Scott Warden
May 7, 2024 // Bishop

ND Coach Marcus Freeman: ‘You See How Special This University Is’

Scott Warden

Despite having one of the most high-profile jobs in college sports – and one could argue that the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame would be at the top of such a list – Marcus Freeman admits that between him and his wife, Joanna, he’s got the easier gig. After all, they have six kids – ranging from age 5 to 15 – so while his job might entail long hours at the office, weeks on the road, and considerable time monitoring players in the weight room, it’s Joanna, he acknowledges, who is doing the heavy lifting.

On Thursday, May 2, Freeman visited Fort Wayne to speak at two events – first, a fundraiser for Erin’s House for Grieving Children, which provides support for children, teens, and their families who have experienced a death, and second, a dinner with the Notre Dame Club of Fort Wayne, held at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, where Freeman shook hands, posed for photos, and answered questions as the crowd of 130 or so Notre Dame supporters looked on.

Scott Warden
Notre Dame Head Football Coach Marcus Freeman speaks at the Notre Dame Club of Fort Wayne’s UND Celebration on Thursday, May 2, at Sycamore Hills Golf Club.

After Bishop Rhoades offered the invocation at Sycamore Hills, Freeman sat down with the evening’s moderator, Dolly Duffy, Executive Director of the Notre Dame Alumni Association. With her first question, she asked Freeman how he managed to find a work-life balance given his busy family and demanding job.

“There is no balance,” Freeman said forthrightly. “I couldn’t do what I do without a strong, unselfish wife that I have at home who takes care of those six kids. … She’s like a single parent most of the time, and she’s taking care of those kids by herself.”

When Freeman speaks of searching for a “blend” between his roles as a coach, a husband, and a father, what he’s striving for is not a balance between the different facets of his life but an integration. For example, on the trip to Fort Wayne, Freeman brought with him junior cornerback Jaden Mickey, whose mother died the day before the Irish played in the Sun Bowl last December. She had been fighting a long battle with colon cancer. Like the kids Erin’s House serves, Mickey knows all too well about grieving the loss of a loved one. Freeman saw the trip as an opportunity to spend one-on-one time with one of his student-athletes.

Photos by Scott Warden
Bishop Rhoades poses with Notre Dame Head Coach Marcus Freeman, left, and former Notre Dame All-America linebacker and Bishop Luers High School graduate Jaylon Smith on Thursday, May 2, at Sycamore Hills Golf Club.

“To be able to spend time with your players while you’re doing things that have nothing to do with football, that’s important,” Freeman said. “The same thing, when I’m at the office, if my wife can stop by for a meal or bring the kids to practice … I encourage her to do it. But the other thing is, I hope that Jaden, years from now, doesn’t remember the things I say but remembers what he saw. And I hope that he sees me as a husband and sees me as a father, and that’s so important.”

In 2021, former Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly hired Freeman away from the University of Cincinnati to be the Irish’s defensive coordinator – the same role he served for the Bearcats. A year later, Kelly left for LSU, and the Irish brass – at the encouragement of the team’s players – elevated Freeman to his first head coaching job. Few have been disappointed with the results. In his two seasons, the Irish have gone 19-7 with two bowl victories and seven wins against ranked opponents.

Freeman said that while he knew little about the university or its traditions before he came to South Bend – “When I thought of Notre Dame, I thought of football and ‘Rudy,’ that’s about it’ – it has fit him like a hand in a glove. What he’s learned throughout the past three years, he said, is the remarkable quality of the people at Notre Dame and the education it offers to students.

Dolly Duffy, Executive Director of the Notre Dame Alumni Association, moderates a Q&A with Head Football Coach Marcus Freeman during the Notre Dame Club of Fort Wayne’s UND Celebration event on Thursday, May 2.

“You get here, and you see how special the university is and what that once-in-a-lifetime education truly does for young people who embrace it,” Freeman said. “So, what I’m able to do is mask that education and hide it around this game of football.”

At the dinner, Freeman sat with Bishop Rhoades, Mickey, and former Notre Dame All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith, a Fort Wayne native and graduate of Bishop Luers High School who is preparing for his eighth season in the NFL. Freeman said Smith or Mickey “would not be at Notre Dame if they didn’t believe they could maximize their potential as football players. They want to be great football players. Jaylon Smith’s still in the NFL. Jaden Mickey wants to be developed and go to the NFL. But we also get to wrap the education, the network, everything that Notre Dame truly entails inside of this game of football. And I love that, because 90-plus percent of our players are not going to the NFL. They’re not. And so, while they chase these college dreams and they chase being the best football player they can be, when they realize, ‘OK, maybe I’m not going to the NFL,’ at some point they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, I got a Notre Dame education.’ And that’s why I’ve come to love this place, because it helps young people truly grow holistically.”

One of Freeman’s favorite sayings is that Notre Dame “will change you if you let it.” He’s experienced this firsthand in his faith life while he’s been in South Bend. He converted to Catholicism in 2022 and told Today’s Catholic that his faith “has grown tremendously – from the community, from my parish, St. Pius X in Granger.” But, he added, “I’ve got a long way to go, just like we all do.”

Freeman told the crowd he is hoping to see continued growth from the Irish on the field as they prepare for 2024 season, which kicks off on Saturday, August 31, against Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. Despite the success during the past two seasons, each year, Freeman said, “You start back over, and you build this group through winter conditioning, spring ball, summer conditioning, and then fall camp. I’m excited about this new group. … I’m excited about the talent of this group. I’m excited about the leadership that this group has. We have true leaders. So now we’re building, we’re building. … And by August, when we’re in College Station, now we’ve got to be ready to roll, right? … I’m excited about the full potential of this group.”

Freeman didn’t let on as to whether he feels pressure internally going into his third season, but he’s certainly heard of the high expectations for third-year coaches at Notre Dame. In 1966, Ara Parseghian won a national title in his third season. Dan Devine did, too, in 1977, as did Lou Holtz in 1988.

“I was with Coach Holtz on Wednesday,” Freeman said, “and I said, ‘Coach, I cannot stand this third-year thing. And if I hear 1988 one more time ….’ He said, ‘Marcus, I should have won it in ’89, ’92, and ’93. Don’t forget about those years.’” But, Freeman said, despite the high expectations, “We’re excited. I’m excited. That’s why we’re at Notre Dame. We’re ready for this challenge. And I look forward to this ’24 season. It’s going to be special.”

Before facing Texas A&M in August, however, there’s another important date circled on Freeman’s calendar: Mother’s Day. He was asked what the day will look like in the Freeman home, and he said one of his “proudest moments” came recently when one of his kids – his 12-year-old daughter – remembered Mother’s Day without having to be reminded.

“I was really happy that she texted me that,” Freeman said. “Now, I told her I don’t know exactly what to get her get her yet, but I was proud. … I don’t know what I’m going to do for Mother’s Day, but it’s going to be special.”

And so, with expectations high, Freeman’s wife joins the throng of Fighting Irish football fans who eagerly await the gifts he’ll bring in the days and years to come.

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