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Leftovers & Links: Marcus Freeman’s youth matters as little as Notre Dame’s losses in ‘major’ bowls when he was a kid

After being officially introduced as the next head coach at Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman pledges to hold the Irish to his "golden standard" and gives an emotional thank you to his family and the Notre Dame administration.

We’ll get to Oklahoma State eventually. There are 26 days yet until No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) faces No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, giving plenty of time to discuss what should be a defensive showcase. Between now and then, the Irish will sign one of the country’s best recruiting classes next week, and that will only further the stories and praise heaped on Marcus Freeman.

In the 270 days between now and Notre Dame’s trip to Columbus on Sept. 3 to open its 2022 season at Freeman’s alma mater, at least half of those mornings will include some thought about the first-year head coach. Even after the Irish face the Cowboys, the concept of Freeman leading Notre Dame moving forward will feel more like hype than reality until the 2022 season begins.

At that point, Freeman will be 36 — his birthday is next month — and while that is younger than any Irish head coach since Terry Brennan was hired in 1954 and makes Freeman the third-youngest coach at the FBS level, it is not as absurdly young as it seems on the surface.

Dabo Swinney became the head coach at Clemson when he was 39. Ryan Day was the same age when he took over at Ohio State. Lincoln Riley was only 33 when he rose to the top job at Oklahoma. David Shaw was 38 when he became Stanford’s head coach.

Know what else they all have in common? They will face Freeman in 2022.

For that matter, Mike Gundy was 37 when he was named Oklahoma State’s head coach. Yes, he was in his third season when he lost his cool at a press conference and repeatedly yelled his age.

Freeman is obviously younger than all those except Riley, but how much of a difference can there really be between a 35-year-old first-time head coach and a 37- or 39-year-old first-time head coach?

Notre Dame is not scheduled to face Northwestern or Alabama in 2022, but to add a few more names who first became head coaches at young ages, Pat Fitzgerald was only 31, and Nick Saban was 39.

Clearly, 30-somethings have found success in this role for decades, and even the Irish are not under that much bigger a microscope than the Buckeyes or Sooners are.

In Freeman’s case, he will deflect some of that glare onto his roster, just as he did when announced to them as Notre Dame’s new head coach on Friday morning.

“The reason why was because of you,” Freeman said. “The reason why I’m standing here is because of you. It’s unbelievable how powerful you guys are. That’s why we’re going to do great things.”

The first ‘great thing’ Freeman will focus on is beating Oklahoma State.

“It’s a great opportunity to win 12 games,” he said to ESPN on Sunday. “To kind of right some of the wrongs of the past that we haven’t been so successful in these New Year’s Day bowls.

“It’ll be a motivated team and a motivated coaching staff.”

This space will not indulge that storyline, and not just because it would be more productive — though still largely unproductive — to notice every time Freeman arguably slips in a dig at his predecessor and/or Brian Kelly’s abrupt exit for LSU. That “a motivated team” line is generic enough on its surface that it cannot be tied directly toward Kelly’s handling of last week, but it fits that context, nonetheless.

Freeman’s mention of equality during Monday’s introductory celebration also had that duality, its genericness possibly masking past missteps.

“We will do it with the understanding that no one person, no one coach is more important than another,” Freeman said.

Rather, this space will not indulge the storyline of Irish failures in big bowl games because that storyline gets abridged every few years. When No. 14 Notre Dame faced No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl following the 2017 season, that victory should have put an end to the constant graphic of “0-9 in major bowl games since 1994,” a mark that now supposedly stands at 0-11 after the Irish lost in the Playoff semifinals in 2018 and 2020.

Two of those losses were in the Gator Bowl, both on New Year’s Day. This season, it pits No. 25 Texas A&M against No. 17 Wake Forest, the first year it has featured two ranked teams since 2006. If the Gator Bowl qualifies as a notable bowl game, then so too should the Citrus Bowl.

It was played on New Year’s Day, after all, and included two teams in the top 20.

But since Notre Dame won and the new concept of the “New Year’s Six” does not include the Citrus Bowl, the storyline gets to persist. If the Irish had faced Wake Forest in the Peach Bowl this year, rest assured those figurative goalposts would be moved again in the event of a Notre Dame victory, to something along the lines of “0-11 in bowl games against blue bloods since 1994.”

And none of that even gets into the fact that the current Notre Dame roster has no ties to 2015’s loss to Ohio State in the most recent Irish trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

Freeman offered a non-answer Monday when asked if star junior safety Kyle Hamilton will play in the Fiesta Bowl.

“His health is the No. 1 importance for any decision we make,” Freeman said. “Whatever is best for him and whatever is best for his health, I am going to support. We have not had that conversation, we have not made a decision, he has not made a decision.”

This is not based on any reporting. This is not based on any rumors. This is based on logic: No one should expect to see Hamilton play on New Year’s Day. He has too much to lose as a certain top-10 pick in the coming NFL draft and nearly nothing too gain after a knee injury sidelined him for Notre Dame’s last six games.

Junior running back Kyren Williams, however, indicated to reporters on Monday that he intends to play in the Fiesta Bowl, though that decision could certainly change in the next 26 days.

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