Dear Notre Dame

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via AP

Dear Notre Dame,

It’s funny how life works out.

I visited this university for the first time when I was about 16 or 17 years old and was recruited to play here. I had a choice to make, and in the end what it came down to was Ohio State or Notre Dame. And I chose Ohio State. I loved Tyrone Willingham. I thought he was a great coach, and to be honest, he reminded me a bit of my father.

Fast-forward to last year, and you might have heard that I was being considered for a couple of coaching jobs. During that time, me and my wife, Joanna, took a trip down to Louisiana and then up here to South Bend — and when we got back home, it was another tough decision. I can’t tell you exactly what it was that told us to come to Notre Dame, but there was something. We all know there’s something different about Notre Dame. We all know it’s something special. And I just thank God that I didn’t make the wrong decision twice.

Now, I know our community and our fans didn’t expect to get their head coach changed in Week 13 of the season, but that’s our reality, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Jack Swarbrick and Father Jenkins for their faith in me to step into this role.

I could tell you 100 ways that I understand how special this place is, that I understand this football team, and that I know what it takes to win a National Championship.

But I’ve learned something valuable in my career as a coach: It isn’t always about what you say. At the end of the day, it’s about the impact of what you do and how you make people feel. 

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is that you have to be yourself.

Marcus Freeman

I think back to my high school defensive coordinator. His name was Pat Wood, an older guy, probably in his sixties back when he was coaching me. He was old school. Tough, demanding….. not a big fan of mistakes. But the more you got to know him, the more you realized that he really cared, and I think the older and more mature I became, the more I realized, Man, that guy really loved coaching young people. He might have cared more than anyone. And that’s the kind of coach you can expect me to be.

I’m going to care about these young men, and what we’re building together here, with all I’ve got.

There was about a day and a half there when I knew this was going to be a reality, but I wasn’t allowed to talk to my team. And I’ll be honest with you: That was a stressful day and a half. Once everything was announced, though, and I finally could talk to them — it was a great release. I wouldn’t say it was a pep talk that I gave, as much as it was a statement of purpose. A statement of gratitude. It was me letting them know how much I appreciate them, and how much I love them.

Because Notre Dame football.... it’s about them.

It will always be about them. That’s one thing I know for sure.

Another thing I know about these players — they’re smart, and they’re independent. That’s the deal when you’re a student and a player at a prestigious school like this. From the minute you wake up at 6:00 a.m. to the minute you go to sleep, you don’t have a choice to turn it off, to relax. If you don’t compete, and you’re not a tough-minded individual from the minute you get to class, then you’re not going to have success here. That’s just a hard fact. 

And when you get up every day with that mentality, eventually it just becomes who you are. 

That’s why you’re seeing us out there playing our best ball at the end of the season. Because this is what our guys know how to do. 

It’s not a grind, it’s not a drag. It’s what we do

And that’s what makes the Notre Dame football player different.

Listen, I know I’ve been labeled as a player’s coach, and I’m proud to wear that badge. But I’ll be honest, I think there’s a misconception about a player’s coach, that Oh, the players like him — he’s their buddy. And my players know this: just because I don’t walk around like I have to put fear in their hearts, that doesn’t mean the demands aren’t going to be extremely high. I’ve always been a believer that being a coach doesn’t mean there has to be some constant level of discomfort for kids to reach their goals. You can be very demanding, and still make people feel good and still make people feel important — as long as they believe that you have their best interest at heart.

That’s the coach I’ve always been, and I’m going to stay true to that. These kids today are so smart. They’re so intelligent, and they know what’s real and what’s phony. If you’re not authentic they’ll see right through you. 

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is that you have to be yourself. I’ve gotten that same advice, over and over, from some of the best leaders I’ve ever talked to. Guys like Jim Tressel, Luke Fickell. Heck, Ryan Day said this two days ago — You have to be yourself. And that’s 100% true. If I tried to be Brian Kelly as a head coach, that wouldn’t make sense. Same thing if I tried to be Luke Fickell, or Jim Tressel, or anybody else I’ve coached with. If we’re going to have success here at Notre Dame during my tenure, I’m going to have to be me. 

But it’s also a part of learning and growing that you always take a little bit here, a little bit there, from everyone you encounter in the make-up of who you are. And I’ll be the first to admit that all those guys are a piece of the way I lead. They’ve all shaped me as a coach.

Marcus Freeman | Dear Notre Dame | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Notre Dame

I would say that my leadership style really comes down to two main ideas. 

First off, being disciplined — having a routine, doing the things that it takes to have success, working tirelessly. My dad was a little bit older, and he was retired by the time I was born, and so he raised me with the structure that being in the Air Force for 26 years will teach you. He taught my older brother and I that only work ethic and motivation will get you to where you want to go.

And second, being selfless — having the ability and the character to serve others. I think I got that from my mother. She’s a Korean woman who fell in love with this American guy that was stationed over in Korea. And she left all of her comfort, back home, in order to start a family with my dad in the United States. She’s taught me so much about sacrifice, how it can be its own reward. 

This team is in a really good position right now. We’re 11–1. And through that brief window of chaos we experienced last week, I said to our leadership, look, we need to enhance — but we don’t need to change. There are key parts of this coaching staff that have gotten us to this point. I think we have the best coaching staff in America. And to the “bring in your own guys” crowd, I’ll just say: These coaches we have here are my guys. So that was my M.O. as this was all coming together. I was hoping to keep as much consistency for this group as possible. Because we’re right there, man. We’re ready. We’re extremely close to being in a position to win a National Championship. 

I want to be a representation, but also more than that I want to be a demonstration.

Marcus Freeman

And then there’s one more thing I want to say about the role I’m stepping into. 

The longer I’m in this profession, the more it’s become really obvious what it means for a man that looks like me to be elevated in this industry.

I’m a part of the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches started by Coach Locksley. He’s doing an unbelievable job of trying to open up doors for minority coaches. And being a part of this coalition has been an important reminder that: Hey, you are a representation of a lot of people. And that’s what I want to be. I want to be a representation, but also more than that I want to be a demonstration. I want to be a demonstration of what someone can do, and the level they can do it at, if they are given the OPPORTUNITY. Because that’s what is needed: opportunity. We need more minorities to get the opportunity to interview — and we need more minorities to get the opportunity to do a job that they can have success in.

Actually, let me end on one quick story. 

There’s something I say to our players before we go out there every game: One play, one life. 

Focus on the play, focus on the moment. 

Marcus Freeman | Dear Notre Dame | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Notre Dame

A couple weeks ago, we had a game coming up against Georgia Tech. And at this point in the season, we’re playing some of the best ball we’ve played. We hadn’t given up a touchdown in two weeks. And you just knew it, you know? You could feel it in the locker room: Our guys were dying to get a shutout. 

We made it to halftime vs. Tech, and we’d given up zero points. Those boys were hyped. And I got after them a bit. I said, “I’m not worried about a shutout. I’m not worried about what the score is at the end of the game right now — because we’re still in the thick of it. What I’m worried about right now is execution on every single play.” One play, one life.

And they went out there in the second half and played some of the most focused football we’ve played all year. And yeah, they got the shutout. But the better feeling, for me? It was the satisfaction of them earning a shutout. It was what led to the outcome, not the outcome itself. 

At the end of the day, man, that’s why I do this. We have a lot that we want to accomplish here, without a doubt. Trust me — this is Notre Dame. We have big goals. But it’s the process it takes to get to those goals that’s going to set us apart. It’s the way we’re going to win, that’s going to set these young men up to achieve what it is they ultimately want out of this game.

And I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to lead them.