Notre Dame's search to find Brian Kelly's replacement quickly is taking shape, while the Fighting Irish are working to also preserve as much of their current staff as possible.
Sources tell FootballScoop that multiple Notre Dame assistant coaches – notably offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, heralded strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis, defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Elston among them – all could potentially have joined Kelly on his flight Tuesday to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as Kelly assumed control of the LSU Tigers' program.
Yet, per sources, only Kelly deplaned in Louisiana and began his transition from college football's most all-time storied program to the gumbo pressure-cooker of LSU, which hired Kelly 50 days after it fired Ed Orgeron – who was fired less than two years removed from winning the College Football Playoff national championship.
As sources told FootballScoop, as well as Irish Sports Daily's Matt Freeman, Balis turned down Kelly's offer to join him at LSU. Notre Dame's social media team also published a well-timed video of Balis working with Fighting Irish players around the time that sources confirmed Balis had chosen to remain in South Bend, Indiana.
“For me to be able to have the opportunity here is a blessing, for me to be able to stay here is a huge blessing,” Balis said on video. “I want to die here.”
Elston, Rees and several other Irish assistants remained on the road recruiting for Notre Dame, which has worked to hold together one of its top recruiting classes of the past several years in the aftermath of Kelly's hasty departure.
Where do things point in the immediate but somewhat-urgent infant stages of the Irish search for the program's 32nd head coach?
Look, Notre Dame's Jack Swarbrick, the school's athletics director since July 2008 and a current member of the the College Football Playoff management committee, can have his phone call answered by virtually any coach in football.
Were this search to occur 5 years from now, the focus might be on Tommy Rees; but numerous sources have told FootballScoop throughout the day Tuesday that the Notre Dame search has primarily focused on two early targets: defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell.
The case for Freeman is a simple one: he's tracking towards being a head coach in this cycle, he – like Rees – has done immensely impressive work on his side of the ball, despite key injuries and having to replace multiple NFL Draft picks all in a year in which the sport still transitioned out of its COVID-19-impacted 2020 season back to a somewhat more normal calendar. Swarbrick recognizes that the Irish program isn't broken. Selecting Freeman would be a vote for preserving what Brian Kelly has established and seeking to refine or modernize it a bit.
Freeman also has noticeable vocal support already from within the Irish roster – from star safety Kyle Hamilton's endorsement on his podcast to several players' social media comments.
Finally, and central to an intangible component of Freeman's candidacy, is Freeman's impact on Notre Dame's recruiting efforts. The Irish's group of 2022 commitments is a consensus top-5 class, and the early returns on the 2023 class has Notre Dame's early haul ranked No. 2.
It feels like if Freeman isn't Notre Dame's head coach moving forward … he's likely to be Cincinnati's head coach with the Duke Blue Devils having an outside opportunity to land Freeman. A former Broyles Award finalist, Freeman also has not only a standing offer to join Kelly at LSU as defensive coordinator but also has received an offer from an additional Power 5, CFP contender to be that program's defensive play-caller.
That scenario would almost assuredly mean that the Fighting Irish focused their search on Fickell, a national coach of the year candidate and Freeman's former boss at Cincinnati. Fickell has guided Cincinnati to a 12-0 regular season and No. 4 CFP ranking in the latest polls.
The Bearcats, with an American Athletic Conference title-win this weekend when they host Houston, would almost guarantee themselves a playoff berth – the first of its kind for a Group of 5 program.
Fickell, a devout Catholic and former Ohio State star, has entrenched himself in the Midwest.
Again, Swarbrick could always look – and get reciprocal interest – in virtually any area of football, but right now, this search appears most prominently focused on Freeman and Fickell, per numerous sources.