So. Here I am, here we are, mad about Brian Kelly doing a very rude and awkward thing to the team I root for, years after he did pretty much the same very rude and awkward thing to another team in order to get to said team I root for. I think it’s important to own that dissonance right off the bat, though it doesn’t negate that we are very much allowed to feel that way. It’s old news that college football is a gross, cutthroat business, but that hasn’t hit so close to home in quite some time. The swiftness with which this situation escalated, from vaguely annoying hearsay to the school’s all-time winningest coach bouncing for a floundering SEC squad over the course of a few hours, was absolutely shell-shocking. What the hell, man!
Kelly had earned a complicated but historic and largely positive legacy, one that most assumed was already captured in permanent marker, and given the chance to supplement it with another playoff appearance or maybe his best shot yet at a major bowl win, he simply said “no thanks.” His accomplishments aren’t suddenly retroactively nullified, we aren’t the NCAA — the 2021 Notre Dame football program would barely be recognizable to the one BK took over back in 2010 (in a “the program is genuinely healthy and among the sport’s elite” way, not a “harrumph we have a JumboTron now harrumph” way) — but that legacy is undeniably way messier given how botched this breakup was.
We put college football on a pedestal and hold head coaches to their own idiosyncratic standard, because these are all very weird people whose brains should be donated to science, but, big picture, it’s not unreasonable to change jobs for the sake of a significant pay raise. While we aren’t privy to all the details yet, what is unreasonable is how this was executed — without any back and forth with the university, making it official while the team is (was?) still very much in the playoff hunt, his agent seemingly banging out the final details while the man himself was in a recruit’s home along with members of his coaching staff. It’s all very icky, if par for the course in this profession.
Of course, there are stakeholders involved who very much do not have the opportunity to jump ship to make a few more million dollars a year. Those who are ultimately affected most are those who actually play the game. Irish players’ public reactions have been incredibly mature and level-headed and a reminder of who we really root for and why we do it, but you have to feel for them regardless. Let’s please cut out the transfer portal-shaming once and for all — no player transfer *ever* could approach the boldness of this move.
This does feel like another milestone for the sport, a Pandora’s box opening where we’re flat out confirming that money trumps championship opportunity. At least it’s finally clear as day. But I reject that it’s the way things need to be, and feel that this kind of seismic shift in priorities is more evidence that simple NIL opportunities are not nearly enough. Money is literally warping the game itself, in the thick of the season (sure seems like ND has no real shot at the playoff now, check the committee protocols on weighing missing players or coaches). It’s high time that the sport’s revenue drivers, the true boots on the ground, get to taste a piece of the actual pie. Think of it as an economic cool-down mechanism if you must — we can frame this however we want to — but it’s time to tax the rich, so to speak, and implement a more reasonable and equitable mode of operating (that’s right, you’re reading the socialist football blog, if you didn’t know now you know). Anyways, Brian, have fun routinely going head-to-head with Nick Saban. Welcome to the boot, indeed.
So. Marcus Freeman is quite clearly the highest-ceiling option, a soon-to-be power five head coach regardless of whether it’s at Notre Dame or not. That he’s an ace recruiter cannot be understated — this is almost the whole game, just ask Saban or Kirby Smart. He’s young and there will surely be bumps in the road (we all lived through the first half of this season), but the program is, by all accounts, the healthiest it’s been in maybe decades. We can afford some heavy gusts against the cabin doors as we take off and attempt to reach another stratosphere.
As you can probably gain from the below, promoting Freeman should largely keep the roster and incoming recruiting classes intact — the short term future presents genuine championship opportunities for the Irish, and riding Freeman keeps momentum intact for that run. I understand Jack Swarbrick exercising restraint and caution — this is the program that hired George O’Leary, after all — but he’s no mystery, as HR is of course already familiar with his background. He’s an incredibly sharp football mind who built a new group into one of college football’s best over the course of his first season, he’s a deeply likeable guy, and he relates to the players in a way that’s increasingly important in today’s game. For what it’s worth, Kelly did an admirable job centering and amplifying player voices when the Black Lives Matter movement came to campus, but as a young Black and Korean man, Freeman can speak to those realities in a more powerful manner. It’s a move that would likely pay dividends on the football field, and would certainly work wonders in these kids’ very real off the field lives. If you don’t believe me, just ask them.