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Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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4 PRESEASON 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED C hances are that Marcus Freeman didn't intentionally take a potshot at Brian Kelly in late July when the rookie head coach was asked about the difficulties of winning a national cham- pionship at Notre Dame. After all, dissing a former boss or any- body doesn't fit Freeman's respectful and humble approach to life and relationships. Freeman's answer to the inquiry, nonetheless, sounded like a reference to, and a rebuke of, the checklist Kelly outlined to an Associated Press reporter in May as to why he couldn't win a title at Notre Dame. During an appearance on ESPN's "First Take" program, Freeman was asked point blank if Notre Dame could compete for a national championship. "Absolutely, absolutely," Freeman insisted. "We won't make excuses for what we don't have. We have everything we need to truly maximize our potential and compete against the best teams in the country." As usual, Freeman took the high road, while Kelly played the blame game during the latter's offseason interview circuit. From lagging nutritional options for Irish players, to the grind of coast-to- coast recruiting, to antiquated facili- ties, Kelly — while celebrating Kelly — explained that the championship constraints he faced at Notre Dame would be lifted at LSU. "You've got incredible facilities. You've got players that want to be great," Kelly told the AP as he opened his first spring season in Baton Rouge. "I want to be in an environment where I have the resources to win a national championship." And, yes, the above quote from Kelly neatly encapsulates the difference be- tween Freeman and him. At age 60, Kelly somewhat under- standably fled the unique challenges Notre Dame presents — academics, weather, facilities, NIL, recruiting, lo- cation, blah-blah — while Freeman, 36, welcomes them. "You have to embrace this place," Freeman said. "You have to embrace the things that make us different. You have to embrace the people here that are dif- ferent. You have to embrace the com- petitive thinkers, the individuals that are on this football team." The contrasting styles between two Irish coaches will be fascinating to fol- low this season. Freeman is a model mentor. And, as a former standout college linebacker — not too long ago — Freeman relates to young men in a way Kelly can't. During a time when student-athletes are rightfully gaining more power and leverage — and with the transfer portal looming as an easy escape hatch from a program — trust and reliability between coaches and players is paramount. On the flip side, often unwilling to get his hands dirty in recruiting or spend much time building relationships, Kelly had an ivory tower, CEO style to his coaching duties. Kelly himself admitted after the 4-8 campaign of 2016 that he'd grown distant from his players and the void needed to be bridged. Kelly bridged it, to a point, and en- joyed sustained success at Notre Dame during his final five seasons. He left Notre Dame as the all-time winningest coach in Fighting Irish history, and that can't be devalued. Kelly's coaching style has obviously served him well for 30-plus years. But his sometimes standoffish, often cor- porate approach didn't always resonate with the Notre Dame fan base or its stu- dent-athletes. When Kelly delivered his three-min- ute parting speech to the Irish players last December, the farewell was met with blank stares and indifference. Two days later, when Freeman was introduced to the same group as its new head coach, the warm and sincere wel- come he received still rates as the high- light of the offseason. This contrast in player reactions made Freeman's first training camp fas- cinating to follow. Most interesting was seeing the dif- ference in how Freeman interacts with his players during drills, and vice versa, compared to his predecessor. Kelly was all business and mainly coached from a broad view. Based on only limited observations, admittedly, Freeman is up close and personal, and encourages his players to have fun and cherish the moment. Though, he wasn't shy about letting them know when something wasn't right. Is one coaching style better than the other? Not necessarily. But there's freshness to Freeman that has the entire ND fan base and his play- ers as excited to open this season than arguably any in the last decade. "The goal is to win the national championship — that's the ultimate goal," Freeman vowed upon his hiring. "That's going to take looking at every single thing we do as an organization and finding a better way to do it. That goes back to challenging everything." And that includes challenging how Kelly handled his business — good and bad — during his 12 successful seasons. ✦ In contrast to his predecessor Brian Kelly, Freeman is confident that Notre Dame can win a national championship. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Marcus Freeman Is Embracing The Challenges UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at "We won't make excuses for what we don't have. We have everything we need to truly maximize our potential and compete against the best teams in the country." FREEMAN

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