Notre Dame has certainly achieved a strong level of success in recent seasons, at least from a surface level standpoint. The Fighting Irish have gone 54-10 the last five seasons, but a deeper dive into that record shows Notre Dame had a ways to go before getting where it needed to be, and first-year head coach Marcus Freeman has been tasked with changing that.
During the five-season stretch discussed in the opener, Notre Dame went just 10-10 against opponents that finished the season ranked in the Top 25, and 1-7 against opponents that ranked in the Top 10 to end the season, and the Irish went just 2-3 in the postseason.
To take it a step further, Notre Dame racked up seven of those 10 wins over ranked opponents came in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. In the last three seasons the Irish went just 3-6 against Top 25 opponents.
There was often a common ingredient to those losses, and even some of the Notre Dame wins over opponents in which they simply took advantage of a talent gap in their favor.
Simply put, Notre Dame often lacked the ingredients that made the program so special under past championship winning coaches. Under former head coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame often came up short in the big moments, even at times against opponents it held a talent advantage over. It's why Kelly was just 19-29 against during his career against opponents that finished the season in the Top 25, and just 3-16 against Top 10 opponents.
The last head coach to win a national title at Notre Dame was Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, who led the Fighting Irish to a title in 1988. Holtz had an epic pregame speech to his team in which he explained very clearly what Notre Dame was supposed to be all about. You can listen to Holtz making that speech in the video above, but here are some key takeaways.
"We’re going to wait until that ball is snapped, we’re going to put a Riddell [helmet] on somebody, and we’re going to be the most physical football team in the country until the whistle blows."
"We want to win for one thing and it’s the first thing we ever had. We said we were going to bring respect. Don’t talk about it."
"There is only one way you get respect and that’s by looking someone in the eye for sixty minutes, go out there and hitch up your trousers and say, 'Hey baby, here I am now. Let me see you run through me now. Let me see you show some disrespect for me when I’m nose on your nose. Let me see what you think of me now that my face is to you'."
"We talk about respect. We talk about respect around the country. It’s a game of who’s going to flinch first. Who’s going to give up first. We know that isn’t going to be Notre Dame. Notre Dame football is nothing more than toughness, togetherness, intensity, intelligence and competitiveness."
Holtz understood what made Notre Dame unique, and he embraced it. Keep in mind Holtz's teams went 33-23-2 against Top 25 opponents and earned 15 wins against opponents that finished the season ranked in the Top 10.
The most recent head coach failed to embrace that, and the results speak for themselves. Kelly's success rate against ranked opponents was worse than Ty Willingham (8-9 vs. Top 25, 2-5 vs. Top 10). Let that sink in for a minute.
That is what Freeman is trying to change, and from the moment he was hired as the new head coach he set out to address the heart of Notre Dame's big game issues. It was a lack of success that came in big games, which was rooted in the program simply not being tough enough at the top to win those games, and it filtered down through the program.
The son of a 26-year member of the military, Freeman made his objectives clear the day he was announced as the program's new head coach.
"We will be disciplined, we will be tough, we will work tirelessly," Freeman said back in December. "But we will do it with the understanding that no one person, no one coach is more important than another. As a team and as a family, we’ll accomplish all of our goals."
He went on to talk about the "Golden Standard."
"Number one, it’s challenge everything, this is why I’m here," continued Freeman. "Our leaders challenge normalcy. ... Challenge everything is a mentality to find a better way. Number two is unit strength. Unit strength means love. It’s making a choice to love your teammates. It’s what turns players into a team.
"... Number three is the competitive spirit, it’s creating a winner’s mindset. I believe that leaders are born but winners are created and you’re created through intentional actions. As I previously stated, this standard will be unwavering, and this is the standard that will drive this football program to its 12th National Championship."
Freeman's early practices at Notre Dame are designed to build physical and mental toughness, which he knows the team will need if they want to beat Ohio State, Clemson, BYU, USC and then move into the postseason and continue winning big games.
"It’s gotta be hard,” Freeman said after the team's first practice. “It’s not changing. You’re not changing what we’re doing and it’s gotta be hard. We had a couple of guys that couldn’t finish practice today and it’s their job to make sure they’re available for practice. It’s the trainer’s job to make sure they protect the player.
"I was trying to send a message to those players that, hey, whatever you have to do to make sure you’re available," continued the Irish head coach. "We have to do it, because we’re not changing. The length of practice, the effort (and) the way we’re gonna challenge our players – that’s not gonna change and so, if they’re looking for us to pull back, it’s not gonna happen. They have to continue to do whatever it takes to make sure they’re ready to go.”
Times have certainly changed at Notre Dame.
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