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Looking At Marcus Freeman Through Bill Polian's Criteria For Hiring A Successful Coach

A look at how Marcus Freeman has fared thus far through the lens of Hall of Famer Bill Polian's criteria for a successful coach
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Any time a new coach is hired, there’s a rush to determine the quality of the hire. It’s no different for Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame. Freeman’s been on the job for nearly seven months and nothing he’s done on the recruiting trail (No. 1 ranked 2023 and 2024 classes to date) have given anyone reason to doubt his soundness for the job.

Freeman has navigated the offseason to near perfection, but the start of the actual season is roughly two months away. There are other factors beyond recruiting that the first-time 36-year-old head coach will soon be judged on.

Bill Polian spent three decades as an NFL executive, most notably as general manager of the Buffalo Bills and later as general manager and team president of the Indianapolis Colts.

He hired Marv Levy in Buffalo after Levy’s short stint with the USFL’s Chicago Blitz. Levy would lead the Bills to the only four Super Bowls in franchise history.

Polian later hired Tony Dungy in Indianapolis after he had been fired in Tampa Bay and Dungy would later lead the Colts to their only Super Bowl title.

Polian has written a pair of books. The first one titled The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team. In the second chapter of the book, “Deciding on the Decision Maker,” Polian details his 11 guidelines for the selection of a head coach.

“Hiring the right head coach is the most important piece to building a successful football team,” Polian wrote. “Get it right, and you have a good chance of being successful for a long time. Get it wrong, and you will likely find yourself going backward in a hurry. It will cost you two things you never get back: time and money.”

Let's take a look at Polian’s 11 criteria for what’s important in hiring a head coach and see how they apply to Freeman at Notre Dame.

1. Organization

Polian wrote: “That ranges from how he organizes his playbook to his practice plans, from year-around staff assignments to his offseason program. Each of those areas and many more must be laid out in writing and explained completely, step by step, especially with a candidate who has never been a head coach before.”

We haven’t laid eyes on all of Freeman’s playbooks and practice plans, but we had the ability to watch some of Freeman’s practices last spring.

He's changed some things from the Brian Kelly practice plan, like no more tempo drills to open each practice. Despite the fact that the team had been used to doing things a certain way under Kelly, there were no hints of confusion or chaos at Freeman’s practices.

Things ran smoothly. It started with keeping Matt Balis to run the offseason strength program, which is a big part of organization in a college football program.

The staff has daily meetings, so Freeman communicates what he’s looking for from them and they’ve all been on the same page.

That showed in the Blue-Gold game as well. You didn’t see dumb things happening like guys not knowing assignments or when to sub in or out of the game.

So, we’ll call this a positive check for Freeman from everything we’ve seen so far.

2. Leadership

Polian wrote: “Does he have the philosophical approach, verbal skills, physical presence, stability and courage to lead and motivate the coaching staff, the players and the support staff?”

I think this is a no-brainer. It starts with Freeman's ability to connect with everyone.

The fact that he’s the point man in recruiting.

The fact that there are those daily staff meetings.

The fact that he shows up and hangs out in the grad assistant room with the guys who are lower in the staff pecking order.

The fact that as a first-time coach with a defensive background he’s made it a priority to have a presence in the quarterback room.

He’s also admitted what he doesn’t know. Like when he said he’s no quarterback guru. Freeman has empowered his assistant coaches rather than micromanaging them.

It’s all good leadership stuff and another check for Freeman.

3. Communication

Polian wrote: “Can he teach or is he a lecturer? A teacher gets everyone involved. He is able to illustrate his lessons with real-life examples and sometimes funny parables. He gets his students invested in what he’s teaching. A lecturer just stands at the podium.”

A lot of these things are intertwined with each other, but I think if you were going to go to the core of why Marcus Freeman is a successful coach and why he’s a great recruiter and why he ultimately became a 36-year-old, first-time head coach at Notre all starts with his communication skills.

Freeman relates to people. He connects with people.

When Texas wide receiver Braylon James committed to Notre Dame this spring, one of the first things he talked about when asked ‘why’ was how Freeman spent time just getting to know him.

There’s the video of Freeman joking with 5-star quarterback C.J. Carr when Carr was camping at Notre Dame before his commitment.

The list goes on and on.

It's yet another check for Freeman.

4. Emotional stability

Polian wrote: “Can he function well under pressure from players, staff, ownership, fans and the press?”

Now look, if there was a glaring mark against Kelly this would be it. This can be a tough one though, because when you’re someone who is competitive and has some fire to him those pressure packed moments are going to bring out emotions, both good and bad, and we obviously saw that from Kelly.

But Polian’s not just talking about how a coach reacts to game situations. He’s talking about how the coach responds to external scrutiny like fans, administrators and the media.

This is something we really don’t know about Freeman yet, because he’s only coached one game and really, he gets a bit of a mulligan for that game, because he coached it about three weeks after being named head coach when Kelly bolted for LSU.

We know how Kelly reacted when he was asked questions about decisions he did or didn’t make and plays that were or weren’t made after losses. His tendency was to go on the defensive very quickly.

Freeman’s personality isn’t as buttoned-up and wound as tight as Kelly’s, but we also haven’t seen Freeman asked a tough question after a tough loss.

It’s easy to have a good attitude when things are going good, but we have to see how he handles it when the situations get a little tougher.

No matter how good it goes for him those moments will eventually come, because they come for everyone at some point.

5. Vision

Polian wrote: “This is the most important quality of them all. Does he have a clear picture of how he wants his team to look and play? Can he articulate it verbally and in writing?

This is something virtually every coach unveils at their introductory press conference. Matt Eberflus had his ‘HITS’ acronym when he was introduced as the Bears head coach.

And while Freeman didn’t have an acronym he had what he calls his ‘Golden Standard’:

1. Challenge everything; “a mentality to find a better way.”

2. Unit strength; “what turns players into a team.”

3. Competitive spirit; “creating a winner's mindset.”

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Freeman said “This standard will be unwavering and will drive Notre Dame to its 12th national championship”.

Another checkmark here for Freeman’s vision.

6. Strategy

Polian wrote: “Is he mentally prepared to make decisions on the sideline or does he react? Does he have direct responsibility for key strategic decisions? In other words, is he the guy making them or is he going to lean on somebody else? He’s got to be the one to decide whether to go for it on fourth-and-goal.”

Again, this is something we’ll find out more about as Freeman coaches more games. He’s never been a head coach before, so this is an unknown.

It’ll take a while to get a feel for how Freeman will make those kind of calls.

Freeman’s only two big decisions in the Fiesta Bowl were opting not to try to score again at the end of the first half and going for it on 4th down in their own territory late in the game.

It's different being the defensive coordinator and making calls for one side of the ball, compared to being the head coach and ultimately being responsible for every decision that’s made in 40 second intervals.

Freeman’s leaned on Tommy Rees quite a bit for the offensive decisions to this point, so how different will that or won’t it be during a game?

He says he’s spent time this offseason watching game film of the last four minutes of each half to look for potential decisions he will have to make as a head coach.

It’s still one thing to spot them in a non-competitive situation on film and another thing to actually have to make those calls in a live game, so this one’s incomplete for now as well.

7. Flexibility

Polian wrote: “First, can he change the nuts and bolts of his program to adjust to circumstances without changing his approach to the fundamentals? … Changing your tactical approach is not the same as changing your fundamental approach. …

“Secondly, can he be flexible and take advantage of circumstances or does he buy someone else’s program, lock, stock and barrel?”

Freeman’s shown a lot of flexibility already. He kept Balis and Rees and a few others on his first coaching staff and thought he was keeping more coaches when Kelly left.

But then Mike Elston went to Michigan and Lance Taylor (Louisville) and John McNulty (Boston College) got offensive coordinator jobs at other schools.

Then, when he hired Al Golden as his defensive coordinator he didn’t make Golden run his defense like a lot of people thought he would do. He let Golden run his own defense.

We’ve seen Freeman keep some things from the old regime and also make a lot of adjustments on the move since he was hired, so He's shown a lot of flexibility, which is another checked box for him.

8. Ability to judge talent

Polian wrote: “He’s got to be able to see potential rather than just saying, ‘This is college player A and this is college player B.’ He’s got to be able to see what the potential of college player A is versus college player B.”

Now, Polian is obviously talking about the NFL here, because that’s his background. In college football, player evaluation is about recruiting and Freeman currently has the No. 1 rated recruiting class in the nation.

This one’s a no-brainer. Another big check here for Freeman.

9. Public relations

Polian wrote: “Essentially, it boils down to, can he handle himself well in this media maelstrom that he’s forced to endure these days? I wouldn’t disqualify someone if he wasn’t good at that, as long as he was willing to work with a professional who could coach him up and help him get through what really is a trial by fire every day.”

We covered a lot of this with the earlier points about emotional stability and how Freeman might react to tough situations after a game.

Bigger picture though, this spring the media got access to just about everyone in the program.

All the assistant coaches, pretty much all of the players (going back to the early enrollees before spring practice started), Freeman himself was available to the media multiple times and assistant coaches were as well.

So from that aspect, Freeman’s off to a great start.

10. Player respect

Polian wrote: “Does his knowledge, leadership, teaching ability, approach to squad morale and discipline, and his personal habits and dignity earn player respect? Do they look up to him? …

“Is his approach to discipline fair? Do his personal bearing, conduct and dignity — which encompasses work ethic, temperament, personal habits, etc. — generate respect from the players? Not liking, but respect.”

Remember the locker room video back in December when Freeman was announced as the head coach to the team?

The root of why he’s Notre Dame's football coach is the relationships he has with the players and everyone around the team.

It’s all built on that.

This is a lock of a checkmark for Freeman.

And finally....11. Character

Polian wrote: “It boils down to one thing: do you want this man as a standard-bearer for your franchise?”

Marcus Freeman has said and done everything right so far. Everyone speaks highly of him. The recruits, the elite ones who we previously were told were unattainable at Notre Dame, are flocking to commit to Freeman and his coaching staff.

There don’t seem to be any gray areas with Marcus Freeman. 

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