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Tracing Marcus Freeman’s path to his debut as Notre Dame coach in the Fiesta Bowl — including a ‘great learning experience’ with the Chicago Bears

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Marcus Freeman chuckled when the subject of his time with the Chicago Bears came up during a Notre Dame news conference earlier this month.

“My butt got cut real fast,” Freeman said.

The Bears selected Freeman in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL draft and waived the linebacker before the season began that September.

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Freeman looked back at the period as a “great learning experience.”

“I was never outside of my comfort zone when I went to Ohio State,” Freeman said. “I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, went to Ohio State, had a lot of friends on that team and was never really pushed outside my comfort zone.

“The minute I got to Chicago and I was by myself — my family was back home — I said, ‘Ooh, it’s a little bit uncomfortable.’ And that helped me grow. It helped me get to this point where, hey, you can handle being outside of your comfort zone.”

Chicago was just one stop along Freeman’s path to New Year’s Day, when he will make his debut as Notre Dame’s coach in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State in Glendale, Ariz. (noon, ESPN).

Freeman joined Notre Dame’s staff as the defensive coordinator last January. He officially became the 30th head coach in program history on Dec. 3, four days after Brian Kelly left for LSU.

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Freeman, 35, described the last couple of weeks leading up to the bowl game as a “whirlwind.”

“It’s been nonstop,” he said Dec. 15. “But I was thinking about it, and I don’t know if I ever want it to be where it’s normal because I think you’ll undervalue, underappreciate this opportunity that you have.

“I hope every day I walk in this office I’m like, ‘Man, I’m the head coach at Notre Dame,’ because that to me is what drives me to make sure that I don’t ever look past this opportunity that I have right now.”

Freeman’s steps to South Bend, Ind., started in Huber Heights, Ohio, where he earned Parade All-America honors at Wayne High School.

He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2008 at Ohio State, and after his experience with the Bears, he had stints on the practice squads of the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans.

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His playing days ended after he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart in early 2010.

Freeman wanted to remain involved with the game and jumped right into coaching, returning to Ohio State as a graduate assistant. He was the linebackers coach at Kent State (2011-12) and Purdue (2013-15) before the Boilermakers added a co-defensive coordinator title in 2016.

From 2017-20, Freeman was defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Cincinnati, where he reconnected with Bearcats coach Luke Fickell. Fickell was Ohio State’s linebackers coach when Freeman played for the Buckeyes from 2004-08.

“Guys like Marcus are a huge part of what it is we built,” Fickell told reporters after the Bearcats wrapped up a trip to the College Football Playoff by winning the American Athletic Conference championship game Dec. 4.

Freeman made the move to Notre Dame this season and made an impact, guiding a unit that through Saturday was tied for ninth nationally in scoring defense (18.25 points per game).

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“He comes ready to work,” Notre Dame defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “He wants everybody to get better and take that next step in our game.”

After Kelly left, the players stepped up and let it be known why they wanted Freeman to lead the program.

“We wanted someone who was going to keep the culture of the program intact,” center Jarrett Patterson said. “He knew that this place is special and we knew that as well.”

Fickell said he’s “incredibly excited” for Freeman.

“We love it when they have great opportunities like that,” he said.

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Freeman sought advice from several people about the best way to approach being a first-time head coach, and he heard similar answers of “Just be you.”

That starts with his parents, Michael and Chong.

“I’m the son of a man who was in the Air Force for 26 years,” Freeman said at his Dec. 6 introductory news conference. “I’m the son of a woman who was born in Korea that came over here in 1976, but I tell you that because that’s who I am. I get my discipline, my work ethic, my honesty from my father. I get my unselfishness and other centered focus from my mother, and that’s exactly how I will lead this football program.

“We will be disciplined. We will be tough. We will work tirelessly.”

Freeman went back to work recruiting soon after that news conference. He uses his experience with the Bears as part of his pitch.

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“I tell these guys, the unique thing about Notre Dame is this isn’t home for many of our players — maybe one or two — so everybody coming to South Bend is coming from outside,” Freeman said. “And so they learn how to lean on each other and get through those uncomfortable moments.

“And that’s why, to me, the young people that come here know how to get through the homesickness and those uncomfortable times that I went through all of a sudden when I (was) in Chicago.”

Freeman is tackling his new responsibilities “one moment at a time.”

“Not looking at it as such a big challenge and such a big-picture ideal,” he said. “It’s just one moment at a time, one task at a time and attacking it one by one by one. It’s the same way I coach these players — it’s one day, one life.

“What can we do today to make sure we are better prepared for Jan. 1 than we were yesterday? That, to me, is the mindset that I have as the head coach of this team and I want our players to have.”

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That mindset will be on display in Arizona as a new chapter of Notre Dame football begins.

“The whole focus is to send this group out as champions,” Freeman said. “And that’s what I said to them the first day I addressed them in the locker room. Our only focus is to finish this year as champions.

“Our drive, our focus and our motivation is to send this group of seniors that are playing their last game out as champions.”



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