Tracing Marcus Freeman’s rise into coaching stardom
As Marcus Freeman prepares for his first season as Notre Dame’s head coach, it’s important to reflect on how he got to this point.
Freeman, 36, is one of the youngest coaches in all of college football. Despite his age, he’s already collected an impressive amount of experience. He’s built and developed championship-caliber rosters at multiple programs.
Freeman also had a decorated playing career and had a chance to play in the NFL out of college.
Starting at the beginning, here’s how Freeman got all the way to the top job in South Bend.
He starred at Ohio State
Marcus Freeman began his path in college football as a player at Ohio State. He starred at linebacker for the Buckeyes from 2006-08, totaling 264 tackles in that span.
For his efforts, he was twice named second-team All-Big Ten.
Perhaps most notably, Freeman had no issues beating his rival. He went 3-0 vs. Michigan in games that he played in. He totaled 19 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 pass deflections in those victories.
Freeman also showed out in the 2007 National Championship Game against Florida. That game came at the end of his first season of playing time, but he still managed to pick up 15 total tackles. He would eclipse that mark just once more (18 tackles vs. Illinois in 2007) for the rest of his collegiate career. Unfortunately for Freeman and the Buckeyes, the Gators went on to win the National Championship.
By 2007, Freeman was one of the leaders on Ohio State’s roster. He was a fourth-year junior, but the Buckeyes were lacking in seniors — which meant he and his peers carried a lot of leadership responsibilities.
“Coach Tressel told us that … ‘You guys are going to have to step up and help the few seniors we do have lead this team,’ ” Freeman said in 2007, via Dispatch.com. “That’s something we have accepted.”
Freeman finished the year with a career-best 109 tackles and helped the Buckeyes back to the National Championship Game again. However, they lost to Nick Saban’s 2007 LSU squad.
He’s young enough to have a recruiting profile
Freeman is one of the youngest head coaches in college football — and likely one of the highest-rated former players, too.
He’s young enough to have been scouted by the main recruiting services and has a 247Sports profile that tracked his recruitment in the class of 2004.
Freeman also had offers from programs like Oklahoma, Miami, Florida, Tennessee and — of course — Notre Dame.
His NFL career didn’t work out
Despite a long and successful college career, Freeman’s time in the NFL didn’t pan out.
He was a 5th round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2009 NFL Draft. However, he didn’t make the team. He bounced around the league, spending a short time with the Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills.
“I have nothing but great things to say about Chicago,” Freeman said in 2010, via the National Football Post. “They gave me an opportunity. They drafted me. It was a great organization. They had to make a business decision.”
He was forced to medically retire due to an enlarged heart condition
Freeman may have eventually found a role in the NFL, but he never got the chance.
By the spring of 2010, he was forced to retire after a medical screening with the Indianapolis Colts found Freeman had an enlarged heart condition.
That was effectively the end of Freeman’s professional playing career.
“When I look at the things I’ve been able to accomplish, I am truly happy,” Freeman said at the time, via the National Football Post. “I feel like I am still fulfilled. Look at what happened with Gaines Adams and the Bears. It’s a dangerous situation. Luckily, the Colts doctors found it before something like that happened to me. I just have to try to look at it as a positive.”
He began his assistant coaching career as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2010
With his playing career in the rearview mirror, Freeman turned to coaching.
He latched on as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2010, working on what would become Jim Tressel’s final staff in Columbus.
It’s there where he worked under Luke Fickell for the first time — a name that would soon become very important in Freeman’s career.
That Ohio State team went 12-1 on the field, but the wins were vacated due to the Buckeyes’ infamous tattoo scandal. It ultimately ended Tressel’s coaching career and wiped a talented Ohio State team from the record books.
Kent State gave him a chance
In 2011, Freeman earned a new challenge. Despite being just 25 years old, he was named linebackers coach at Kent State.
He remained in that role for 2 years and helped build one of the best teams in Kent State history. The Golden Flashes went 11-3 that season, which was Freeman’s second (and final) year with the program.
It was a huge accomplishment for head coach Darrell Hazell, his staff and players. That remains the only 10+ win season in Kent State history.
Next, he followed Darrell Hazell to Purdue
By the time he was 27 years old, Freeman was a linebackers coach in the Big Ten.
After Kent State’s record-breaking season in 2012, Purdue hired Hazell to be its next head coach. Hazell chose to bring Freeman along for the ride, making him one of the youngest position coaches in the entire Power 5.
Freeman was Purdue’s linebackers coach from 2013-15, but was ultimately promoted to co-defensive coordinator for the 2016 season. That meant he was (at least partially) in charge of a Big Ten defense at just 30 years old.
Hazell got fired after 4 seasons, but Freeman landed on his feet
However, Hazell never found the same success at Purdue. He never won more than 3 games in West Lafayette and was fired halfway through the 2016 season — his fourth with the Boilermakers.
That staff’s failure inadvertently set Freeman on the path that led him to becoming Notre Dame’s head coach.
By December of 2016, Freeman had been hired by Fickell to be his defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Cincinnati. Fickell was taking over a disaster of a program in the wake of Tommy Tuberville’s departure — the Bearcats were far from the College Football Playoff contender they ultimately became.
Freeman helped turn Cincinnati around. He was its defensive coordinator for 4 seasons from 2017-20. Over that span, the Bearcats went from 4-8 in Year 1 to a team that won 86% of its games over the next 3 seasons.
Here’s how Cincinnati’s defense ranked in SP+ over Freeman’s tenure:
And of course, Freeman was heavily involved in recruiting much of Cincinnati’s 2021 defense that powered the Bearcats all the way to the College Football Playoff.
Freeman made the jump to Notre Dame
On Jan. 8, 2021, Notre Dame officially hired Freeman to be its next defensive coordinator — and thus changed its program forever.
Freeman arrived in South Bend with a reputation as a fast-rising coach and an elite recruiter. He more than lived up to that billing.
Here’s a quote from Brian Kelly that was in Notre Dame’s official statement after hiring Freeman:
“As we looked into finding someone to run our defense, it was important to find the right fit for our program and Marcus and his family are just that,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers. Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks.”
Notre Dame’s recruiting improved immediately
Freeman completely changed Notre Dame’s results on the recruiting trail, and he did it immediately.
He arrived in South Bend as defensive coordinator before the 2021 season. His first full cycle on the staff resulted in Notre Dame’s recruiting class ranking No. 7 nationally, per 247Sports Composite rankings.
That was the first time Notre Dame finished in the top 7 of the national composite rankings since 2013. His presence also helped keep the class together even after Brian Kelly bolted to LSU prior to the end of the 2021 season.
Freeman is onto something even more impressive in the class of 2023. As of publication, the Fighting Irish already have 13 commitments and a class that ranks No. 1 in the country, per 247Sports Composite rankings. Kelly never signed a class that ranked better than No. 5 nationally (2013) and that was the only time he completed a class in the top-8 during his tenure.
Recruiting is personal for him
Recruiting is something that Freeman has chosen to personally prioritize in the first few months of his Notre Dame head coaching tenure.
“I better be the No. 1 recruiter,” Freeman said at his introductory press conference in December. “I better be the lead recruiter in every kid that we recruit and I plan on doing it.”
So far this cycle, Freeman has already landed a commitment from 1 5-star prospect in pass rusher Keon Keeley. He’s also earned a verbal from 4 other top-100 players, including 3 on the defensive side of the ball.
Per 247Sports, Freeman is listed as the primary or secondary recruiter for 4-star linebacker Drayk Bowen, 4-star safety Peyton Bowen and 4-star athlete Adon Shuler.
Of Notre Dame’s 13 total commitment so far, 8 are on the defensive side of the ball.
The community rallied around him after Brian Kelly left
When Brian Kelly left for LSU, players and fans didn’t hesitate to rally around Freeman.
It wasn’t always clear he would be named head coach. Notre Dame could have opted to pursue outside candidates (such as Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell or other interested coaches), but ultimately promoted Freeman.
That decision proved to be a boon for player and program morale.
Here’s a video of Notre Dame’s roster learning that Freeman had been officially promoted to head coach:
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 3, 2021
He has a diverse background
When Notre Dame chose to promote Freeman, he became the second black coach in program history.
The first was Tyrone Willingham, who led the Irish from 2002-04. He was fired after a 6-6 campaign in 2004. He finished with a 21-15 record and was ultimately succeeded by Charlie Weis.
Notre Dame has had 30 total head coaches since it began playing football in 1887.
Freeman is also just the second FBS head coach in history to be of Asian-American descent. The other is Norm Chow, who led Hawaii from 2012-15.
His first game will be at Ohio State
Freeman’s first game — not including Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State last season — will come on a big stage.
The Fighting Irish are opening the 2022 season at Ohio State on Sept. 3. It’s already been tabbed as ABC’s primetime showcase for Week 1.
The Buckeyes are expected to be one of the top teams in the country as they return quarterback CJ Stroud and several other key pieces. But Notre Dame is talented enough to keep things competitive — especially if it gets good quarterback play. Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne are currently in a competition for the starting job.
To find a recent parallel to a moment like this, you would have to go back to 2017. That was Lincoln Riley’s first year as Oklahoma’s head coach. The Sooners played in Columbus in Week 2 of that season and upset the Buckeyes, 31-16. Oklahoma went on to reach the College Football Playoff.
Notre Dame has not beaten Ohio State since 1936. The Buckeyes have won 4 straight meetings in this series.
Expectations are high for his 1st season
While expectations for Freeman’s first game in Columbus are tempered, they remain high for Year 1 as a whole.
Notre Dame brought in several key transfers, led by former Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph. It also still has talented offensive weapons like Michael Mayer, Chris Tyree, Avery Davis and a quality offensive line.
Notre Dame’s win total has been set at 8.5 despite having tough matchups on the schedule vs. teams like Ohio State, Clemson, North Carolina, USC and other solid programs.
According to ESPN’s FPI, Notre Dame is projected to win 9.1 games this season. The model ranks the Irish No. 5 in the country in overall rating.