Notre Dame football had been the model of consistency since Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick arrived.
Like a metronome, through bad times but mostly good, the only hint of disruption occurred when Kelly flirted with the idea of coaching in the NFL a few times over the years.
Even after Notre Dame finished 4-8 in 2016, there was a period when Kelly was on the hot seat. For Swarbrick, it was always about working through the challenges together and providing the resources and support where he could.
That seemed enough to keep Kelly happy.
Until this last week.
So when mayhem and confusion appeared to take over the program on Monday night when it was confirmed that Kelly took the LSU job after 12 seasons and with the Fighting Irish in play for a College Football Playoff bid, Swarbrick had two choices.
Hire a coach from the outside and risk upending a harmonious staff of talented assistants who had been instrumental in keeping Notre Dame at its top 10 levels for the last five years.
Or hire defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, a potential superstar, who Kelly said in August would be the “next head coach.” Kelly didn’t specify where.
Swarbrick chose the latter. Irish Breakdown first reported that Freeman will be the next coach.
It was the best way to keep the program, which has a top-five recruiting class in the works for 2022 and a great start to the 2023 class, as close to being self-running as possible.
It’s no coincidence that a slew of assistants have made public their plan to stay over the last 24 hours.
They, in essence, have given Swarbrick the win over Kelly in the battle of assistants.
Kelly tried to lure Freeman to LSU to become his defensive coordinator. Swarbrick tipped his hand in his Tuesday press conference that he was targeting Freeman when he said he didn’t plan on hiring an interim coach for the bowl game. He talked about designating a person to deal with “jump balls.” Then, he said if he hired an interim, that person would not be a candidate for the head coaching job. Well, that’s a head-scratcher. Often, interims audition for the job. It could’ve been a perfect way to ease Freeman into the position. And you have to have a designated coach on game day.
It’s clear that Swarbrick likely knew then he didn’t have time to make Freeman the interim. Kelly had already reached out to him to reportedly make him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country.
That is the short version of why Swarbrick, even though he might’ve wanted to explore an option like Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, had to make Freeman his target. There is no time to be super judicious in this crazy environment, where coaches are cementing deals with a matter of one 45-minute phone call if you believe Kelly. Kelly said his phone conversation with LSU Athletics director Scott Woodward was enough to present the idea to his family, who all voted to get on board.
Once word circulated that Freeman was going to be the coach, the valued assistants rallied around the program, making their intentions known.
The first assistant to announce his intention to stay was Director of Performance coach Matt Balis, who said in a video to the Notre Dame players that he “wanted to die here.”
On Wednesday night, at the Guglielmino, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees told a group of players that Notre Dame was “where his heart was” and that “for the guys that are coming back, let’s go win a -———- national championship at Notre Dame.” Kelly had reportedly made an offer to Rees.
Shortly after that defensive line coach Mike Elston, who had been with Kelly since 2004, tweeted, “Notre Dame is home!! 12 years and counting. Let’s ride fellas.”
Other assistants, like running backs coach Lance Taylor, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, tight ends coach John McNulty and safeties coach Chris O’Leary are all staying as well.
This is great news.
There shouldn’t be a step backward.
It’ll be a matter of how well Freeman handles the transformation from being an assistant to becoming the CEO and head coach.
It's all about continuity. Freeman is a risk because he doesn't have head coaching experience but he could also be the next Dabo Swinney, who was an assistant and then an interim coach at Clemson before taking over as head coach in 2009.
We all know what happened next with Swinney.
Notre Dame fans can hope for a Swinney like rise for Freeman.
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