The story goes that in 1954 when 25 year old Terry Brennan was hired to succeed Frank Leahy as head coach at ND, he was asked if he thought he was too young for the job. His reply, “Oh, I don’t know. I’ll be 26 in a few months.” Brennan headed up the Irish program for the next five years and posted a 32-18 record. Good but not good enough, Brennan was relieved of his duties after the 1958 season.
New head coach Marcus Freeman is 35 years old, making him the youngest person in the job since Brennan. He also comes into the job without head coaching experience. So how does Freeman’s resume stack up next to other ND head coaches when they took the job? During my lifetime I have seen nine coaching changes in South Bend. Here is a comparative breakdown of each of those coaches.
Ara Parseghian Ara was hired away from Northwestern at the age of 40. He had been a head coach for 13 years before arriving in South Bend, and had a record of 4-0 verses Notre Dame while there. He once observed that he had 13 years experience as a head coach, and needed every one of them in order to succeed at ND. Ara got into coaching from a solid playing background. After mentoring under Paul Brown while in the military for two years, he played fullback at Miami of Ohio and was drafted in the 13th round of the NFL draft. He then spent two years with the Cleveland Browns before a hip injury ended his playing career. In 1950 he coached the freshman team at his alma mater under Woody Hayes, and the following year, at the age of 27 took over at head coach at Miami. At ND he took over a program that had hit on very hard times, having not seen the top 25 in five seasons. In year one, 1964, in an impressive reversal of fortune, he led the Irish to a 9-1 record.
Final ND record: 11 seasons: 95-17-4–3-2 in bowls– Two National Championships, 1966, 1973.
Dan Devine Devine succeeded Parseghian in 1975, at the age of 51. He had been a finalist for the job in 1964 when Ara was hired. Devine played quarterback at the University of Minnesota-Duluth where he earned the nickname “the Procter Flash”, a tribute to his high school in Minnesota. He then went on to develop an impressive coaching resume. He spent five years as an assistant at Michigan State, followed by 16 years as a college head coach at Arizona St and Missouri. He also headed up the Green Bay Packers from 1971-1974. Devine inherited a solid culture and some talent from Parseghian and had a successful run at ND.
Final ND record: Six seasons– 53-16-1– 3-1 in Bowls– National championship, 1977
Gerry Faust Like Devine, Faust played QB in College. He did so under former ND Head Coach Hugh Devore at the University of Dayton. He actually attended Dayton after having turned down a partial scholarship offer to attend ND in 1955. After College he took over the program at Cincinnati Moeller H.S. and from scratch built the program into a national powerhouse sending many players to ND. In 19 years at Moeller he posted a record of 178-23-2, and won four National titles. At the age of 45 in 1981 he was hired to succeed Devine. Known for wearing his Notre Dame heart on his sleeve, his ND teams never lived up to the initial hype when he was hired.
Final ND record: Five Seasons, 30-26-1. 1-1 in Bowls.
Lou Holtz Lou was hired in 1986 at the age of 49. Before that, in college at Kent State he played linebacker and then spent nine years as a collegiate assistant and 16 years as a head coach with stops at William & Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas and Minnesota. He also spent the 1976 season as the head coach of the New York Jets, a job he resigned in December of the season with the Jets at 3-10. Upon being hired by ND, he became known for his folksy charm and humor and for frequently expressing his reverence for “The Lady on the Dome”. He rapidly engineered a quick turnaround of a program that had fallen on hard times under Gerry Faust.
Final ND record: Eleven seasons, 100-30-2. 5-5 in Bowls, National Championship, 1988.
Bob Davie Hired at the age of 42, Davie came to the head job at ND in a way similar to Freeman. He played tight end at Youngstown St and then spent 18 years as an assistant working on the defensive side of the ball. He caught Lou Holtz’s eye when he was the defensive coordinator at Texas A & M after the Irish faced A & M in consecutive Cotton bowls in ’92 and ’93. Holtz hired him to do the same job in South Bend, a role he filled for three seasons. Upon Lou’s resignation, Davie got the job over Northwestern’s Gary Barnett and Irish legend , Tom Clements. Davie’s teams however were marked by inconsistency and he struggled connecting with his players and fans.
Final ND record: Five Seasons, 35-25–0-3 in Bowls.
George O’Leary O’Leary is the “asterisk” on this list, because he was fired five days after being hired when inaccuracies came to light on his resume. But it is instructive to note what his qualifications were, even though he never coached a game. O’Leary never played football in College, in fact that is one of the resume inaccuracies that got him in trouble at ND. O’Leary was 55 years old when hired and had started his career in the high school ranks where he spent 7 years as an assistant and five as a head coach. He then moved up to the college ranks and spent 12 years as an assistant, followed by two years as an NFL assistant. He then served 7 years as the head coach at Georgia Tech. After the job at ND went “south”, he returned to the NFL for two seasons before being hired by the University of Central Florida, where he led the program for 11 seasons.
Final ND record: Five days, 0-0
Tyrone Willingham Willingham was the next man in after George O’Leary did not work out and was 48 when hired at ND. He attended Michigan State from 1973 -1976 and played wide receiver and quarterback. He came to South Bend with 18 years experience as an assistant, 15 at the collegiate level and 3 in the NFL. He held the top spot at Stanford for seven years beginning in 1995 and during that stint he posted a 3-2 record against ND. His tenure started quickly in South Bend in 2002 winning his first eight games and ascending to #4 in the polls. The 2002 team however lost three of their last five to close the year at 10-3. A nice turnaround from Bob Davie’s final mark of 5-6 but the end of year slump continued into the Willingham’s second year as the Irish lost 6 of their first eight. After that, the Irish never cracked the top 25 again.
Final ND record: Three seasons, 21-15–0-2 in Bowls.
Charlie Weis Weis, a 1978 graduate of ND was hired in 2005 at the age of 49. Apparently he played a bit of the game in high school, but none in college. making him the only head coach on this list to have not played college football. He brought 15 years of NFL assistant experience and 4 Super Bowl rings with him to South Bend. He also had five years experience as a high school assistant. His lone head coaching experience was one season of high school ball in New Jersey. He led that team to a state championship. At ND Weis saw success in his first year going 9-3. Year two he went 10-3 but lost his last two including a 41-14 beat down by LSU in the Sugar Bowl. The 2007 Irish followed that up with 3-9 and Weis’s teams never regained prominence. In his final season the Irish lost their last four to finish at 6-6.
Final ND record: Five Seasons, 35-27– 1-2 in Bowls
Brian Kelly Hired by ND at the age of 49, Kelly had played “club” football at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1979-1982 as a linebacker. He brought significant experience, to the ND job. He had spent eight years as an assistant and 19 years as a head coach, with stops at Grand Valley St., Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Kelly won two Division II National Championships at Grand Valley and led his last Cincinnati team to a 12-0 record and left his team before their bowl game to go to South Bend. (Sound familiar?) With the exception of 2012 when he led the Irish to the BCS Championship game his early teams tended to be good, but not great. ND hit rock bottom in 2016 at 4-8 and Kelly retooled and reinvented. The makeover worked and in the next five seasons, the Irish won a total of 54 games, the most in any five year stretch in ND history.
Final ND Record: Twelve seasons, 113-40–5-5 in Bowls.
Next week in “part 2” I’ll compare Freeman’s resume to that of his predecessors and opine on what it indicates of his chances for success.