2 was Lou Holtz, so by no means should anyone jump to any conclusions about Marcus Freeman’s trajectory already.
Nor should anyone be comparing Freeman to Holtz already. The 1988 national championship-winning coach had already been a head coach at four different collegiate stops for a total of 16 seasons when he arrived in South Bend, not to mention his season spent leading the New York Jets.
If any comparison to the past should be made with Freeman, it may be to the four other first-time head coaches in modern Notre Dame history. In reverse chronological order: Charlie Weis opened 9-3 before stumbling to a 35-27 record across five seasons; Bob Davie opened 7-6 before finishing 35-25 in five years; Gerry Faust’s 5-6 debut season portended his 30-26-1 overall record in again five seasons; and Terry Brennan jumped out to a 9-1 record in 1954 but then went only 23-17 in his next four years.
Maybe the real gauge of Freeman’s success should simply be if he is still coaching the Irish in 2027.
He is not looking that far. Though he ran through the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel as the defensive coordinator seven times last season and then as the head coach in the Blue-Gold Game to cap spring practices, doing so Saturday will be the first time he does so as the head coach for an actual game. That 0-2 start may have some fans concerned, but in many very real ways, taking the field Saturday against Marshall at 2:30 ET (on NBC) will be the dawn of the Marcus Freeman Era.
“I’m excited, really, for my first home game as a head coach here at Notre Dame Stadium,” Freeman said Monday. “It’s something you dream about.
“Ever since I’ve been named as head coach, I’ve been looking forward to this moment. Being able to lead our team into this stadium …”
And then Freeman slipped into coach-speak praising the Thundering Herd as if he has been doing this for 16 years already.
But he hasn’t been, just like Faust hadn’t, Davie hadn’t and Weis hadn’t. Comparing Freeman to them may seem like setting a dangerously low bar, but if taking a longer view, it may be a stiff challenge.
While Brennan took over a strong program from Frank Leahy, none of Faust, Davie or Weis were given such gifts. Things immediately got worse under both Faust and Davie, but from a binary success-or-failure perspective, is there a distinct difference between going 16-6-1 and going 11-10-1? What about falling from 17-6 to 16-9? Those were the respective drop-offs from Dan Devine’s final two seasons (1979-80) to Faust’s first two and from Holtz’s final two seasons (1995-96) to Davie’s first two.
Weis actually improved things, taking a program that had gone 11-13 in Tyrone Willingham’s final two years and raising it to 19-6 in the next two.
That is the challenge for Freeman, and that of course ties to who he will always be compared to, the bar he is pushing to clear. Can he keep Notre Dame at the level set by Brian Kelly, going 21-3 across the last two seasons? In that respect, Freeman may be more like Brennan than any of those others. If Brennan had found a way to sustain his 17-3 start, he may be remembered for continuing Leahy’s success rather than ushering in a decade of scuffling before Ara Parseghian arrived in South Bend.
Freeman will end up somewhere on this spectrum, be it in five years or tying Kelly’s Notre Dame-longevity record of 12 seasons. When he walks down the tunnel tomorrow, he’ll be walking the same steps as each of those names.
And as the second Black head coach in Notre Dame history, Freeman will establish an Irish first when he faces Marshall head coach Charles Huff.
Never before have two Black head coaches manned the sidelines at Notre Dame Stadium. Credit to the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Berardino for uncovering that fact and asking Freeman about it Thursday.
“What a great representation for young minority coaches, young and old, that you know what — if you work hard, you do things the right way, there’s no cap to where you can go in this profession of coaching,” Freeman said. “Credit to coach Huff and where he’s come from and the job he’s done.
“Hopefully the focus is obviously on the game, but I think it’s a great representation of minority coaches in the coaching profession.”
Freeman may mull that over as he finds some pregame calm at the Basilica in the restored pregame Mass and walk over — presumptuously deemed “The Victory March” — to the Stadium. This is not as drastic a change as some make it out to be, given the Irish had pregame Mass before each of their last two games, as well, but it is the return of a previous Notre Dame tradition.
Freeman brought it back not to make his walk to that tunnel longer, but to better his chances of walking back up that tunnel victorious.
“You can get so riled up before the game, hours before the game,” he said. “I didn’t want that. I want to make sure these guys are calm.
“Part of that is making sure we spend some time in reflection at Mass. Then coming over here, when the foot hits the ball at kickoff, we’ll be ready to roll.”
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Just like no Notre Dame coach has ever opened his career with three losses, it can be definitively assumed no Irish coach has ever opened his career against two top-10 opponents, without even flipping through a media guide for confirmation. Ironically, in both those instances, Notre Dame was “ready to roll” when “the foot hit the ball at kickoff.”
Perhaps it will be Freeman’s second walk down the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel that brings him his first win in his third game as the Irish head coach.