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You’re foretelling me: Brian Kelly predicted Marcus Freeman’s promotion

Kelly’s take from earlier this year comes to pass: “He’s going to be the next head coach.” But did he mean for Notre Dame?

Marcus Freeman will be formally introduced as Notre Dame’s football coach at a news conference Monday.
Paul Sancya/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman hadn’t even coached his first real game at Notre Dame when the fast-rising assistant figured prominently in one of the “Freudian slips” athletic director Jack Swarbrick referenced this week.

Speaking on a panel convened for NBC Sports’ “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” which aired in late August, then-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was discussing hiring practices in general.

“My defensive coordinator is Black, and he’s going to be the next head coach,” Kelly said prophetically.

Did he mean at Notre Dame or somewhere else, having lost Freeman’s predecessor, Clark Lea, to the head-coaching opportunity at Vanderbilt after last season?

Social-media alumni spent days sifting through those tea leaves, but the notion of a farewell season for Kelly quickly faded away. Now that Kelly has bolted what had always been considered a “destination job” for a 10-year, $95 million deal at LSU, all eyes turn to Freeman, who will be introduced as his Notre Dame successor at a news conference Monday.

Had Swarbrick dragged out the search, Kelly might have taken both of his coordinators to LSU with him. Instead, Lake Forest’s Tommy Rees, 29, announced to the Irish team Wednesday that he was staying as offensive coordinator.

The chances of Rees signing a new deal at his alma mater would have been remote without a concurrent agreement from the next head coach. Freeman, who turns 36 in January, again eluded LSU’s grasp despite reports it was prepared to make him the highest-paid coordinator in the nation.

Back in January, LSU finished second for Freeman after the former Cincinnati defensive whiz, with a strong recruiting push from Kelly, opted to move his wife and their six young children to South Bend instead.

No one could have predicted at the time that it would be Freeman, not Kelly, who would coach the sixth-ranked Irish in whatever postseason action they see after going 11-1. With the right combination of upsets Saturday, Freeman’s head-coaching debut (at any level) could come in the program’s third College Football Playoff in the last four years.

“The [CFP] committee made a point of saying they took Brian Kelly’s leaving into account, [which hurt ND],” Notre Dame booster Tom Mendoza, namesake of its business school, posted on his Twitter account. “If they are watching the reaction to Marcus Freeman’s hire, hopefully they will take that into account this week.”

Swarbrick, one of the college game’s top power brokers, downplayed the role of player input in this decision when asked about it Tuesday.

“Not with regard to specific candidates,” he said, “but absolutely with regard to characteristics and criteria. Every search I’ve conducted here in every sport, I’ve had a group of student-athletes help advise me.”

Kelly had barely finished his leaked farewell address to the Notre Dame roster early Tuesday when current and former players started sharing their endorsements of Freeman on various platforms. Even Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale, the 82-year-old with deep family ties to Notre Dame, used his Twitter account to support Freeman’s candidacy.

While Swarbrick initially resisted the idea of naming an interim coach or putting a timetable on the hire, LSU’s pursuit of Freeman certainly seemed to expedite matters.

“It’s about the right candidate,” Swarbrick said. “When we find the person we think is the right one to lead this program and have the right conversations with him, that’s all that matters.”

Freeman, a Bears draft pick and former Ohio State linebacker who played for Hall of Fame coach Jim Tressel, becomes the second Black coach in Notre Dame football history. He follows Tyrone Willingham, hired away from Stanford two decades ago after the George O’Leary fiasco but fired after going 21-15 in three seasons.

When two-time national champion Muffet McGraw retired as Notre Dame’s women’s basketball coach in 2020, Swarbrick brought back former Irish player and assistant Niele Ivey from her role as an NBA assistant. Ivey became the third Black coach in Notre Dame sports history.

With Freeman set to inherit his former office, Kelly’s words from that NBC Sports panel seem more prescient than ever.

“This is not about color or race,” Kelly said. “It’s getting outside of the comfort zone. . . . Why not hire people who make people around them better? This is not that hard.”