When Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick met with Irish football team captains about the head coaching vacancy, the players had a simple message for him: “Jack, don't screw this up.”
In the minds of those captains, the choice was obvious. They have built a culture in the last five years they believe is the best in the country and, when it came to replacing Brian Kelly, there was only one candidate who would allow that culture to remain in place.
That candidate was Marcus Freeman.
By the time Swarbrick was done speaking to the players and discussing the future of the program with Freeman, he had come to the same conclusion.
“Much has been written in the past few days suggesting the members of our football team selected their head coach,” Swarbrick said when he formally introduced Freeman as the program's next leader. “That's not true. And in a way, it diminishes what Coach Freeman has achieved. In a highly competitive environment with lots of choices available to us, Marcus won the job.
“To be sure, the perspective that those seven captains offered to me put a heavy finger on the scale in favor of Coach Freeman, but that was only because they and I believe so strongly that Marcus is the perfect guardian of the very special culture the student-athletes have built.”
Freeman, who had been the defensive coordinator, was officially introduced Monday as the program's 30th head coach in a ceremony at the Irish Athletic Center attended by several hundred people, including the marching band and the players the 35-year-old Freeman will lead into the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State on Jan. 1.
It was a joyous moment with far more pomp and circumstance than when Kelly took the job in December 2009. It was a moment that seemed far off when Kelly abruptly departed for LSU last week and plunged the Irish into the unknown. If Freeman had decided to follow Kelly to LSU – where he could have become the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country – other coaches and players might have followed and the program could have splintered.
Instead, the players publicly advocated for Freeman, Swarbrick worked quickly to get the deal done and everything else remained in place, including nearly all of Kelly's Notre Dame staff. The Irish hired a young, energetic, passionate head coach who would have been a hot candidate on the open market. It also happens to be a hire that will preserve continuity within a program that will play in a New Year's Six bowl for the fourth time in seven years.
“It's a newly-energized team,” linebacker and captain Drew White said. “(When Kelly left), I had a whirlwind of emotions. It was hard to really characterize how I was feeling. But I feel a whole lot better now.”
Unlike Kelly, who came to Notre Dame with nearly two decades of head coaching experience and success at three stops, Freeman has no track record to back up his players' belief in him. He is not shy about the holes on his résumé. But the enormity of Notre Dame's decision to trust him overwhelmed him Monday, forcing him to pause to control his emotions.
“To (Notre Dame president) Fr. (John) Jenkins, Jack Swarbrick, thank you for challenging everything,” Freeman said, his voice breaking. “Thank you for making a decision to believe in a 35-year-old, first-time head coach. And I vow to work tirelessly to never disappoint you.”
Freeman won the press conference in that moment, which led to loud applause as he composed himself. Now, he has to back up that vow and channel the energy of recent days into wins.
He believes he will succeed, his players believe he will succeed and Swarbrick and Jenkins believe he will succeed. All that's left to do is convince everyone else.
Dylan Sinn covers Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue for The Journal Gazette. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DylanSinn.