Marcus Freeman knew he needed guidance. As he weighed the defensive coordinator positions at Notre Dame and LSU, Freeman also knew what calling Jim Tressel would mean in terms of getting it. There would be no turn-by-turn navigation, only questions on top of questions, his former head coach at Ohio State picking apart Freeman’s position and letting him put it back together for himself.
What would relocating to South Bend mean for Freeman’s family of eight compared to Baton Rouge? How stable was Brian Kelly compared to Ed Orgeron? And how did either place fit into Freeman’s goal of becoming a head coach, the kind who could lead his program into the biggest college football game of the season as the first official scene in the next act of his career?
“I hung up after an hour and was like, ‘I think he’s telling me to go to Notre Dame. No, wait, I think he’s telling me to go to LSU. I don’t know what he was saying,’” Freeman said. “He’s amazing. That’s what makes him so unique is that he makes you formulate what your opinion is based off looking at every single option. It’s really, really unique in terms of how he gives you his answers.”
For whatever caricatures exist of Tressel – the sweater vest, the senatorial style, the throwback Big Ten schemes – how he supports his players endures. And for Freeman, who’ll make his regular-season debut as Notre Dame’s head coach on Saturday night in Ohio Stadium, that’s offered an action plan to follow.
Freeman required no such conference with Tressel when he replaced Kelly nine months ago. Ready or not didn’t matter for Freeman. Jobs like Notre Dame don’t open. And 36-year-olds without head coaching experience don’t get offered them. Still, Tressel has been a sounding board for Freeman ever since. Sometimes the subjects are as banal as media access to training camp. Sometimes they’re as consequential as how to hire a coaching staff.
Always, Tressel lets Freeman do the talking while he listens. Always, Freeman leaves the conversation with a path forward. It’s just one he still has to walk on his own.
“That may be a little bit of the Aristotle in me,” Tressel said. “Aristotle thought the answer was within you, you just have to be asking yourself the right questions and come to your conclusions. The thing I try to make sure I keep solid is that, hey, I’m not there every day, I can’t see everything that’s going on. And I don’t pretend to know what your need is for this moment.”
Come Saturday night, Tressel will see exactly what Freeman has and what he needs. Ohio State will honor the 2002 national championship team, meaning its former head coach will be back in Ohio Stadium along with some of Freeman’s old teammates. As Tressel watches, he may see as much of himself in Notre Dame as he does Ohio State.
Freeman has embraced much of Tressel – the traditions, the empathy, being a leader players want to follow. And that will all matter on Saturday night. Not because Freeman is going home, but because of how much his home has already shaped Notre Dame.