I, along with the rest of the Notre Dame fanbase, was hit with an absolute punch in the gut yesterday that has thrown me for the loop of my life. Maybe Jack Swarbrick saw this coming, but this announcement was a complete blindside to everyone else involved with Notre Dame football, players included. As I made my way through the five stages of grief — albeit a grief softened by the incredible Twitter content that came out of this — I questioned everything I had ever known and trusted, and mostly, I questioned why Brian Kelly would leave with a very real shot at a playoff bid coming one week from now.
Sure, there are 95 million answers to that question. I understand the financial ramifications. I know that Notre Dame needs to get more competitive in terms of how much they’re willing to pay coaches, academic priorities be damned. I also wonder, if Oklahoma had won Bedlam, whether Riley would have stayed for the potential playoff bid. We may never know the answer to that, but to leave a playoff-ready team high and dry like this is a completely unprecedented move in college football. (And to those who want to argue about whether ND deserves a playoff berth, I promise I have a researched rebuttal to every one of your points and will defend this team to my dying breath.)
The way he left screwed just about everyone in the program over, with the 11-minute goodbye speech serving as the cherry on top. So yes, I am upset. As much as people who love to hate the Irish can preach that this is just how it happens in college football, this does have a distinct tinge of harsh betrayal. Kelly built the modern era of the Irish to where it is today — a consistent playoff contender — and he had the chance to leave a legacy there, something it seemed that he intended on doing. Instead, he’s giving up, ring chasing at a place where it’s purportedly “easier” to win championships, until he realizes what it’s really like to play Alabama and Ole Miss every year. He’s now attempting to gut the ND coaching staff to bring them south with him, and the rumor mill is so oversaturated at the moment that I have no speculation to offer on that aside from that I am vaguely nauseous at the thought — but not as nauseous as I am at the thought of Urban Meyer coming to South Bend.
So as I process this and reluctantly move to the fifth stage, acceptance, helped along by the hours I’ve spent on the phone with fellow heartbroken alums, I’m moving onto looking at the best candidates for the next HC, as well as the candidates that I really don’t want to see. Here’s my early list:
He’s not a big name, but he’s currently the axis around which the future of Notre Dame football rotates. The rumor mill right now has Kelly attempting to lure Freeman to be defensive coordinator at LSU — a job he turned down this past year in favor of Notre Dame — which would be completely disastrous for the Irish. Freeman is the best recruiter that ND has right now and has clearly won over the locker room. With two of the best recruiting classes in recent memory coming into the university in 2022 and 2023, Notre Dame can’t afford to lose the consistency in the coaching staff that they have right now, which probably means offering Freeman nothing lower than the head coaching job. Things are working, and it’s not the time to shift gears just as everything finally seems to be falling into place. Plus, keeping Freeman would likely convince most of the other defensive coaches to stick around. This isn’t a program that needs a big change right now. To keep the train a-chugging, he’s my pick. He also seems to be the fan base favorite for the job. I just don’t know if Swarbrick will make the call, though, as Freeman’s resume is missing head coaching experience.
The Cincinnati-to-Notre Dame pipeline hasn’t failed us yet, and there’s no reason to fix something that ain’t broke. Fickell has the Midwestern recruiting and coaching game down, and if he’s able to bring Cincinnati to a competitive level on the national stage, imagine what he can do with Notre Dame’s resources and name recognition. Would we be taking a risk with Brian Kelly Part 2? I think Fickell’s coaching style is different enough from Kelly’s, and Notre Dame’s program is in a better place than it was when Kelly signed on, that the growing pains wouldn’t look quite so extreme. Our biggest risk with him would be the Ohio State job opening up, which doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon, and we may even be able to convince Freeman to stay on (with a hearty raise, of course), and keep the gang together. I think that he’d fit right in, and it’s a logical next step for his career.
Yes, this is a bit insane, but I think that it could be fun. He’s been at Oklahoma State since 2001, but he still has a solid 10 to 15 years left in his coaching career, and maybe it’s time for a change. To be fair, we never thought Kelly would leave, so the lesson I take from that is to never say never. With all the turnover in the Big 12 and Oklahoma heading out to the SEC, and with Notre Dame able to offer a competitive salary, I think that he would bring a new energy to the Irish as well as possibly pulling more recruits from the south, a region that the Irish lose out on somewhat regularly. Is this a logical move? Maybe, maybe not. Notre Dame is theoretically a better job than Oklahoma State, but if the Cowboys are happy to keep Gundy until retirement, he may want to stay there. I wonder where he might have a better chance at a championship, though.
A lot of people seem to think that Meyer is the logical choice for Notre Dame’s next hire. He’s not succeeding in the NFL, he’s a wildly successful college coach and recruiter, and he’s one of the old guard who still remembers when Notre Dame was the place to be. I’m going to say this right here and right now: there is not a chance in hell that Notre Dame will hire Urban Meyer, whether he’s interested in the job or not. ND likes to think of itself as having a sort of moral standard that is missing from the rest of the big names in college football, a self-perception largely brought on by the ever-hailed academic standards that university athletes are held to. It doesn’t matter whether or not this is accurate, it matters that Notre Dame thinks that it is. And because they think that it is, they will never hire someone with the baggage and toxic public image that Urban Meyer carries with him, from constant NCAA violations to keeping on a coach who was abusing his wife to accusations of terrible locker room culture to that video of him getting a bit too close with not-his-wife a few weeks ago, ND’s superiority complex will never allow them to bring him on. I also personally don’t really want him — I don’t think he’d be a good culture fit with the university and I’m not as sure as others that he would guarantee us a national championship.
Others have been putting forward the Northwestern head coach’s name for the job, and to be honest, I don’t think he’s ready to perform on the sort of stage that Notre Dame brings. Sure, he’s got the experience with an academics-first program, and he’s made a solid name for himself in the Big Ten West, but Northwestern just doesn’t compare to Notre Dame football — on the field, sure, but more importantly, off the field. There’s too much at stake right now to risk bringing someone like Fitzgerald on — not a bad coach by any means, but also not a coach who I believe would be able to keep the loyalty of current recruits and coaching staff. I don’t think he has the national recruiting chops that go with the job yet, either.
The Iowa State head coach’s name has been thrown around in coaching carousel talks for the past few years after he made a name for the program. He’s beaten some big names, including Oklahoma and TCU, and he led Iowa State to an 8-1 conference record in 2020. I like his conference experience and his big game experience, and I think that he’d be able to step up to the job’s demands. They had a mediocre season this year, but beat Oklahoma State and kept it close with both Oklahoma and Baylor. For some reason, though, I just don’t feel super enthusiastic about him, and I have a feeling that we may take a bit longer to “rebuild” if he signs on, even if he eventually is able to be a successful Notre Dame coach. I guess I question his ability to win the big games with the Irish, let alone a championship, but I’m also not totally against giving him a shot.