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Reports: Marcus Freeman will be Notre Dame’s head coach, elevating a players’ favorite to the lead role

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick explains what he is looking for in the school's next head coach and describes how this search is different from the one that landed Brian Kelly.

Notre Dame and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick did not waste any time as the college football coaching carousel reaches previously unseen speeds. First-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is now Irish head coach Marcus Freeman, per multiple reports Wednesday evening.

On3 Sports’ Matt Zenitz first reported Freeman’s hiring.

Freeman’s promotion can be considered unprecedented in a few ways. First of all, the concept of Brian Kelly voluntarily leaving Notre Dame for LSU while the Irish still have vague College Football Playoff hopes is unprecedented in college football history, maybe sporting history. Secondly, Kelly’s departure was first reported as possible only Monday afternoon and confirmed as a reality that night. That kind of turnaround in an unexpected search for a head coach at a major football program is unheard of.

“Every search process has its own rhythm and you want to do the best job you can, not the fastest job you can,” Swarbrick said Tuesday. “We’re going to do the best job we can to find the right person to lead Notre Dame.”

Freeman is only 35, making him the youngest Irish head coach since Terry Brennan was hired as a 25-year-old in 1954. Brennan’s college coaching experience before that consisted entirely of one season as Notre Dame’s freshman team coach. Since then, Ara Parseghian leaving Northwestern for South Bend at the age of 40 in 1964 was the next youngest coach to lead the Irish.

Until Freeman.

When Swarbrick hired Kelly in December of 2009, he made it a priority to find a candidate with head coaching experience. Notre Dame had churned through three coaches in the 13 years since Lou Holtz’s 11-year run ended. The most recent, Charlie Weis, had taken over the program without any head coaching experience and that was viewed as one of the multiple reasons for his downfall.

But since then, under Kelly, the Irish have seemingly found some stability, winning 54 games in the last five years and reaching two Playoffs in the last three seasons, with another appearance still possible in 2021 if Saturday produces an upset or two in conference championship games. Kelly led the charge to build a football-specific indoor practice facility, as well as gained some comforts for his assistant coaches in recruiting efforts.

“Last time we did a football search, we built a list of characteristics,” Swarbrick said. “I can’t remember now, I think it was 11 or 12, that we built first and then we screened candidates against that list. High on that list was rebuilding a program. Rebuilding a program doesn’t even show up on the list this year, right? So a different focus takes you in different directions and that’s where I’m pleased to say we are today.”

Nonetheless, Swarbrick and Notre Dame have taken an undeniable risk hiring a first-time head coach who has been an individual Power Five defensive coordinator for less than one calendar year. Freeman arrived in South Bend only in January, after strongly considering the same position at LSU, coincidentally enough. In fact, he turned down the role as Tigers defensive coordinator a second time this week in accepting the gig as Irish head coach.

Freeman was roundly, perhaps unanimously, supported by the current Irish roster. Within a few hours of news leaking of Kelly’s departure, players began publicly advocating for Freeman, as did incoming recruits set to sign their National Letters of Intent on Dec. 15. Their rallying cry gained figurative volume Tuesday morning in the hours after Kelly’s brief meeting with the team to inform them of his departure in person.

Their advocacy may not have made up Swarbrick’s mind, but their reasoning at least played a part in his decision. He was asked Tuesday if he would consider player input during this search.

“Not with regard to specific candidates, but absolutely with regard to characteristics and criteria,” Swarbrick said. “Every search I’ve conducted here in every sport, I’ve had a group of student-athletes help advise me and I’ll look to the captains of this football team to play that role.”

Swarbrick undoubtedly did not discuss the decision with recruits, but when he told the Notre Dame coaching staff to stay on the road recruiting in the wake of Kelly’s abrupt exit, that alone was a nod toward stability and some version of the status quo moving forward. Swarbrick did not feel a need to prep the coaching staff on talking points for the recruits in anticipation of a coaching search rampant with speculation.

“Notre Dame’s in a great place, and I don’t want anybody to think we’re not moving forward full-steam,” Swarbrick said.

Freeman has been an excellent recruiter in his brief time with the Irish. Seven consensus four-star defenders are currently committed to Notre Dame’s class of 2022, ranked No. 4 in the country by, and that does not include the de-commitment of Devin Moore, a four-star defensive back from Florida. His first big get, consensus four-star defensive end Tyson Ford (St. Louis), echoed the current Irish roster’s sentiment early in the week.

Naming Freeman as head coach should allow the Irish to keep the rest of that class together with the early signing period beginning Dec. 15, part of the reason the coaching carousel has begun to spin with such fervent speed.

Freeman is the second Black head coach in Notre Dame football history, following only Tyrone Willingham, who went 21-15 from 2002 to 2004, also the only coach in Irish history not to be given at least five years before being dismissed.

Before his one season at Notre Dame, Freeman was the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati for four years after serving as the co-defensive coordinator at Purdue in 2016. Before that, he was the Boilermakers linebackers coach from 2013 to 2015, having worked in that same role at Kent State for the previous two seasons.

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