Notre Dame football head coach Marcus Freeman discusses leadership
Maggie Eastland | Monday, February 28, 2022
He gets his work ethic from his father and his selflessness from his mother, but his emphasis on player relationships as Notre Dame head coach is his own.
“I love coaching,” Marcus Freeman said. “I love to see our players have success, and so that’s my motivation. That’s my inspiration — to work my tail off to try to develop relationships with young people.”
Freeman discussed his upbringing, leadership style and approach to coaching Notre Dame football with Dean of the Mendoza College of Business Martijn Cremers for the Dean’s Speaker Series Friday.
Cremers opened by asking Freeman to discuss the influence of his parents. Freeman said his father taught him the importance of discipline and hard work, recollecting how his dad would wake him and his brother every day at 5 a.m. to workout.
“Now as a father, I’m like, ‘Was that child abuse?’” Freeman said. “But again, that’s why I value hard work and I value discipline — because that’s how my father was in the Air Force for 26 years.”
Reflecting on his mother, who immigrated from South Korea in 1976, Freeman remembers joining her during late night janitor shifts, one of her three jobs.
“As a young person, you don’t realize some of the sacrifices that individuals have to make, but as you get older you realize,” Freeman said. “I told my staff the other day, ‘We work for the janitor,’ … and that’s, to me, the mindset that I’ve gained from my mother — being selfless and working tirelessly.”
Announced as the thirtieth Notre Dame football head coach last November after Brian Kelly’s unexpected departure, Marcus Freeman has been repeatedly called a “player’s coach.” Freeman said former head coach Lou Holtz who led the Irish to their most recent national championship in 1988 questioned the nickname in a recent meeting between the two coaches.
“The first thing [Holtz] said was, ‘I don’t know if any of my former player’s called me a ‘player’s coach,’” Freeman said.
Despite the initial skepticism, Freeman said he was able to convince Holtz by the end of the meeting.
“I don’t want any curtains,” Freeman said. “I want our players to know me as Marcus Freeman, Coach Freeman the husband, Coach Freeman the father, and I don’t want to hide that.”
Freeman added that his player-first approach creates trust and allows him to push the team to its highest level.
“I give our players that. I’m honest with them,” Freeman said. “I’m on the team. We’re in this thing together. Once you gain that trust, now you can go as far as you know they need to go. If you don’t have that trust, at some point, they’re going to push back. If they trust you, they know who you are, and they feel like you all have a connection, you can continue to push.”
Freeman said the shared culture is easier to create with the backing of Notre Dame and its student body.
“We understand how special this place is, how special the people are, the history of this place,” Freeman said. “Our players are so connected with our student body that it gives us an advantage. Those 8,000 students in the stadium. We know who they are. We’re connected to them.”
He said the student connection is a key selling point when recruiting, one of Freeman’s coaching focuses.
Offering more insight into his recruiting process, Freeman told the audience he looks for five traits in potential recruits: competitiveness, athleticism, toughness, intelligence and leadership.
“We need more leaders,” Freeman said. “That’s why I recruit guys who are willing to hold their teammates accountable because it’s going to make the team better.”
Freeman also said he embraces the University’s Catholic faith tradition and wants to institute more faith-based traditions on the football team, including a mass at the Basilica, similar to the one shown in the “Rudy” movie.
“Love your neighbor,” Freeman said, quoting a favorite Bible verse. “Who is your neighbor? Everybody’s your neighbor, and that goes to treating people with respect.”
Freeman later extended that respect to inclusivity.
“In a locker room, you don’t see color,” Freeman said. “You see guys you can count on and guys you can’t count on, and that’s why I love being part of a team.”
As the second Black football coach in Notre Dame history, Freeman acknowledged his influential role, especially for younger football players and aspiring coaches.
“I’m a representation of a minority coach, and so, my focus is how can I help prepare other minority coaches to be in a position to have success,” he said. “I think there is power in young people seeing somebody they resemble in a position of leadership.”
On the topic of the transition from defensive coordinator to head coach, Freeman said he has shifted his mindset to take a more holistic approach.
“The biggest thing I think is your daily focus,” Freeman said. “My mindset has changed as head coach in terms of how do you serve your players and how do we take care of these kids? How do we take care of our staff?”
Freeman said he has focused on delegating and empowering his staff, including offensive coordinator, Tommy Rees.
“I want to empower you to make sure that you feel like you have the tools you need to have success, and so, I’m going to be whatever Coach Rees needs me to be, and I’m going to be his biggest supporter.”
Speaking on the role in general, Freeman said the head coach position still feels surreal in some ways.
“When you walk into that locker room, the game day locker room, I still get chills,” he said. “To be able to walk down that tunnel and touch that play like a champion sign. There’s just so many things about this place.”
Notre Dame’s legacy gives Freeman the motivation to be the best he can be.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” Freeman said, quoting the Bible. “That’s my reminder that [I’ve] been given a great opportunity to be head coach at the University of Notre Dame.”
Freeman said understanding what the team needs is an ongoing process — one he is wholly committed to toiling through.
“I’m not Nick Saban, and I don’t know exactly what the process is,” Freeman said. “Until I truly figure it out, my thoughts are let’s work as hard as we can. Let’s outwork every opponent that we have.”