Marcus Freeman spent years as a coach to watch: a star linebacker at Ohio State who played in the N.F.L. before he emerged as one of the college game’s defensive wizards.
It turned out that Freeman’s first head coaching job, announced in December, would be one of the most pressurized gigs in American sports: leading the football program at Notre Dame, which claims 11 national titles and has won at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons.
Notre Dame fell to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, 37-35, weeks after Freeman’s elevation from the team’s defensive coordinator. Another significant test looms Saturday, when the Irish, who are No. 5 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, will open their season at second-ranked Ohio State (7:30 p.m. Eastern time on ABC).
In an interview last month, a confidently relaxed Freeman, 36, talked about his approach in South Bend, why he reinstated Mass on the game-day schedule and how he juggles coaching with parenting six children.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Notre Dame has a new quarterback, Tyler Buchner, so I’m wondering about your patience. How did you develop your approach to deciding how long to stick with a guy?
Whatever patience I have, I need more. I like to go 1,000 miles an hour and get exactly what I want now. But I’ve got to understand that it’s a process, and I’ve got to understand that it takes time to achieve desired results.
Last year, in terms of me coming here and being defensive coordinator, I know after two games, I was even questioning myself. I was questioning, “Hey, are the things we’re doing — are they right?”
I don’t believe in just doing the same thing and it will get better. No, you have to evaluate and enhance what you’re doing. But I think if you have a good system or you have a good mentality in terms of what you’re looking for, over time it will produce the results that you want.
It will be the same thing with our quarterback. I want him to go out there and win the Heisman in Week 1, but I understand it’s a process, and it will take time for him to gain the confidence that it takes.
The defense is on its third coordinator in three years. Avery Davis, a senior wide receiver, is out for the season. What are you telling your team about managing turmoil?
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The glass is half full. Things happen, and everything happens for a reason. I look at it as, what a great opportunity for somebody else to step up. That is the mentality everyone has to have. You can have the woe-is-me mentality or you can say, “OK, what positive can we get out of it?”
As much as I’m sick for Avery Davis — I love the guy, he was a returning captain, our most productive wideout — I have to make sure that we focus on a great opportunity for somebody to step up.
The Irish, you’ve said, are “close” and could perhaps contend for national championships “right away.” Why should people buy that, given the results of the last few decades?
One, I believe in the talent that we have.
We’re going to continue to bring in the best players. I think there’s place to enhance our roster — we always have to look to enhance it — but I believe in who these kids are in terms of the mind-sets that they have to find a way to achieve the desired results.
It starts with talent, and then it’s a mind-set. It’s a culture that you have to promote in your place. I believe in the culture we have and what we’re continuing to build and what it’s going to do.
You’ve coached against Ohio State before. Not to oversimplify it, but is it weird to go into Ohio Stadium as an opponent?
It was the last time I did it. I was at Cincinnati, and it was the first time I was ever in the visitors’ locker room, the first time I was ever on the visitors’ sideline. I remember going out early and just taking in the pregame because I never experienced that. I didn’t know what it was like. It was cool; it’s different.
But now that I know what it’s like, I don’t need to go out any earlier. I get to focus on this team and what we need to do.
How is your definition of a “Notre Dame guy” different from maybe what the past definition was? Is there a new definition?
I wish there was a definition, and I’ve told the staff you’ve got to figure it out. You can’t look at one transcript, you can’t have one conversation and say this guy is going to be a fit at Notre Dame or not. You have to dive deeply into that person. You’ve got to talk to so many different people because somebody’s going to tell you the truth.
And if somebody tells you “that kid does not like going to school” or “that kid is not a hard worker” or “that kid finds ways to cut corners,” then he’s not going to fit in our program, he’s not going to fit in this university.
Does he value education? You’ve got to talk to him: How important is it for you to go to class? How important is it for you to obtain a degree? How important is it for you to do the right things outside of your dorm or on campus? To me, those are all of the different elements it takes to be a fit at Notre Dame.
Yeah, we’ve got to look at their test scores. We’ve got to look at their G.P.A. But that doesn’t tell you the entire story.
Are you looking at players Notre Dame may have overlooked in the past?
I’m focused on what we’re doing, and that starts with evaluating talent first. Evaluate all of the players, but find the best ones, and then start figuring out, “Is that person a fit for Notre Dame?”
I don’t want to go and say, “OK, these people are a fit for Notre Dame. Let’s find the best ones.” No, I want to say, “Find the best players in the country.” And we have to be able to X off the ones who aren’t going to fit here and recruit the heck out of the ones who do.
When you were hired, you said you thought Notre Dame needed to “find a better way to do everything we do.” Did Notre Dame strike you as too complacent?
Part of our culture — we call it the Golden Standard — is challenge everything. And what challenge everything means is to find a better way to do whatever it is you’re doing. That can be recruiting, that can be teaching, that can be preparing, that can be your practice habits. Find a better way to do it; it’s a never-satisfied mentality.
This has nothing to do with what the mind-set was in the past.
I know you’re bringing back game-day Mass.
I remember being a recruit and coming to a game in the early 2000s and seeing the players walk out of the Basilica on their way to the stadium. I thought that was still what Notre Dame did.
And then when I got here last year, I found out that it wasn’t what Notre Dame did, and when I became the head coach, I asked when that changed and who could change it back. I found out it was me, so we changed it.
I believe in this. As a player, I think three, four hours before a game, it was the most emotional but vulnerable state. Your heart is vulnerable; your mind is vulnerable. A coach can say, “You turn right and you run into that wall as hard as you can,” and you say “OK,” and you just go do it.
What better opportunity than for us to go and have Mass and to go and to worship. That’s why I wanted to do it. We embrace our faith here. We embrace Christianity here, and you know what, part of that is during those vulnerable moments before we’re getting ready to play a really big competition, we’re going to embrace our religion, we’re going to embrace who we are. We respect all religions, we respect all individuals, but we are going to speak about Christianity, and we’re going to have Mass and everybody is going to go.
Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh spoke out against abortion rights recently. A high school coach was at the center of a Supreme Court case about prayer. Should coaches play open roles in American religious life or political life?
I think there are decisions on politics that people should keep to themselves. It’s not my job as the head coach to try to influence my players in terms of how they should believe in politics. When you talk about our university, the University of Notre Dame — that was built upon religion, that was built upon its faith, that was built upon Our Lady who’s on top of the golden dome — that’s what our university was built on. And so when you come here to Notre Dame, we’re going to embrace that. We’re going to speak about it. We’re going to have Mass. But in no way do I believe it is my job to talk politics or to tell somebody what they should believe in terms of anything that doesn’t have to do with this university or football.
After George Floyd’s murder, we saw athletic departments openly backing activism by players. Given the rising power of players, is that phenomenon here to stay?
I think what you’re seeing is athletic departments supporting their players. They have no other choice because, as coaches, our jobs are to support our players. We ask our players to sacrifice for us and sacrifice for each other, but do we have their back when they feel strongly about a certain topic? No matter if you agree or disagree, it’s the ability to make sure your players know you have their back.
They don’t always agree with everything we say as coaches, but they have our back and they follow the things we tell them to do. So it’s the same thing in terms of an athletic department or in terms of being a coach.
If your players feel strongly about something and it’s something that probably aligns with the values of your university, then the ability to show your players that you have their back is something that’s important.
How do you balance this job with six kids, and why do you bring them to practice?
There is no balance. There’s days I look at my kids and see pictures of them, and I don’t know where time has gone.
If there’s a moment in the day that I can spend five minutes with my kids, then I want to. If my wife can bring my kids to the office and I can see them and hug them, then I want to.
The other part is that I want our players to see Coach Freeman as Dad Freeman or Husband Freeman. They’re not always going to remember what I said about football. They’re going to remember how they saw Coach Freeman as a father and as a husband, and that’s really important.
How much sleep will you get during a season with six kids and a football team?
I’ve never gotten a lot of sleep. I need to try to force myself to get more.