Gonzales: Freeman takes center stage for Notre Dame

  • New Notre Dame football head coach Marcus Freeman finishes answering questions at his introductory news conference Monday at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend, Ind.

    New Notre Dame football head coach Marcus Freeman finishes answering questions at his introductory news conference Monday at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend, Ind. Associated Press

  • Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman is accompanied by his family, captains and administration en route to a news conference Monday in South Bend, Ind.

    Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman is accompanied by his family, captains and administration en route to a news conference Monday in South Bend, Ind. Associated Press

 
Updated 12/6/2021 6:18 PM

After entering Notre Dame's indoor practice facility with his family, president John Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick -- while serenaded to the Victory March -- newly appointed football coach Marcus Freeman surveyed the large gathering as he stepped behind the dais.

"A lot of people here," Freeman smiled Monday after being introduced as the Fighting Irish's head coach.

 

But this was no admission that the 35-year-old Freeman, who has never been head coach, was overwhelmed by the most scrutinized position in college football.

Freeman might have the biggest security blanket of any first-year head coach at a Power Five program. Swarbrick maintained that Freeman "won the job," but it didn't hurt that the Irish players immediately lent their support immediately after Brian Kelly departed suddenly for LSU despite winning at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons and reaching the College Football Playoff semifinals in two of the three previous seasons.

To this point, no player has publicly hinted at leaving since Freeman's hiring, or expressed an urge to join Kelly in Baton Rouge.

Neither have any of the coaches, many who possess more experience than Freeman.

That could be interpreted as more of an indictment on Kelly's abrupt departure with the Irish set to play Oklahoma State Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl.

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Before Swarbrick offered the job to Freeman, he received assurances from Matt Balis he would stay as director of football performance, and that Tommy Rees would remain as offensive coordinator.

There also was a message from the seven team captains to Ron Powlus, the former Irish quarterback who serves as an associate athletic director in charge of football, to retain the culture that they believe is the best in the county.

The transition from Kelly to Freeman lasted much shorter than the distance of a Zoom meeting last week between Freeman and Jenkins, who was in Rome on business.

"I'm ready for this challenge," said Freeman, who answered each question in a well-prepared tone. "I'm ready to lead this program to the greatest heights."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Freeman reiterated to the crowd what he shared with Jenkins, that he possesses a strong love for football that caused him to transition from linebacker to assistant coach in 2009 with the opportunity to help young men after the diagnosis of an enlarged heart ended his NFL aspirations.

College football recruiting legend Tom Lemming recognized the maturity of Freeman nearly 17 years ago before his biggest promotion.

"He was 18 going on 30," said Lemming, who listed Freeman as a five-star linebacker before selecting him to the 2004 U.S. Army All-American Game. "He acted like an adult who happened to be a very good football player."

The most refreshing aspect of Freeman's delivery was that he didn't anoint himself as a rising star or plead for facility upgrades.

There were no declarations of possessing a schematic advantage despite supervising a defense that ranked seventh nationally with 40 sacks and 11th in turnovers (plus-23) and scoring defense (11th).

At the same time, Freeman emphasized the desire to make everyone collectively better from within.

"We will be disciplined, we will be tough, we will work tirelessly," Freeman said.

But not at all costs.

Freeman addressed the mission of balancing his new position with being a husband and father to six young children. He also said he would support any decision made by safety Kyle Hamilton, who hasn't played since Oct. 23 due to a knee injury and could be a top-5 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Hamilton could learn from former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith, who suffered a major knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State that cost him a shot at being selected in the first round.

Freeman didn't disclose any fixes to the current schemes, although the coaching staff could have one or two tweaks.

And at some point, Freeman will need to make his own mark. He said he'd better be the Irish's No. 1 recruiter despite his vastly expanded responsibilities.

"And then next year, we (must) have intentional efforts to make sure we're doing whatever it takes to put this team in position to win a national championship," Freeman said.

The 2022 schedule will be tough, starting with an opener at Freeman's alma mater -- Ohio State.

By then, Freeman's blueprint should be in place throughout the program.

"Leaders are born, winners are created."

@MDGonzales

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