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In hiring a young staff, Marcus Freeman once again prioritized recruiting at Notre Dame

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Marcus Freeman of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cowboys defeated the Fighting Irish 37-35. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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As everything will be this year, filling out his first coaching staff at Notre Dame was a learning experience for Marcus Freeman. Specifically, he learned even when he thinks a spot is filled, he should keep recruiting that coach.

Not only did running backs coach Lance Taylor jump at the chance to be Louisville’s offensive coordinator and tight ends coach John McNulty found the same promotion at Boston College after they both stayed in South Bend following the initial coaching turnovers, but then Taylor’s replacement was nearly poached before he signed his contract and multiple opportunities chased Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.

“It’s been a learning cycle for me being a first-time head coach,” Freeman said Wednesday afternoon, his entire staff finally and officially complete. “You think you have one vision of how this is going to go and you realize it doesn’t always go as smooth and as easy as you think

“But ultimately, I did not want to rush this. I wanted to get the right people and there was no timetable on what that was to get the right people. I felt like we did.”

Before Deland McCullough had officially joined the staff from Indiana, the New York Giants tried to convince the running backs coach to return to the NFL, and throughout the last few weeks, various offensive coordinator openings — namely the University of Miami and supposedly the Los Angeles Rams, though that had more the flavor of content-fueled rumors than of distinct possibility — and large paychecks forced Rees to consider if he would remain at his alma mater. Throughout both instances, Freeman leaned on the stability of his program rather than rework his arguments for Notre Dame.

“The selling point is do you want to be at Notre Dame? Do you believe in what Notre Dame can do for your future?” Freeman said. “We’re not looking to match, we’re not looking to do anything, we’re trying to say, ‘Hey, here’s the position, do you believe this is what’s best for your career?’

“I had to fight guys for our offensive coordinator. Obviously, I know it’s out there that there were a lot of teams and a certain team that wanted him a couple weeks ago. Ultimately my conversation with Tommy Rees was, ‘Do you want to be here? Is this where you want to be and do you see yourself getting to your ultimate goals from Notre Dame?’ Obviously, we were able to fight a lot of people to get him. Same thing with Deland McCullough and the same thing with Al Golden.”

The bigger issue with Golden was simply timing. Freeman knew he wanted a defensive coordinator with head-coaching experience — “That was, to me, something that we did not have on our staff that I thought was going to be extremely valuable.” — and all indications were Golden was quite interested in the gig. But he was more interested, understandably so, in trying to win a Super Bowl, so Freeman worked a few interviews around Golden’s schedule in the last month.

“Wanted to respect his process of preparing each week for the Cincinnati Bengals,” Freeman said.

Golden became the last piece and second-oldest member of a young coaching staff, unsurprising given Freeman’s most important criteria as he hired seven new coaches.

“The only standard that I had was I want to make sure that we get great recruiters,” he said.

Including Freeman, 36, seven members of the Irish coaching staff are younger than 40. Only Golden (52) and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (63) are older than 50. Age does not condemn someone’s recruiting abilities, but youth unquestionably helps the cause.

“Recruiting is so important, and ultimately, it’s about bringing in the best players you can, in the country, to this place,” Freeman said. “There is a relatability between sometimes your generation and the young prospects we’re recruiting.”

Not that such is the only way to recruit at the level Freeman expects.

“[Hiestand] understands his only job in recruiting is to get the best offensive linemen in the country, and he’s going to do that,” Freeman said. “... You can be young and be a great recruiter. You can be experienced and be a great recruiter.”

Of course, in job searches, inexperience and youth can also be portrayed as negatives. When Freeman hired Chris O’Leary as safeties coach last season, he saw past that, and he was intent to do so again this year.

O’Leary had yet to serve as more than a graduate assistant anywhere. New receivers coach Chansi Stuckey had at least spent the 2021 season coaching Baylor’s receivers.

“Don’t make the mistake that I feel maybe some guys might have made on me because of my age when I was younger,” Freeman said. “I don’t want to do that. If Chris O’Leary is the best guy for this position, I want to hire him. We did that.

“It’s the same thing when you look at Chansi. His résumé is not really long, but when they interviewed him and you hear the way people talk about Chansi Stuckey, it’s unbelievable.”

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