Can Notre Dame win the national title? 'We don't have forever'

·7 min read

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The framed picture in Brian Kelly’s office showcases three halogen grins in the aftermath of one of Notre Dame’s biggest football victories this century. In the minutes after Notre Dame’s double-overtime upset of No. 1 Clemson in November, Kelly posed for a locker room group shot with athletic director Jack Swarbrick and school president Rev. John I. Jenkins.

Kelly pointed out the picture recently when two conversations collided during a chat in his office — the recruitment of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, and Notre Dame’s ability to navigate the final step under Kelly and win the program’s first national title since 1988.

“It's a reminder for me that the three of us are committed and tied together in this window, that we all want to see the same thing happen,” Kelly said. “And if your athletic director and your president and your head coach are all in alignment, that's a really good place to be. And that we don't have forever. We feel like there's a sense of urgency to get this done.”

Kelly is coming off his third undefeated regular season in his 11 seasons at Notre Dame, including two College Football Playoff bids in the past three years. Amid the program’s best run in the past generation, there remains a tangible distance to the space occupied by Alabama atop the sport.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly takes the field with his team for the 2021 College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 01. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly takes the field with his team for the 2021 College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 01. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

That’s why Kelly expressed his elation at the program’s ability to recruit Freeman from Cincinnati this offseason. The hiring of Freeman, who was courted heavily by LSU, made a glaring statement about Notre Dame’s commitment to remaining in the rare air.

Kelly said that he approached Swarbrick and asked that Notre Dame make an offer that would allow Freeman to make a decision based on the “better fit for him and his family,” and “we can’t do that if we’re going to be considerably behind monetarily.”

Kelly credits Swarbrick, Father Jenkins and the board for understanding the financial ramifications of a high-end transaction like the Freeman hire. With LSU reportedly offering more than $2 million per year for Freeman, it’s safe to assume that Notre Dame ended up in that neighborhood.

“Jack went and got that done,” Kelly said. “And so we were able to do this based upon the vision that we have for the program: That if we want to win a national championship, then we have to be able to back it up with getting the talent necessary.”

The Freeman acquisition came three years after Texas A&M swooped in and hired defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who is regarded as one of the elite coordinators in the sport. Notre Dame ended up fine, as Elko protégé Clark Lea put together CFP defenses in two of his three seasons. Notre Dame went 33-5 over Lea’s three seasons, with his performance helping him earn the Vanderbilt head coaching job.

To replace him, Notre Dame didn’t hesitate to go all-in. Freeman, 35, jokes he felt like a 5-star recruit, as he hopscotched the country on private jets and dined at the finest restaurants. Freeman and his wife, Joanna, have strong Midwest roots and staying in the footprint ended up best for the couple and their six children. Freeman quickly became enamored with the Notre Dame campus after seeing the famous Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus and the football program’s sparkling new indoor facility. 

“When you see them in-person, it's like you're in a movie,” he said. “And it's like 'Ahhh' as the light flashes on.”

Freeman earned acclaim after leading Cincinnati’s defense to a top-10 ranking in scoring defense in 2020, as the Bearcats went undefeated in the regular season and reached the Peach Bowl. Along with being a high-end play-caller, Freeman also developed a reputation as a dynamic recruiter with a gift for connecting with players. Freeman was so sought after that he was a finalist for the head coaching job at Illinois, which would have been an unprecedented jump for a Group of Five assistant to earn a head coaching job at a Power Five school.

Leaving Cincinnati wasn’t easy, as Freeman has a two-decade relationship with coach Luke Fickell. Freeman had resisted other overtures in prior years, including an offer from Michigan State after the 2019 season that more than doubled his salary.

“When I make a decision, I run as fast as I can,” Freeman said. “We got here, and it's been great. It took me very little time to realize how special this place is, how unique it is.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman during the Blue-Gold NCAA spring football game on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman during the Blue-Gold spring game on May 1, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Running to Notre Dame meant landing in a new basement, as the Freemans spent part of last year living with the Fickell family, and Marcus moved into the basement of Irish corners coach Mike Mickens. He moved out Wednesday, and the Freeman family moves into their new home next week.

Freeman said he has been energized by the players at Notre Dame, impressed by their combination of ambition, acumen and work ethic. “These kids want to be great,” he said. “They want to be NFL draft picks. They want to be developed. And when you open that door, and you say, 'Hey, I'm here to serve. I'm here to make you better.' They're gonna make you live up to those words. And I respect that. I love it.”

The players have responded well. Defensive lineman Kurt Hinish said Freeman has thrived with his ability to connect with players. He brought in a points system called the Golden Standard Fundamentals that allowed the defensive units to compete against each other all spring, giving them points for things like pass breakups, sacks and forced turnovers.

“It’s been spirited,” said Hinish, who jokingly expressed skepticism about the points system when the linebackers took the lead from the defensive line. “There’s a lot of jawing at each other.”

Hinish said that Freeman is more outgoing than Lea, as he mentioned a moment in the spring when he batted down a pass and gave a celebratory finger wag in the direction of quarterback Jack Coan. Freeman gave him a high-five afterward, but he’s skeptical Lea would have embraced that outward show of swagger.

“They are both incredible humans, great people,” Hinish said. “Just a little bit different styles.”

Hinish went out of his way three times in a phone interview to make sure that any differences between the coordinators weren’t perceived as slights toward Lea, as he credited Lea for making him “the man I am today.” He said that the Irish defense will be more aggressive, as Freeman has simplified the group and has based things on a philosophy of “see the football, get the football.”

Lea’s defense was essentially umbrella structure that thrived on containing offenses, limiting big plays and being selectively aggressive. Kelly said Notre Dame will be more multiple up front, mixing three-down and four-down linemen packages based on opponent. Hinish predicted blitz packages will be more elaborate.

“He’s much more player over scheme,” Kelly said of Freeman. “So he’s immediately gonna look to the player’s strength over, ‘This is what we do.’ It’s always about what the player can do first, and we can adjust.”

Freeman has also provided a recruiting jolt, as his arrival coincided with Kelly’s assertion that Notre Dame’s final step toward winning a title will come through better recruiting. Freeman and defensive line coach Mike Elston rank in the top 10 of one recruiting service’s recruiter rankings. Notre Dame ranks No. 4 overall in Rivals.com for the class of 2022.

“I think it’s a nice intersection of a guy who is very talented with a program that was focused on doing some things differently,” Swarbrick said of Freeman.

Spring practice is a time when optimism eternally bubbles. New hires shine, new schemes percolate with aggression and hope blossoms until the reality of the opening Saturday. For Notre Dame, Freeman has brought energy on and off the field. Perhaps just as important, his hire symbolizes Notre Dame’s grand ambition. And that’s why Kelly points to the picture of he, Swarbrick and Jenkins in his office to express his excitement. 

“The best way I could put words into that picture is, ‘We’ve got to get this done,’ Kelly said. “And those are the three people that can get it done.”

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