When Brian Kelly bolted for LSU, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick did not need to hit the panic button. Sure, Kelly had just passed Knute Rockne on the school’s all-time wins list and had brought the program stability it hadn’t seen since Lou Holtz paced the sidelines. And his exit came as a major shock, particularly as the Irish needed only a few upsets on championship Saturday to make their third CFP semifinal appearance in four seasons.
But Kelly’s sudden exit could have been catastrophic if Swarbrick had conducted a national search, dragging out toward early signing day, and ended up with the wrong guy (and, let’s be honest, so many have been wrong in South Bend until Kelly). Kelly figured something out about navigating this incomparable challenge, and the hope is that much of that knowledge was passed to Freeman, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, in the last year.
The 35-year-old Freeman has been a big part of Notre Dame’s recruiting renaissance, and naming him as Kelly’s successor should keep the Irish’s 2022 class, ranked No. 6 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, largely intact. If Notre Dame is going to take the next step and win a playoff game, it can’t afford to start over in recruiting.
Of course, Freeman is a risk because he has never been a head coach. But if it becomes clear early he is in over his head, Swarbrick could then conduct that national search with proper preparation to get it right. Notre Dame does not have to make the same mistake that USC did with Helton, handcuffing itself to an overmatched interim-turned-permanent head coach for a damaging length of time.
And maybe Freeman will be an instant star. He does not have to rebuild, and, did you happen to see the reaction of Notre Dame players when they heard he was taking over? The excitement for the future in South Bend was palpable.