As LSU aggressively tries to poach other Notre Dame coaches, the Irish are working hard to retain their staff. With former head coach Brian Kelly already headed to Baton Rouge, Notre Dame finds its program in unexpected disarray. With signing day in just over two weeks and a potential upcoming playoff berth, the Irish entered crisis management mode while searching for answers.
How it happened
The news traveled at the speed of light. Pete Thamel sent the initial viral tweet with reports of the deal at 7:51 PM. ESPN posted it an hour later. Nothing was heard from Kelly himself until a group text message to the team was leaked – having been sent at 10:08 PM. Nothing was confirmed from either team officially until Tuesday mid-morning. Kelly changed his Twitter bio information – and cover photo – from Notre Dame to LSU shortly after a brief team meeting this morning. The former Irish coach met with his team at 7:00 AM for approximately 11 minutes, leaving campus shortly thereafter. LSU announced the hire on Twitter at 9:02 AM, and Notre Dame hosted a press conference at 10:00 AM. The official deal is for 10 years and 95 million dollars, to go with performance-based incentives.
To most, it was a shocking development, with players, recruits, and alumni reacting on Twitter. However, in the morning press conference, athletic director Jack Swarbrick gave a somewhat different impression.
“There had been enough in the weeks leading up that led me to believe that there were other things attracting Brian. I was not surprised,” Swarbrick said, “I think this place is perfectly prepared to move forward.”
LSU aggressively pursuing Notre Dame coaches
It’s clear LSU isn’t satisfied with just its 95-million dollar man. The Tigers are aggressively pursuing other Notre Dame coaches – most prominently both the offensive and defensive coordinator. Sources say Kelly reached out to defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and offered to make him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in college football. In addition, 29-year-old offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is also an LSU target.
Losing Freeman would be incredibly damaging to the Irish. He’s elevated their recruiting in a massive way since coming to South Bend. In the hours after the news, many current 2022 Notre Dame commits have rallied around the idea of Freeman being the new head coach. Four-star tight end recruit Eli Raridon described the “majority” of recruits as “100% locked in if Freeman is promoted.” He followed that up by saying “A lot of us didn’t commit just because of the coaching.”
Other Fighting Irish recruits backed Raridon’s statement with their own posts on social media. Top 2022 recruit, linebacker Jaylen Sneed, tweeted “In Freeman We Trust” on Tuesday morning. Top 2023 recruit Drayk Bowen, 2023 safety Adon Schuler and 2022 linebacker recruit Nolan Ziegler also posted similar messages, most punctuated with the hashtag “#FreemanEra”.
Several current Notre Dame players embraced the current situation, as well as a potential Freeman hire. On Tuesday, graduate defensive lineman and captain Kurt Hinish posted a hype video captioned “Always been about us”. Sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey emphatically tweeted “Notre Dame is Notre Dame!”. A host of current players retweeted Foskey, sharing a similar sentiment. Meanwhile, several alumni of the program also posted messages; most emphasized that Notre Dame is not built by coaches, but a few tweets did imply criticism towards Kelly.
No Interim, Notre Dame Coaches To Retain Current Structure
Swarbrick was adamant about his lack of intention to hire an interim coach. “I feel less of a need to have a designated interim coach. The staff is structured so we don’t need one. But if we feel a need to put someone in that position, they would not be a candidate for the job.”
It’s a bit of a bold move, but it makes sense. No Notre Dame coaches have told Swarbrick they’re leaving, so at this point, the Irish still have a relatively in-tact supporting staff. Swarbrick noted that the structure allows for a relatively seamless continuation of their current activities. The athletic director commented: “If anything, we’ll name one to handle the jump ball decisions – when to take a timeout and such.” Swarbrick maintained it would be only in an operational capacity and that he didn’t regard interim coach as a promotion.
So What’s Next?
Notre Dame has a lot of questions to answer, but first, it’s about damage control. Signing day is coming up on December 15th, and Notre Dame has the 4th ranked recruiting class in the country. With the outcry being to hire Freeman, Swarbrick faces some difficult decisions. However, Swarbrick said there wasn’t a timeline on the decision, noting the importance of selecting the right candidate.
“It’s about being a fit at Notre Dame. It’s important that you understand and appreciate the uniqueness. That’s a critical element,” Swarbrick said emphatically, “Nowadays, college football coaches are like CEOs, so clearly understanding your approach to building and managing staff is key. What’s your approach to playing the game, what’s your style.”
Swarbrick went on to say he had no “list of people” and just a “list of characteristics” when it came to the next head coach.
However, despite the uncertainty, Notre Dame’s athletic director maintained that the current state of the program is largely due to the players, and moving on is perfectly manageable. “It’s not Brian Kelly’s culture – it’s the culture built by the 118 young men on that team. Nothing they built will be diminished or lost as we move forward.”
Potential Coaching Options
Freeman is the most obvious choice. The defensive coordinator has maintained Notre Dame’s defensive excellence in 2021 while elevating its recruiting. Notre Dame is giving up 18.2 points per game, less than under the vaunted Clark Lea in 2020. The Irish rank 11th overall in points given up per play, and are first in the past three weeks. In 2020, Freeman’s Cincinnati Bearcats ranked 4th in that same stat. The 35-year-old is a rising star, and Notre Dame has the opportunity to lock him up. While there are plenty of great minds amidst the Notre Dame coaches, there’s a reason why Freeman has gotten so much support. Foskey, Xavier Watts, Clarence Lewis, and Justin Ademilola were just a few of the key Irish defensive players to voice their opinion on hiring Freeman.
The biggest argument against Freeman is experience. He has one year of Power-5 coaching experience, and he’s never been a head coach. However, on Tuesday, Swarbrick affirmed that head coaching experience was not a necessary qualifier to be considered, seemingly keeping Freeman as an option. This is not only the safest bet for Notre Dame, but it’s one that allows the retainment of the majority of its current recruits. With a lot of returning talent, the Irish have a chance to be great in the coming seasons, and Freeman could be the coach to bring them over the top.
Nabbing a high-performing coach from Cincinnati worked once – why not try again? Fickell has been great for Cincinnati after building his reputation as an assistant with Ohio State. If the Irish go with an external hire, Fickell should be the first call. He has the Bearcats primed for a College Football Playoff berth, and he may want to make the Power-5 jump soon. Fickell has similar capabilities to Freeman, and the only reason Freeman is likely the preferred option is his relationship with current Irish recruits.
While there could be some short-term implications, Fickell is another great option. He and Freeman are likely 1A and 1B – in no particular order – for a lot of Irish fans. However, it wouldn’t be a quick hire in all likelihood, as Fickell implied he’s certainly going to see out the season with the Bearcats when asked about the vacancy in South Bend.
This one is a riskier Group-of-5 pick. Chadwell has produced a couple of great offenses, and he’s shown his offensive prowess as a coach. Sophomore quarterback Grayson McCall was great as a freshman and leads the nation in passer rating in 2021. The Chanticleers are 21-3 over the past two seasons, and Chadwell is quickly becoming a commodity in the coaching market. That being said, Chadwell also has no Power-5 experience, with Coastal representing his only tenure with an FBS team. Should the Irish lose Rees, trying to attract Chadwell as an offensive coordinator could be more desirable.
HiringFitzgerald is a tough sell because of the feasibility. The long-time Northwestern coach just signed a 10-year extension with the Wildcats. While the Kelly situation, among others, shows that contracts are really just technicalities, it would take a monumental offer to draw Fitzgerald. That being said, there are plenty of positives there. Fitzgerald has frequently exceeded expectations at Northwestern, succeeding despite high academic standards. He’s really the only external hiring option that would be used to the restricted recruiting rules Notre Dame follows.
Fitzgerald is 109-90 all-time at Northwestern, coaching the wildcats to four bowl wins the past five seasons. They’ve finished in the top 20 on three occasions after starting each of those years unranked. However, Fitzgerald has never really challenged the top dogs in the Big 10 for supremacy, with six losing seasons and only three 10-win campaigns. With Notre Dame hunting for a title, can Fitzerald nudge the Irish over the top?
Certainly, there are other coaches available. Current Oklahoma interim head coach Bob Stoops is a legendary veteran coach. But if he’s to return to the helm of a major college football program, the Sooners are his likely destination.
Many have mentioned Matt Campbell, but Notre Dame should be wary of that name. His 39-24 record at Iowa State is not overly fantastic, despite the hype. The Cyclones finished 7-5 this season despite a preseason #7 ranking. They are yet to exceed nine wins under Campbell. Plus Campbell, who said in a press conference that winning the Big 12 championship wasn’t his goal, may not be ready for the scrutiny that comes with the Notre Dame position. The Irish may interview Campbell, but they should consider his candidacy with great caution.
Ultimately, the Irish find themselves in a brand new era, and it happens as they await their Playoff fate in 2021. But with Kelly gone, and other Notre Dame coaches potentially on the move, there are plenty of questions. All eyes are on Swarbrick, as he makes what will be a critical next move for this program. However, the athletic director remains confident:
“Twelve years ago, I embarked on a coaching search, looking for a hire to fix a broken program. Now, the program has never been in better shape in my fourteen years here.”