In Part 1, the background and qualifications of every ND head coach since Ara Parseghian was examined. Now in Part 2, FIP looks at where Marcus Freeman stands relative to those predecessors and what it indicates for Freeman’s chances of a successful run heading up the Irish.
At 35, Marcus Freeman is the youngest new head coach in South Bend since Terry Brennan in 1954, and he has never been a head coach. The next youngest since Parseghian was hired, was Ara himself, hired away from Northwestern at the age of 40. Still a young man, but by that point of his career, Parseghian had 13 years experience as a head coach. Next on the list is Bob Davie, who was 42 when hired to succeed Lou Holtz. Parseghian won two national titles, Davie was fired after five seasons.
Freeman has significant playing experience in his background. Four years playing linebacker at Ohio State included 37 starts. He is currently 19th on the all-time Ohio State tackles list. Drafted in the 5th round by the Chicago Bears, Freeman had a pro career that ended after just one season due to an enlarged heart condition.
Among his nine ND predecessors, seven had collegiate playing experience, but only Parseghian also advanced to the NFL. George O’Leary and Charlie Weis are the two past hires that did not have college playing time on their resume. (Or at least in O’Leary’s case, it was on his resume, but didn’t actually happen, which is why he was fired five days after his hire.) Playing experience, especially of the sort that Freeman had, coupled with some NFL mojo bodes well for Freeman’s ability to relate to players.
Connections to Notre Dame prior to getting the job is an indicator of a hire’s knowledge of the culture at Notre Dame, and is another factor to consider when evaluating a new head coach. In fact, some might say Brian Kelly never did quite understand the ND culture. Kelly’s prior connection with ND? There wasn’t any.
Freeman has some prior connections. He was recruited by Ty Willingham while in HS and has now spent one year on campus. In his introductory press conference last January, he sounded like he already had a pretty good understanding of life at ND. Among other telling statements he made after being on campus only a few weeks was, “when you have the opportunity to come to Notre Dame, you better really consider it because the things this place will do for your football career, but also for your life, are hard to match anywhere else in the country.” (see: Marcus Freeman You had me at “Hello” )
Freeman’s experience with Notre Dame prior to getting the job compares favorably with or exceeds the experiences of his predecessors. Ara was familiar with ND having defeated them each of the four times he had played them, Devine had been interviewed previously for the job, Faust had been recruited as a player and was a lifelong fan, Davie had spent three years as an assistant in South Bend, and Weis was an alum. Holtz, Willingham, O’Leary and Kelly had little or no real prior connection with ND.
The most often mentioned negative on Marcus Freeman’s resume is his lack of head coaching experience. Among the hires since 1964, there were three who, like Freeman, did not have any collegiate head coaching experience: Faust, Davie and Weis. Average years of collegiate coaching experience among the rest? The group of Ara, Devine, Lou, O’Leary, Willingham and Kelly averaged 13 years of head coaching experience before being hired in South Bend. Brian Kelly leads the experience parade at 19 years. Among that group, Ara, Lou and Devine all won national titles and all have statues outside Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly of course is the all-time wins leader at ND. Head coaching experience did not work so well for Willingham who was fired after three years, and O’Leary, since he never coached a game, really doesn’t count.
It is a fact that the four coaches with the most head coaching experience coming into the job have been by far the most successful in terms of wins and titles. Those without such experience, Faust, Davie and Weis, were not successful in their tenures leading the Irish.
What other factors exist that might allow Freeman to overcome his lack of head coaching experience in his new job?
First of all Freeman is taking over a program that has a solid foundation and is among the best in the nation. 54 wins over the last five years is impressive and is second only to Alabama in that category. Normally when programs are replacing their head coach, it is because the team has fallen on hard times. Nothing could be farther from reality in South Bend. The strong health of the ND program is one of the reasons Brian Kelly’s decision to leave was so unexpected. By all appearances Kelly had ND at the precipice of winning a national title and with a few more athletes, ND just might have done so (see: Has Notre Dame Narrowed the Talent Gap). Because Brian Kelly left the ND program in such a strong position, Freeman will not be tasked with rebuilding a program, rather he is tasked with taking what is already strong and making it just a little better.
On the day of his formal introduction, Freeman emphatically stated that a top priority he will have as head coach will be as a hands on recruiter, “I better be the lead recruiter, in every kid we recruit.” That was music to the ears of many who observed that Brian Kelly frequently was detached from the process and relied mainly on his assistants to do the heavy lifting when it came to bringing in talent. Indeed it would seem that for the last few years the Irish have been just a few more difference making athletes away from winning an elusive national title. Recruiting is an area where Freeman excels, and his emphasis on it as a head coach may be just that is needed to nudge the Irish to an elusive national title.
Young coaches who are closer in age to their actual players like Freeman is, frequently are assigned the label of “players coach”. To many of a certain generation that is not necessarily a positive. After all being a coach is kind of like being a parent. You are not a parent to be your child’s best friend. Obviously tough love is sometimes necessary as a parent, and as a coach. Freeman addressed the, “player’s coach” situation head on in an open letter he wrote the day after his announcement. “I know I’ve been labeled as a player’s coach, and I’m proud to wear that badge. But, I’ll be honest I think there’s a misconception about a ‘player’s coach’….you can be very demanding, and still make people feel important–as long as they believe you have their best interest at heart.”
Age, and head coaching experience, particularly in modern college football are not always particularly strong indicators of success. Outside the realm of Notre Dame are three recent examples of coaches hired at young ages, and without head coaching experience. Dabo Sweeny, was plucked off the Clemson staff at age 39, Ryan Day took over at Ohio State at the age of 39 and Lincoln Riley ascended to the top spot at Oklahoma at the tender age of 33. All in their 30s, none with head coaching experience, and all have experienced significant success.
Compared to his nine predecessors, Marcus Freeman is, by five years, the youngest and lacks the head coaching experience that suited Ara, Devine, Lou and Brian Kelly so well and bedeviled Faust, Davie and Weis. But, Markus Freeman has the advantage of stepping into a program that is on solid footing, and in fact looks poised to make another playoff run in the near future. Freeman also looks to have the advantage of having acquired an early understanding and embrace of the “We Are ND” culture, and he seems well suited to address exactly what the program needs to push it to the top: recruit a few more difference making athletes.
How Freeman fills out his staff in the next few weeks will be interesting. He will have the chance to at least partially address his own lack of head coaching experience in the process. It may be a wise move to hire candidates with long time coaching or even past head coaching experience to take over his old role of defensive coordinator and to fill possible (likely?) openings heading up the offensive line and wide receivers. By doing so he can shore up any deficient caused by his own lack of head coaching experience.
My first impression of Marcus Freeman after he was hired 11 months ago was that, as I wrote at the time, he had me at hello. Since then he has enhanced my opinion that he is a top notch coach, great communicator/recruiter and an exciting prospect to take over a program as a head coach.
Prospect no more, the rubber has hit the road.