The modern era of Notre Dame football has not been kind to first-year head coaches who were previously coordinators without head coaching experience. Notre Dame went that route again when it promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach, but the formula for breaking the trend is simple, avoid their mistakes.
Bob Davie replaced Lou Holtz in 1997, and despite a pair of 9-3 seasons the former Irish coordinator went just 35-25. Charlie Weis was named head coach following the 2004 season, and he could never replicate the success of his first two seasons (19-6). Weis was fired after five seasons with a 35-27 record.
Any criticism of Freeman's hire has revolved around his lack of previous head coaching experience, and the reason for that is the fact Davie and Weis failed at Notre Dame.
There are many reasons those coaches failed and many reasons to believe Freeman is poised for much greater success. There is, however, one incredibly important lesson that Freeman must learn from Davie and Weis. If he learns it he will have a chance to not only thrive at Notre Dame, but to bring back another championship.
Do whatever it takes to make sure your team thrives on the side of the ball opposite your area of expertise.
Davie came to Notre Dame after a run building very strong defenses at Texas A&M, and during his tenure in South Bend his teams were tough, fundamentally sound on defense and certainly thrived on that side of the ball in many ways.
Davie was a mediocre recruiter, something no one is concerned about with Freeman. The primary reason he failed, however, was his inability to push the right buttons offensively. Notre Dame never ranked higher than 28th in scoring under Davie and finished 43rd, 67th and 99th in scoring offense during his tenure.
In his final season at Notre Dame, the Irish defense ranked 22nd in scoring defense, giving up just 19.5 points per game. The problem, and the reason Notre Dame went just 5-6, which led to Davie's firing, was the offense only averaged 19.5 points per game. Twice Notre Dame lost games while giving up just 17 points. In fact, Notre Dame never gave up more than 28 points in all eight of its losses.
Weis had the opposite problem. He put some elite offenses on the field during his tenure. His 2005 offense was one of the best in Notre Dame history, and he turned former quarterback Brady Quinn into a star.
Weis had a number of issues, including not focusing enough on fundamentals that are so needed for a college coach. That shouldn't be an issue for Freeman, who has only ever been a college coach and whose defenses at Cincinnati were quite sound and whose defense at Notre Dame got more and more so as his first season wore on.
Weis had problems getting the defense going. Notre Dame never finished higher than 42nd in scoring defense, and his four teams to finish .500 or higher ranked 53rd (2005), 67th (2006), 42nd (2008) and 63rd (2009) in scoring defense. Notre Dame's defense was embarrassed in big games and when they lost, they often lost big.
Notre Dame went 19-6 in Weis' first two seasons thanks to the Quinn led offense. In the six losses the defense gave up an average of 40.7 points per game.
In Weis' final season at Notre Dame his offense ranked 8th in total offense and 32nd in scoring offense. Yet the Irish went 6-6 and Weis was fired due to the fact his defense ranked 86th in total defense and 63rd in scoring defense.
Notre Dame actually scored 28.7 points per game in its six losses that season, but it allowed 33.3 points per game in its six losses.
The defensive coach couldn't get his offense going.
The offensive coach had awful defenses.
So the formula for Freeman is simple. Do whatever it takes to ensure that your offense is every bit as dynamic and effective as your defense. Considering how good Freeman's defense was in 2021, and how good the Irish have been on defense for the last five seasons, an offense to match that success would make Notre Dame a legitimate title contender.
Do that and the conversations about "can you really hire a coordinator at Notre Dame" disappears and Freeman destroys another myth about Notre Dame.
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