As the 48-hour mark neared since the news of Brian Kelly’s sudden and shocking departure broke, the Notre Dame football program and fanbase were still reeling. Kelly had hopped on a plane to Baton Rouge on Tuesday morning, at which point LSU quickly began churning out content about winning championships and talking heads debated whether the move was the right choice. But after the initial shock subsided, the path to the next head coach became blindingly clear to just about every single person involved with the Irish football program.
Enter defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker who spent four years in the DC position with the Cincinnati Bearcats. Freeman is 35 years old and has never been a head coach before. He’s been at Notre Dame less than a year, after Kelly brought him on following his former DC’s departure to be the head coach at Vanderbilt. A lot of these facts may seem to be marks against him — his short time with the program, his youth, his lack of experience. And yet — and yet — the athletes, recruits, alums, former players, fans, and boosters rallied around him like I’ve never seen before. Player after player posted supportive messages and photos for Freeman on Twitter, recruits told reporters that they would decommit if he wasn’t the next head coach, program alumni hosted a Twitter Space titled “Marcus Freeman is the next head coach at Notre Dame,” and the call from fans on the message boards was unanimous.
Then the news broke that Kelly was offering almost all of his former staff a raise to come join him at LSU, including Freeman and offensive coordinator and former Irish QB Tommy Rees. The optimism among the fans turned to panic, as Notre Dame is not exactly known for opening up their pockets in this sort of situation (see: Brian Kelly). The players took matters into their own hands again, tweeting out #PayTommyRees on the day that athletic director Jack Swarbrick was set to meet with Rees to discuss his future at Notre Dame following reports that LSU was offering him a $400K raise. Well, Tommy Rees apparently got paid, because he gathered the team together on Wednesday night to tell them the news: “I’m fucking staying.”
By this time, rumors from anonymous sources that Freeman would be the next head coach (and the second Black head coach in school history after Ty Willingham in 2002-04) were just about everywhere, with the caveat that university president Father John Jenkins would have to sign off on the hire — complicated by the fact that Jenkins is currently in Vatican City, and it was around 1 a.m. when the news was breaking (just wake him up!!). But it became more than just a rumor as the Irish coaches circled the wagons — the strength and conditioning coach? Staying. The running backs coach? Staying. Tight ends coach? Still in South Bend. And Mike Elston, the program’s recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach, who followed Kelly from Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame for nearly two decades? Staying. At. Notre. Dame.
The way Kelly’s departure went undoubtedly rubbed people in the program the wrong way, particularly with a shot, however long, at seeing the playoffs on New Years’ Eve. But that’s not necessarily enough to make everyone stick around. The staff seems to have some real faith in Freeman’s ability to lead the team. He won over the locker room and the recruits, but these coaches’ decisions to stay perhaps say the most about where they believe the program is headed after nearly being gutted by Kelly. On Monday night, the fans were in a state of absolute despair, and by Wednesday evening, they were more optimistic about the future of the Irish football program than I’ve ever seen them.
The days of the old guard at Notre Dame may be coming to an end now, with a 35-year-old at the helm and 29-year-old Rees as second-in-command. What does Notre Dame look like without retirement-age guys screaming at kids on the sideline? Hopefully better. Hopefully different. Hopefully able to move past wistfully yearning for the good old days — Freeman was two years old when Notre Dame last won a national championship, which gives me confidence that he’ll be able to usher in some real change absent of historical context. The program is quickly closing ranks and Kelly is giving the players absolute truckloads of motivational content by essentially telling everyone that he doesn’t think that Notre Dame can win a championship. The unanimous confidence in the hiring of a young Black coach (only the second Black coach in Notre Dame’s history) indicates a culture shift for the program, a changing of the guard to the next generation that just might finally — FINALLY — be able to win it all.