Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos
Inside the Irish would like to correct an error. As Brian Kelly shocked college football by leaving Notre Dame for LSU on Monday night, this space wrote Tuesday morning,
“This move to the SEC can also be construed as an odd decision, given that a week ago, Notre Dame would have been seen as one of the six most stable programs in the country …”
As reported extensively by multiple reports Wednesday evening, Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is expected to become Irish head coach Marcus Freeman. Thanks to his promotion, thanks to Tommy Rees remaining at Notre Dame as the offensive coordinator, and thanks to reports that the vast majority of the coaching staff will remain intact despite Kelly’s Cajun overtures, Notre Dame is still one of the six most stable programs in the country.
Actually, given that Oklahoma was considered one of those six and is currently gifting Bob Stoops $325,000 to coach the Sooners in a bowl game as a PR move to distract from the fact that Oklahoma has neither a head coach to replace Lincoln Riley nor much of a staff to handle either recruiting or a bowl game after Riley successfully brought a significant portion of his assistants to USC, Notre Dame is one of the five most stable programs in the country.
Brian Kelly thought he could mimic Riley’s bolt, but even by the time he was getting introduced in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, it was clear little loyalty would follow Kelly to Louisiana.
If history is told by the victors, Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick can now forever claim the lead role in restoring the Irish to football’s upper echelon. He and Kelly had worked hand-in-hand for 12 years, the coach getting frustrated every few years with some program shortcoming and the administrator eventually finding a way to right the issue. With Rees already on a private plane to go recruiting on Thursday morning, a luxury formerly only afforded to Kelly, Swarbrick’s contributions to evolving Notre Dame football into the 21st century now look more irreplaceable than Kelly’s.
Beyond becoming a modern program, the greatest change for the Irish during Kelly’s tenure was finding that baseline of stability, woefully lacking as the Irish went from Holtz’s contentious resignation to Bob Davie’s middling tenure to the George O’Leary snafu, and then Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis were yet to come. That stability looked lost amid the 2016 debacle, but winning 54 games in the last five years and 42 consecutive games against unranked opponents — the best active streak in the nation — proved the foundation at Notre Dame was deep and well set.
Then that stability looked lost as Kelly turned the college football world upside down Monday, becoming the first coach in history to voluntarily leave a team with still viable hopes of a national championship. But Rees’ Wednesday night announcement to what looked to be the offensive half of the Irish roster proved the foundation at Notre Dame goes deeper than Kelly.
“I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees said. “I just wanted to tell you guys that in person. I love you guys, I love this place. I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”
With every coaching announcement that followed, from Matt Zenitz of On3 Sports’ first report of Freeman’s promotion to repeated reports of tight ends coach John McNulty sticking with Rees, running backs coach Lance Taylor continuing to work with his loaded backfield, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens not leaving lifelong friend Freeman, defensive line coach — likely to become defensive coordinator — Mike Elston sharing he will remain in South Bend and safeties coach Nick O’Leary keeping the entire defensive staff intact, that foundation was proven deeper and deeper.
Editor’s Note: To those who broke those stories, I do apologize. I lost track of who reported each first. Your Wednesday night work was frenzied and thorough, and I do not mean to diminish it in the slightest.
Swarbrick, not Kelly, built something at Notre Dame that had been lost for nearly two decades before his arrival. And with it, stability at a program the level of the Irish brings higher aspirations, ones Rees seemingly thought were more attainable in South Bend than in Baton Rouge.
“I know it’s been a hell of a week for you guys, it’s been a hell of a week for a lot of us that are part of this place,” he said. “This is where my heart is. My heart’s with you guys. I care too much to leave this place. This is where I want to be.
“This is where I want to win a national championship.”
That national championship may not come this year. Conference championship games have rarely featured upsets in recent years, and none of the three games that the Irish fates hinge on are foreseen as toss-ups, but with strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis sticking around the program, per his Tuesday talk with the team, all the crucial pieces Notre Dame found stability with are sticking around the program.
“We have work to do this year,” Rees said. “We have a lot ahead of us, and for the guys coming back, let’s go win a [bleepin’] national championship here at Notre Dame.”
For nine of Kelly’s 12 years at Notre Dame, Rees helmed his offense in one way or another. Swarbrick has led his alma mater’s athletic department for 14 years. Freeman’s recruiting acumen is undeniable and will keep the current class together, the one expected to sign in less than two weeks.
Their decisive actions this week proved the Irish remain one of the most stable programs in the country, even after the most chaotic 48 hours in recent history.