“Notre Dame Will Change You, If You Let It”: The #FreemanEra, the Free Market, and What It All Costs

If you have a positive feeling about the University of Notre Dame, but it doesn’t get effectively monetized, did you really feel it at all?

If you had asked me just a few weeks ago if there existed a series of possible events that, if triggered in the proper sequence, might make my beloved Notre Dame football seem to a broader national audience both sympathetic and maybe even cool, I would have said that no, this sequence of events did not exist in any kind of realistic potentiality.

Notre Dame football had reached what seemed to be something of the steady state that, if we were lucky, might persist for a few more years:

  • averaging around 10 mostly fun wins with the occasional down year,
  • very strong but not necessarily world-beating recruiting classes, and
  • an occasional shot at the absolute top tier programs where we would likely be out-coached if not necessarily out-classed athletically, but
  • hey, we had a chance which was more than a lot of programs could say.

I didn’t particularly love Brian Kelly as a coach or as the human being that he tended to come across as being, but he had at least mellowed considerably from the borderline insane red-faced rants of his early years at the Golden Dome. His players seemed to like him well enough to keep working hard and to not tell other top recruits to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

Perhaps crucially, I was also wisely learning to invest less and less of my own emotional well-bring into how effectively a group of 18 to 22 year old men performed a set of specific physical tasks on green rectangles in South Bend, Indiana and across the country. I was learning to enjoy the wins while not necessarily losing full Saturday’s to grumpy wallowing following the losses. These two trends, the Irish’s ascendancy to perennial decency and my own new found sanity as a sports fan, combined to make the last several years very enjoyable: for the first time in my life as an Irish fan, we were having FUN, for like, extended periods of time, having fun for SEASONS in a row. I think I was also tickled by the contrast of the present to my own time in school where I had been psychologically conditioned to accept miserable losses as simply part and parcel of the Irish Fan Experience. My classmates and I saw more losses during our four years than any other class at Notre Dame to that point (although we would eventually get passed by the classes after us.)

The fun had continued this season- one loss to a Cincinnati team that beat everyone else they played and a late season resurgence by both Jack Coan and the Marcus Freeman coached defense had us poised to potentially back-door our way into the playoff or, more likely, to get a slightly more winnable match up in a different New Year’s Six bowl. This was good and fun! After some stressful wins early in the season, the last five games of the season were actually relaxing to watch as the Irish cruised across the finish line. This really seemed like our best case scenario, season after season, until Brian Kelly decided to retire. Honestly, that all felt fine.

Even after I had peeled my jaw off the floor following Lincoln Reilly’s departure from OU to coach ND’s rival USC, it still didn’t seem possible that the college coaching chaos would reach the sleepy Catholic college near the southernmost bend of the Saint Joseph’s river. Brian Kelly had been courted by NFL teams in the past but if I’m being honest, I didn’t think he’d leave because in some sense these last few seasons felt like his ceiling as well. He had worked his ass off to build a very strong program in a unique place in the college football landscape. If he could beat the odds, if he could line the stars up just right once in the next five or six years, there was a non-zero chance that he could bring a national title to Notre Dame and in doing so, become a legend at a place that, despite his odd affect, genuinely seemed to matter to him.

This all obviously ended up not being the case.

On any given Saturday during the fall, my phone will spend the day buzzing as part of any number of text threads with family and sub-groups of ND friends. The day it all went down, on one of these threads, a friend sent the text “…Irish?” and I dutifully called up the browser on my phone to see what had happened. And holy shit. The coaching carousel had come and spun through South Bend. Brian Kelly would be headed to LSU to coach in the SEC. The Irish would be needing a new head coach for the first time in more than a decade thanks at least in part to the statistically unlikely event that the pregnant wife of a high ranking LSU official would end up at the same gas station as now-former LSU coach Ed Orgeron and the apparently not so statistically unlikely event that Coach O would be a huge creep.

On a semi-related side note, I kind of love LSU. During a semi-hung over jog around their campus in 2009, I stumbled into the parking lot that they were using as a staging area for some kind of homecoming parade. Everyone was awesome and very welcoming as I ran around wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt giving high fives to floats full of people. I even got to hug Mike the Tiger (the costumed, anthropomorphic version, not the actual live Bengal tiger).

Since his jump to Baton Rouge, Brain Kelly has seemingly broken his brain, developing a southern accent that he embarrassingly displayed during an introduction at a Tiger basketball game and doing some kind of weird dance on a rotating platform with his top QB recruit (?!). It’s honestly been hypnotizing, like watching an actor you knew from playing a librarian on a soap opera suddenly appear as the kazoo-playing band leader on a late night television show- it doesn’t seem to fit, you’re not sure why it happened, but you also feel compelled to watch. I’ve watched the video of BK saying “faymeely” more times than I can count at this point, mostly because I think it scratches some obscure itch in my brain similar to like a magic eye picture or something, revealing something hidden and novel that is also deeply unimportant.

He was also pretty much universally shit on for the way he left. His players found out through social media that he was departing and he awkwardly texted them that his love for them was limitless before meeting with them for 10 minutes the next morning and then heading out to seek his fortune down south. He failed to recruit any of his assistants to join him, and they proceeded to obviously, delightfully throw shade at him in their announcements to the players that they would be remaining. The Observer, ND’s student newspaper, posted a humorous op-ed letter to Kelly that captured the feelings of one student editor using the timeless and powerful lyrics of Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift. Twitter did what Twitter does, grinding the story down to a pulp until all that remained were the memes to be sifted out like so many gold nuggets from the banks of the internet’s stream of consciousness.

Notre Dame ended up with Marcus Freeman as their new head coach, and frankly he seems awesome. I’ve loved seeing the way his players responded to the news that he was their coach. It speaks volumes that Notre Dame lost only two recruits. When he stood up and introduced himself to the world in his new position, he talked about how he wanted to model for the young men on his team how he lives a life worth living, which for Freeman means being a husband and father. Above all, he seems like an extremely decent dude. I obviously hope he wins a lot of games at Notre Dame, but for now, it does bring me a certain amount of satisfaction to just see the way he rather refreshingly approaches being a human being and a football coach in that order. As I mentioned earlier, between ND now getting to play the jilted party in the BK saga and making their move to promote a charismatic and beloved players coach while retaining a young and potentially ascendant offensive coordinator that also seems beloved by his players, Notre Dame has potentially found itself in the unique position of carrying a public institutional persona that is, likely only for the most fleeting of instants, both sympathetic and even cool. Life really does come at you fast.

Another semi-related side note, I also just love Tommy Rees. He manages to take his brand of goofy anti-charisma and somehow turn it into an asset. I am immensely grateful to him for one of my all-time favorite sports memories, watching the Rees-led Irish beat USC, in person, in the Coliseum after years of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Trojans. I love Tommy Rees so much that during the hubbub surrounding Johnny Manziel making some money signing autographs, my roommates and I made a shirt promoting Rees as “Tommy Football,” a kind of anti-Manziel. We found a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald about Rees’s hometown of Lake Forest to put on the back of the shirt and we spent like 50 bucks each to get them printed just for the three of us. Anyway, kind of a long way of saying: Tommy Rees Forever.

Ultimately, Kelly being the kind of chameleonic weirdo that fakes a southern accent in an attempt to ingratiate himself to a fanbase makes it significantly easier to dunk on him for the way he left ND. That said, I think it also obscures the deeper point that many folks were making about Kelly, which was that this scenario mirrored very closely his arrival in South Bend twelve years earlier, a scenario in which he led Cincy to its second BCS bowl in two years but then departed for Notre Dame before the game, leaving his team to get crushed by a Florida team led by fellow well-liquor-tier human being/questionable decision maker Urban Meyer. He announced his departure at the team’s postseason banquet and then left without talking to the media.

Many of the takes I read perhaps rightly pointed to this as evidence of Kelly’s inherent brokenness or cowardice, that some things never change, but they mostly discussed how things would never change with Brian Kelly, that he would forever be the type of dude who would skulk out the back door when the chance to secure an ever larger bag presented itself. This is plausibly true.

Then again, folks, Brian Kelly took his police escort out of that Westin banquet hall in Ohio twelve years ago, and it was Notre Dame who hired Kelly away from Cincy and who presumably presented the timeline they would require from him in order to take the job. Did BK get a big fat raise when he made the jump to ND and did he get another one when decamped for Baton Rouge? Of course he did. That said it seems willfully foolish to ignore the fact that this was always also about money for the institutions involved.

Both Notre Dame and LSU had a variety of rationally defensible institutional logics behind hiring a coach away from another team at this awkward fissure point in the college football calendar, all of which are ultimately related to their ability to make more money. These schools will then, these logic models suggest, invest this money into either improving the mission of the school directly or into other activities which will generate even more money which will be invested into either improving the mission of the school directly or into other activities which will generate even more for money, and so on, and so on, and so on. I will mention here that it is not lost on me that in the specific context of college football these men will make ungodly amounts of money themselves and ungodly amounts of money for their hiring institutions largely by profiting off the unpaid labor of young men, largely young men of color. These institutions had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a future/present where even SOMEONE ELSE could pay the athletes that compete on the institution’s behalf, which is frankly insane and deserves a fuller treatment, one that examines the ways in which these institutions have desires that extend beyond money and into the related realms of power and control.

Anyway, you don’t make a head football coach the highest paid person at a private institution or pay them the largest salary of any public employee in a state for any reason other than an expectation that their ability to do their job, their ability to recruit young men with a talent for doing a specific set of physical tasks on green rectangles all over the country and then to further improve the skill of those young men in doing those specific physical tasks, will generate a return (in merch, in ticket sales, in donations from happy athletic boosters, etc.) And when you are making that kind of investment, you deploy it in a timeframe and in a fashion that will maximize that return. Time in the market beats timing the market, so you get your guy as early as possible both so that he can get started on the recruiting trail and so that the other guys can’t get him first.

The underlying game theory of getting the best coach for the best price might seem complicated at the micro level but when you pull out to the macro it is screamingly obvious the direction that salaries and schedules get pulled: upward and earlier, respectively. It doesn’t make for a great look for anyone participating in the whole new grubby race to the bottom but there also isn’t a clear off ramp for all of us. Within the next ten years, and barring some kind of intervention from the slapdash mix of piety and bureaucratic incompetence that is the NCAA or the slapdash mix of piety and bureaucratic incompetence that is the US government, is it possible that we’ll see a major program hire a hot coaching name away from a smaller program mid-season by making them an offer that they simply cannot refuse? Why not? Because of norms? Call me a cynic, but we’ve seen how well those have been holding up lately in the face of the opportunity to secure an ever stronger grip on the levers of power and an ever larger bag of cash.

Ultimately we’re left with the question of whether or not we are more concerned with the perhaps more entertaining brand of brokenness that Brian Kelly presents to us or with the much more complicated and almost certainly less interesting brand of brokenness that pervades the institutions that make the Brian Kelly’s of the world possible. While we are at it, we can question how a broken society would almost universally decry a man for taking the opportunity to secure generational wealth for his, uh, faymeely, but not more intensely interrogate the fact that the parameters of this particular labor market are not dictated in any real way by the coaches themselves, scarce though their talents might be.

Which brings me back to Notre Dame. I mentioned that I had reached a sort of equanimity when it came to my Notre Dame football fandom, but in the immediate aftermath of Kelly’s departure, this did nothing to blunt my curiosity about the coaching search. Like so many others across the country, I followed the news closely, and presumably like many others, the more I learned about Marcus Freeman, the more I hoped he would become the next head coach at Notre Dame. As I mentioned above, I was thrilled when his hiring was announced.

Freeman made a series of comments over the next several days, and in all cases acquitted himself well. He also absolutely crushed the speaking portion of his official introductory presser. I didn’t watch it live, but watched it that night after my wife went to bed while I was feeding our newborn daughter before putting her down for the night. As I tend to when people speak eloquently about the place, I found myself feeling nostalgic and even choked up. Even as much as I complain and even after all these years, I still love the school.

The next day as I settled into my desk at work to drink my coffee and scan my email, I saw the inevitable missive from the development team at Notre Dame sitting in my inbox. This one was from the good folks at the Rockne Athletic Fund, inviting me to give $100 and in return receive a t-shirt emblazoned with one of the admittedly more badass lines from Freeman’s introductory comments:

“Notre Dame will change you, if you let it.”

It had been sent at 1:44pm CT, primed to hit my inbox just as the program was ending.

Before I could help myself, I found myself thinking that damn, that t-shirt is pretty badass and then I realized that I had been taken in again. In an almost Faustian twist, my alma mater was selling me a vision of the school, that of a borderline sacramental-grade change agent, in exchange for my own cold hard cash. To be clear, I understand the logic at play here: money being fungible and all that, Notre Dame will invest this money into either improving the mission of the school directly or into other activities which will generate even more money which will be invested into either improving the mission of the school directly or into other activities which will generate even more for money, and so on, and so on, and so on.

What I found myself unrealistically wishing was that maybe Notre Dame could have, even just this once, let us have a nice thing without the need to then, literally immediately, try to brutally and efficiently monetize the experience, converting my excitement about the hiring of a guy who seems to be both professionally excellent and deeply personally decent into cash flow. In some abstract sense I understand that it’s all for the mission, and the Rockne Athletic Fund sounds very fine in its scope and its ambitions but do we need to always give the impression that even the smallest detail of the place has been carefully curated to enhance the brand which has been carefully crafted in order to enhance the schools ability to raise money? Nonprofit institutions like universities exist to, at least in part, solve problems that markets are ill equipped to solve, but that hasn’t stopped us from letting a variety of markets dictate seemingly every decision that these institutions make. This is an institutional problem, sure, but then also on a personal note, can you please for for one fucking second stop trying to sell me back my own happy feelings?

As I think back on my own now long personal history with ND as an undergraduate, graduate student, employee, then graduate student again, then just plain (increasingly) old alum, I find I can’t necessarily give an accurate assessment of whether or not things were always this way or if the slow progression of the market eating everything has slowly eroded our ability to conceive of an institution of higher learning as anything other than a surplus-generating endeavor with every piece of the place that does not at least in part pull its weight in this surplus generation liable to be scrapped or “reimagined” into something that will sell either to sports fans, or to tuition-paying students, or to donors.

Maybe it was always this way and I was just clueless, or maybe it has inched further and further, year by year, into a vision of the future where it represents some kind of abject failure if the administration fails, in even the smallest instance, to convert literally every piece of joy that someone feels in connection to the place, immediately and efficiently, into economic capital. Either way, I have a sinking feeling that there is no going back.

Marcus Freeman is right, I think, and for this reason I will continue to watch and love my alma mater. Tender, strong, and true, after all. I was and continue to be, in some personally meaningful ways, made better by my time at Notre Dame and the communities to which it has connected me. I am a broken human being, certainly, but the Notre Dame community gave me the tools and the help to try and make both myself and the world at least a little bit better.

So yes, I think our newest head coach is correct. Notre Dame will change you, if you let it.

My larger concern at this point is that, in the ways it may need to most, Notre Dame might not longer be willing or able to change at all.

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Mike Mesterharm

Mike Mesterharm

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