The gold was flaking. Peeling.
Crumbling right off the Main Building on the stately campus, tucked in the corner of Indiana some two hours north of Indianapolis, 90 minutes east of Chicago and not far from Lake Michigan.
Right? Had to be.
Brian Kelly was jettisoning Notre Dame for the bayou and LSU; a Southeastern Conference football factory two years removed from a national title, less than two months removed from firing Ed Orgeron and still sifting through no shortage of off-the-field obstacles.
At Notre Dame, an unprecedented fifth-straight season of double-digit wins was about to be rendered meaningless by Kelly’s abrupt departure.
The Fighting Irish had five days, perhaps, to name a coach and get help for a third College Football Playoff berth in four seasons.
Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s venerable athletics director and a 1976 magna cum laude graduate of the school, never flinched.
“Energizing; I love it. It’s a perverse element of my personality,” Swarbrick told FootballScoop of his charge to navigate what could have been a chaotic timestamp in Notre Dame history. “Those are the moments I like my job the most, you know? Something big, you’ve got to figure it out and you’ve got to try to come to the best answer for the university.
“My kids think I’m crazy, but I just get really excited.”
Swarbrick, his eagerness and willingness to meet the crisis head-on like Kyle Hamilton so often had done in the open field for the Fighting Irish, still had to generate a positive outcome.
Otherwise, Kelly’s exit meant more than just an unexpected transition atop the sport’s most hallowed program – the one with seven Heisman Trophy winners, the decades-old first-of-its-kind exclusive-rights TV deal and 11 consensus national titles.
A dozen-year-run, 11 of them winning seasons, three of them with opportunities for the program’s first national title since 1988, was an elaborately long exercise in stabilization – but not national-title vindication.
That was the essence here in South Bend, Indiana, where college football’s most global brand became a plucky underdog story in the Brian-Kelly-to-Marcus-Freeman evolution.
But how did it all so rapidly unfold? Across the past month, FootballScoop talked to more than a dozen people who shared a unique vantage into perhaps college football’s most stunning set of moves in a cycle with coaching changes that will reverberate nationally for years into the future.
THANKSGIVING WEEK, multiple sources on the Notre Dame campus and industry insiders said Kelly’s representatives initiated dialogue with Swarbrick on some “competitive-edge” elements that Kelly felt very strongly were necessary moving forward for the Irish to truly compete alongside the Alabamas, Ohio States and LSUs, among others, of college football’s current ruling class.
Dedicated nutritional teams, not merely a single person.
Hiring someone to head up that targeted new dimension and, per Kelly’s wishes, as absolutely soon as possible.
There was no debate from either side about the need for a singular lead person to handle nutrition for the Fighting Irish football team; Kelly wanted someone in place by the first of the year while school officials emphasized a dedicated process “to get the best possible candidate” that likely would have ensured a hire in place before the onset of spring camp in March 2022.
Still, it was Thanksgiving week, and a sense of urgency on elements with no bearing that week on Notre Dame’s impending trip to cross-country rival Stanford, nor its path to a potential College Football Playoff berth for the third time in four seasons, did not seem likely for what would become this week’s course.
The Irish, as they have traditionally done for several years under Kelly, prepared to leave for California on Thursday – Thanksgiving night – 48 hours before kickoff in order to preemptively strike against any potential travel problems and to get the players’ legs under them on the West Coast.
Friday evening, however, with Notre Dame’s full travel party in the San Francisco area, a ramped-up timetable was conveyed as critical for Kelly’s wishes in the program’s future direction, sources said.
A combative urgency from Kelly’s camp had replaced what appeared initially to be a friendly, are-we-on-the-same-page-here-? dialogue.
“And if you look at what was being asked for,” said a Notre Dame source, “we were pretty much in agreement on everything. There was nothing that Jack said no to.”
Kelly and others close to him emphasized that he had not had his representatives ask for any salary increase from Notre Dame and Swarbrick.
Technically true, Kelly did, per multiple campus and industry sources, ask for his pact to again be extended out well beyond the 2024 term that Kelly and Irish officials had agreed to and publicly announced in September 2020.
Though the private, Catholic institution does not publicly reveal the precise terms of its coaches’ employment agreements, multiple sources with knowledge said that Kelly’s pact had placed him squarely in the top five of all college football coaches – a number that, per the USA Today Coaches’ salary database, placed Kelly’s salary at more than $8 million per season.
So there was no request for a greater annual salary, but there was a desire to obtain a guaranteed pact that would have represented an additional commitment of tens of millions of dollars to Kelly.
BY SUNDAY, even around the Southeastern Conference, there were the faintest of whispers about Kelly and LSU.
Players and support staff flew back to campus after the dominant win against Stanford while Kelly, also customary, remained in California for a day of golf before in-person recruiting visits that were scheduled with a number of high-profile Irish commitments.
AMONG THOSE WAS A MONDAY EVENING VISIT – November 29 – in-home with heralded, consensus four-star and national top 125 prospect Tobias Merriweather – a 6-foot-4, 185-pound long-strider with potential game-changing ability at the wide receiver position.
The Merriweather family fed Kelly, as well as Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and wideouts coach Del Alexander.
“The disingenuousness of that whole encounter was like, ‘Wow! Welcome to big-time college football,’” Dom Merriweather, Tobias’ father, told Irish Sports Daily’s Christian McCollum.
“You’ve been talking to (LSU) the whole time you’re sitting at the table talking to Tobias. …
“I would appreciate you not coming here and eating all my damn BBQ and walking out the door and 90 seconds later, you’re not even the head coach anymore.”
Merriweather, per the ISD report, still mustered a laugh about the situation a few days later.
“But not like licking your fingers from the BBQ we ate,” Merriweather said, “and as soon as you walk out the door, you’re on your way to LSU to eat gumbo.”
By the time Kelly departed the Merriweather house – and even after a strenuously worded denial via an Alexander text message that quoted Kelly to the Merriweather family – Kelly had verbally agreed to terms to become Orgeron’s replacement at LSU.
Kelly and the Irish assistants prepared to board a private jet back to Indiana, and Kelly was to continue onward to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Per sources, and multiple reports, Kelly offered both Rees and Freeman immediate positions on his Tigers’ inaugural staff.
Too, Kelly threw large monetary offers – more than either coach was making as Kelly’s top two assistants at Notre Dame – to both coaches.
Freeman, meanwhile, his coaching star ascendant, had been approached by his alma mater, Ohio State, with an even more lucrative verbal offer as Ryan Day’s defensive coordinator.
Likewise, Freeman had emerged as Duke’s likely top candidate for its head coaching vacancy, and Rees in two short years had also engineered such staunchly successful Notre Dame offenses, each in its own style, that he, too, had received phone calls from interested suitors.
Still Freeman, among other staff members, set an immediate example for how the shocked Irish coaching staff would handle the flux.
“I think biggest thing (Freeman) did,” said a source with direct knowledge, “he called every parent of the commits, he called all the recruits. Marcus called these families and had serious conversations with them.”
Some staff, safeties coach Chris O’Leary chief amongst them, remained steadfastly on the recruiting trail.
Others, including recruiting firebrand Chad Bowden and assistant offensive line coach Trevor Mendelson, a young, up-and-comer already with previous stints on both Dave Clawson’s Wake Forest staff and at Richmond, prepared to be sent onto the recruiting trail.
AS MONDAY NIGHT MELTED INTO TUESDAY MORNING, Swarbrick began to ignite his plan of action. He brought back key coaches from their recruiting travels, most notably Freeman and Rees.
Before he met with either of those coaches to discuss the future of the program, Swarbrick identified the keeper of Notre Dame’s football culture, strength and conditioning guru Matt Balis, as the priority commitment Swarbrick first had to secure.
“I was taking an enormous gamble, and I made the commitment to Matt that whoever I hired, that would be a condition of their employment,” Swarbrick told FootballScoop. “I mean, you know, I didn’t know that Marcus would be our head coach at that point. I knew he was a very strong candidate. If I had gone deeper into the pool, I would have said to each of those coaches, ‘You can’t bring your strength and conditioning guy.’ So, that’s the impact the players had on me. It’s like, ‘OK, I know the elements of this culture and how they work.’ Making sure Matt stays here.”
Balis is the cultivator of a culture that Swarbrick has come to hold as the model for collegiate athletics; a player-owned, organic structure.
“It is (phenomenal), but it’s (Matt’s) strength. He’s very good technically, but the players believe in him, believe he cares about them and in building that culture,” Swarbrick said. “What really defines it at the end of the day, the culture, is the players’ ownership of it.
“The number of times they’ll engage a teammate and say, ‘That’s not what we do here.’ Or, they’ll go to the coaches and say, ‘I’d rather do this than this.’ Remarkable ownership.”
A first hurdle cleared for Swarbrick.
It would set into motion a day that needed a 25th hour.
There remained a crucial meeting with all seven of Notre Dame’s team captains at 2:15 p.m. on the last day of November inside the Irish’s Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
“For them, as I said, they were articulate, they were passionate and they were firm in their convictions,” said Swarbrick, who publicly joked those same captains also informed him to “not screw up” the move to find Kelly’s replacement. “For me, it was emotional. It was just like, they walked out of the room, and Ron (Powlus, former Irish quarterback) and I looked at each other and I said, ‘Can you believe we get to work with people like this?’ I mean, it just takes your breath away. I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of kids like this at a lot of schools, right? But it’s the norm here. You’re just reminded in those moments how unbelievably lucky you are to work with them.
“That’s one of the, I get one or two of those a year, and they never leave you.”
At that point, Swarbrick already had told his family not to expect to see him at home anytime in the immediate future; he bunkered in with what he termed as his ‘War Cabinet,’ a trio of support staff that included Powlus, athletics strategy advisor Jenny Borg and Aaron Horvath, Notre Dame’s assistant athletics director for communication.
Multiple sessions in the hyper-crammed week stretched beyond midnight; a couple lingered until 1:30 to 2 a.m.
The meeting loomed with Rees, one of Kelly’s first starting quarterbacks, just through his second year as offensive play-caller and, with his father, Bill, a decades-long college and NFL veteran who is key cog in Notre Dame’s personnel and scouting department, an institutional family of Irish football.
That meeting also extended beyond midnight, some 10 hours hence Swarbrick had met with captains.
Freeman still didn’t have the job; Swarbrick, however, had secured another reaffirmation to Notre Dame football.
“I really wanted to understand where Tommy was and what he was thinking, and wanted to make sure he understood how good a coach I thought he was and how important he was to the program,” said Swarbrick, who returned to his alma mater in July 2008 to chair its athletics programs. “There were no commitments made that evening, it was more both of us being candid with each other and subsequently as Marcus and I continued to develop our conversation, still hadn’t offered Marcus the job yet, what I came to understand is that he shared my view of Tommy.
“So I was comfortable going back to Tommy and making a commitment.”
ON WEDNESDAY, events nearly tied themselves together into a shamrock-bow.
The merger of the commitments to Balis and Rees, as well as the impending negotiations to make Freeman the school’s next head coach and Freeman a first-time head coach, unfolded by Wednesday afternoon and evening.
“Wednesday, I can’t remember what time it was; the war cabinet was gathered, I think it was early afternoon, and I really challenged them to challenge me,” Swarbrick shared. “’Here’s what I’m thinking. Tell me why I’m wrong, pick it apart.’ It was a very productive conversation, and at the end of that conversation, I said, ‘OK, I’m not missing anything. There aren’t any holes.’ So then I called Father John and said, ‘This is where I am.’”
The school, after Freeman interviewed via Zoom with Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, who was in Rome, and particulars were ironed out on a six-year deal, formally announced Freeman’s promotion to head coach – and shared a behind-the-scenes video at which point jubilant players celebrated Freeman bursting through the doors as their new leader – on Friday.
“I wish I could point out every moment that led to this point, but you just look and you think about -- I told the defensive unit in a meeting towards the end of the year, the ability to love a group of guys in 11 months, that's to me what shows you the power of Notre Dame,” Freeman said. “The ability to be around a group of guys and to fall in love and trust them -- and that's what -- I want to make sure everybody understands.”
The market this cycle, as evidenced by the deals secured for Billy Napier to take over at the University of Florida and Brent Venables to do the same at Oklahoma, was set around $7 million for young, new, power-program leaders; Freeman’s pact with Notre Dame, per sources with knowledge, rests comfortably in that median range.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 6, Notre Dame introduced Freeman inside its state-of-the-art Irish Athletics Center as nearly every Notre Dame player filled the seats behind Freeman’s family on the front row, and a broadcast audience looked in live from the nationally televised press conference.
“Your players were really happy. They're really excited. That doesn't mean it's all warm and fuzzy,” Freeman said. “They understand the expectation. They understand to achieve anything it's going to be really hard, and they're going to be pushed. They're going to be pushed real hard. But they've got a leader and they have leaders around them that care about them and have their best interests at heart.
“And that's how we're going to create success here. We're going to push each other, but they know their leaders trust them, they know their leaders love them. That, to me, is what has gotten us to this point? It's that over 11 months you feel that way about a group of guys, and I hope the feeling's mutual most of the time.”
The warm-and-fuzzy was nonetheless permeating the Notre Dame campus. A retail store in the school’s popular Eddy Street Commons area lit up green lights that spelled out “FREEMAN” in its second-floor windows.
Two separate high-ranking campus sources, outside of athletics, marveled at the unity within the football program; “I’ve never seen it like this in my adult life,” said one.
Work was just getting started for Freeman.
Notre Dame needed to host recruits that weekend, and it also had just a dozen days to hold together a class that already had been supercharged by the efforts of Freeman, Rees and other key behind-the-scenes forces – some old, some new.
Freeman, however, had no time to settle into the top chair. The 35-year-old coach zig-zagged huge swaths of the country; he traveled across some 14 states and more than 8,000 miles; Wisconsin, North Dakota, Washington, Arizona, California, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Maryland and Michigan among them.
Freeman routinely operated on little more than three to four hours’ rest in hotel rooms scarcely used; he made a vow that any commitments who did not receive an in-person visit from him prior to the Dec. 15 early signing period would receive those personal visits once the dead period abates and coaches can return to the road.
“I think his composure was, it’s why he is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” said one source who previously worked with Freeman. “His composure during those times …
“His why is legitimately the kids. Good people win in the end.”
The Irish found a way to win this transition.
Now? Well, Notre Dame must continue to win on the field. Freeman gets his first chance Jan. 1, 2022, against Oklahoma State.
In the Fiesta Bowl – site of the program’s last national title. The element that, by Freeman’s own charge, is the program’s next step.