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Football

Staff Reactions: Kelly’s departure and the next Irish head coach

, , , , and | Wednesday, December 1, 2021

After the turbulent 24 hours following the news that Brian Kelly will be leaving Notre Dame for LSU, members of the Observer Sports Staff penned their initial reactions and divulged who they think should follow at the helm.

The first prompt: Instant reaction to the Brian Kelly news.

The second: Given this absolutely stunning news, in an instant reaction, what are your top three options for the next Notre Dame head coach.

Aidan Thomas — Associate Sports Editor

Stunning — these rumors seemed laughable when they first appeared on Twitter on Monday afternoon. Saturday’s postgame press conference was as boisterous and energetic as I’ve ever seen Brian Kelly, and he said just eight days ago that he didn’t have any interest in leaving Notre Dame. It’s an unbelievable turn of events, and it’s one that Notre Dame must rectify quickly in order to sustain the momentum they’ve built as a program

Head Coach picks: Marcus Freeman, Luke Fickell, Jamey Chadwell

Marcus Freeman is the obvious choice right now. He’s elevated the Notre Dame recruiting to another level, and he’s led this defense to a spectacular 2021 season. However, his lack of Power-5 coaching experience — and his having never been a head coach — makes me nervous.

Luke Fickell is a stellar option if the Irish can draw him away from Cincinnati. After all, the last time Notre Dame went after a Cincinnati head coach that had built the Bearcats into power, things went pretty well.

And finally, I think Chadwell would be a great culture fit — he’s been a popular figure at Coastal Carolina and is becoming a hot commodity on the coaching market. He’s developed one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation in Grayson McCall, and he could do wonders for an Irish offense that should have high expectations in 2022.

Mannion McGinley — Sports Editor

I have no words. With finals coming up, I absolutely did not have time Monday night to handle this kind of news, but here we are. Blindsided. Stunned. Shocked. Confused. Sad. Stressed. Angry. Okay, so those are all the words I have, but apparently no sentences. Is it close enough to Christmas to ask Santa for a save here? Or a maybe really strong replacement? There’s nothing about this season or this team, especially in the last few weeks, that would lead me to believe Kelly would depart. Especially since he, himself, said it would take a lot ($150 million more than he’s going to get) to make him leave. What changed in the last week that made Kelly decide to up and leave?

Head Coach picks: Marcus Freeman, Luke Fickell, Matt Campbell

I would be content with either the former or current Cincinnati coach taking the lead job here in South Bend. I mean, what better way to acknowledge the team that beat you as a good one than to hope they’ll make your team better? And, while I firmly believe Luke Fickell could have success in Notre Dame Stadium, but that would come with the risk of Marcus Freeman leaving again, as he just got out from under Fickell, and that wouldn’t be worth it. Matt Campbell could also do a good job, but he’s tangled up in two contracts at the moment and I don’t know if he can be extracted from one, much less two, of them. Even if the Irish desperately wanted him to be.

The best bet would be Marcus Freeman. He’s already bolstered recruiting for the Irish. In press conferences, the team can’t say enough about him and he’s turned out major defensive results in a matter of months with the Irish. He has the ability to make the rest of the team great, so while first-time head coaches have yet to succeed here, there’s a first time for everything.

Nate Moller — Sports Writer

Although I hated Brian Kelly with a passion a few years ago after the 4-8 season, I had grown to like him over the last few seasons as the Irish began to compete at a higher level. Hearing the news today was stunning, to say the least, and it feels like he is giving up on the Irish altogether. I have literally zero respect for Kelly after his decision to leave the program that he has built here. Nothing would make me happier than to see Kelly and his LSU Tigers struggle the next few seasons.

Head Coach picks: Marcus Freeman, Luke Fickell, Bob Stoops

Marcus Freeman has brought in a plethora of recruits since being hired last year as the Irish defensive coordinator. So, he would be the obvious hire from within for the Irish. Although Freeman’s defense struggled initially this season, they have improved vastly throughout the season, and they look like one of the best defenses in the country at this point.

Freeman’s lack of head coaching experience is concerning, however. If the Irish could find a way to land Luke Fickell, who has led Cincinnati to back-to-back perfect regular seasons, that would likely be a better option. Fickell’s Bearcats were able to beat a top ten opponent on the road in Notre Dame this season, which is something that the Irish have struggled to do under Kelly.

This one is a long shot, but why not bring a coaching legend like Bob Stoops to Notre Dame if he is up for it. Stoops is slated to be Oklahoma’s interim coach for this year’s bowl game after Lincoln Riley’s departure. This might suggest that he is open to a return in the near future. This is a very unlikely hire, but it’s worth a phone call to see if Stoops would consider a return at one of the most storied football programs in the country.

Jimmy Ward — Sports Writer

I scoffed at the news of LSU targeting Brian Kelly AGAIN, but I evidently know absolutely nothing. Brian Kelly took a program that Charlie Weis had sunk to mediocrity and took them to two CFP appearances, one for the national title. The timing seems off. ND is vying for a spot in the playoff, and Kelly is walking away from the 247sports No. 4 ranked recruiting class in 2022 and No. 2 in 2023. However, Kelly has admittedly become a bit stale, and the Irish need a youthful face that can connect with recruits.

Head Coach picks: Marcus Freeman, Luke Fickell, Jim Harbaugh

With that being said, I think Marcus Freeman would be the best bet looking forward. He’s a great coach and a terrific recruiter and fits the Notre Dame brand well. Luke Fickell is also one of the best young coaches in football right now, and with a win over the Irish in recent memory, it’s ironic to say he might be the outside favorite for this job. Like I said before, I am not questioning everything I thought I knew about football at Notre Dame, so there ya go. You’d have to be crazy to think I’d mention the name of a particular coach down in Jacksonville.

Emily DeFazio — Associate Sports Editor

Uhhh…okay.

Just when I thought this season couldn’t be any more unexpected, Brian Kelly drops this bomb. I literally just said that it should be smooth sailing for the rest of the semester for the football beat, now that the regular season is over, and then all of Notre Dame football decided to implode. Thanks for the dumpster fire, Brian. You took me away from preparing for my finals for this.

The all-time winningest coach at Notre Dame leaves after 12 years without a championship win. And yet he leaves when he was just on the cusp of being able to compete for one in the foreseeable future. Just as he was starting to get a little more respect from people, he dips. How does that make any sense? Regardless of whether or not this was the best decision for him, the least Kelly could have done was give his guys the heads up. Instead, he has blindsided an entire program. I have to hand it to him, that’s a pretty big feat. But not in a good way. This news has also, arguably, come at the worst time. Right before playoffs, with signing day on the horizon? Really?

Head Coach picks: Marcus Freeman, Luke Fickell, Matt Campbell

Freeman is the guy to clean up this mess. For continuity’s sake alone, Marcus Freeman should be promoted. He would show that Notre Dame can stand on its own and fully subscribe to the “next man up” mentality. He has done wonders with recruiting already, and he has only been here a year; several of the recruits are already calling for him to take the helm. He has respect in the program and would be an uncontroversial option who has what it takes. Should he not get the job, the program may risk losing him completely.

Fickell could also follow in Kelly’s footsteps, leaving Cincy for the Blue and Gold. He has worked with Freeman in the past, which could be a good or bad thing for the Irish. He’s proven he can coach and manage a championship team, and one that Notre Dame can somewhat compete with. Similarly, Campbell could find success in South Bend. Despite Iowa’s record this year, Campbell has that “CEO” quality Swarbrick is looking for.

Colin Capece – Assistant Managing Editor

Alright, I’ll take the blame for this one. Poor Brian just couldn’t handle the flames I was spitting at him in nearly every column I’ve ever written about Notre Dame football. All jokes aside, this is an absolute snake move from Kelly. He stuck around just long enough to put his name ahead of the legendary Knute Rockne, who never would have left his players high and dry like Kelly is doing right now. Your team is on the brink of a third playoff appearance in four seasons and you up and leave? Selling your soul to the SEC for a fat bag of cash? What is LSU athletic director Scott Woodward thinking making this man the highest paid coach EVER!? Jokes on you LSU, have fun losing every big game you’ll ever play in. Brian Kelly shows he has no backbone as he heads for the bayou. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, old friend.

Head Coach picks: Marcus Freeman, Luke Fickell, Dabo Swinney

Freeman is the clear-cut choice to be the next head coach. Players and recruits love him, and he’s proven he can succeed at every stop along his path so far. I don’t care that he has no head coaching experience because that’s exactly what Notre Dame needs right now. He’s young and energetic, the anti-Brian Kelly if you will. Freeman can bring the same kind of energy and swag to the program that Lincoln Riley originally brought to Oklahoma.

Fickell would be my next choice because he too checks all of the boxes. He’s built Cincinnati into a likely playoff team from the ground up, so his coaching and recruiting abilities are not in question. He’s also said in the past that the only jobs he’d consider leaving for are Ohio State, his alma mater, and Notre Dame, so he clearly wants to be in South Bend. If Notre Dame wants Fickell, they’ll likely have to wait until January while Cincinnati competes for a national championship. However, there’s a very good chance they lose Freeman to another head coaching vacancy somewhere else in that scenario.

Brian Kelly just threw a haymaker at his former employer. Why doesn’t Notre Dame go out and do the same? Everyone knows Dabo is a national championship caliber leader. He’s also one of the coolest guys in all of college football, bringing the same kind of energy and flare that Freeman would. Dabo is a guy I would just love to play for if he was my coach, another characteristic that Kelly lacks. Jack Swarbrick would probably have to make him the highest paid coach in college football to get him away from Clemson, but the investment would be worth every penny.

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About Emily DeFazio

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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About Mannion McGinley

Mannion McGinley is a class of 2023 American Studies and Sociology major with a Journalism minor. She is a member of the Glynn Family Honors program and is Sports Department Editor at The Observer.

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About Jimmy Ward

Jimmy is a senior at Holy Cross College, where he studies English and sports management. He is originally from Westfield, Indiana. Currently, Jimmy serves as an associate sports editor at The Observer. You can find him at @jimmyyward on Twitter.

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About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

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About Colin Capece

Colin is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in political science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He hails from the great state of New York and currently serves as an Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer for the 2021-2022 academic year. You can sometimes find him on Twitter at @ColinCapeceND

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