“Me and the wife are proud, of course, but (at first) we were a little nervous, too. You’re stepping off into unfamiliar territory. He’s really in the spotlight now.”
The Notre Dame job is one of the most prominent head coaching positions, not just in college football, but in all of U.S. sports.
Freeman is just the second African American to hold that position – Tyrone Willingham was the first when he led the Irish from 2002 through 2004 – and, at 35, he’s the second youngest person to be awarded the Notre Dame job.
A decade and a half ago, he was a Parade All American linebacker at Wayne High School and one of the top three college prospects coming out of Ohio.
He chose Ohio State and from 2004 to 2008, he started 37 games and won second team All-Big 10 honors as a senior.
He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2009 and went from their practice squad to those of the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans.
A year later he was forced to retire from football due to an enlarged heart condition.
He became a grad assistant coach at Ohio State and then joined the staff at Kent State and, after that, Purdue. He served as the defensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati for four seasons and this past fall held the same position at Notre Dame.
Under his tutelage. the Irish have one of the best defenses in college football this year.
At the end of the regular season, Brian Kelly – who had been Notre Dame’s coach for 12 seasons -- stunned everyone and jumped to LSU.
That led the way to Freeman’s surprise ascension, which was enthusiastically supported by the Irish players.
Three days after the announcement, Notre Dame introduced Freeman to a gathering at the Irish Athletic Center that drew 1,000 people and included a 30-member marching band and the football cheerleaders.
Michael and Chong sat in the front row with Joanne and the six grandkids: Vinny, Siena, Geno, Rocco, Capri and Nico.
In front of them, Marcus stood at a podium on the raised stage. And some of his very first remarks paid homage to his parents.
“So, who is Marcus Freeman?” he said.
“Well, I’m the son of a man who was in the Air Force 26 years and I’m the son of a woman who was born in Korea, then came over here in 1976.
“I get my discipline, my work ethic, my honesty from my father.
“I get my unselfishness, my other-centered focus from my mother and that’s exactly how I will lead this football program. We will be disciplined. We will work tirelessly.”
Michael called that day “one of the proudest” of his life.
A day after the press conference, Freeman penned an open letter to the Notre Dame fans that was published on The Players’ Tribune website.
Again he singled out his parents.
As for the lessons imparted by his father, he wrote: “First off, being disciplined – having a routine, doing the things that it takes to have success, working tirelessly.
“My dad was a little bit older and he was retired by the time I was born, and so he raised me with the structure that being in the Air Force for 26 years will teach you. He taught my older brother and I that only work ethic and motivation will get you where you want to go.”
He also wrote of the traits he got from his mom:
“Being selfless – having an ability and the character to serve others. I think I got that from my mother. She’s a Korean woman who fell in love with this American guy that was stationed there in Korea. And she left all of her comfort back home in order to start a family with my dad in the United States. She’s taught me so much about sacrifice, how it can be its own reward,”
Michael noted how Marcus “talked about us as parents he could depend on, who always had his back, so to speak, and who supported him along the way.
“And we did do that with him and with his older brother Michael when they were growing up. Their mother and I drew on our own backgrounds: Her Korean culture and me from my military background and also the lessons I learned from my own mother who raised me mostly as a single parent.
“We’ve tried to stress to our children to respect other people, to be on time, not to be outworked, and to have a set of standards you live by. And to have a love of country, a love of community.
“And I think both our boys took those lessons to heart.”
Michael grew up in Columbus and joined the U.S. Air Force right out of high school. He served in the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s and worked with military police at Phan Rang Air Base.
Over the years he was stationed throughout the Far East, including the Philippines, Thailand and Korea.
Chong was from Taegu City, Korea – now known as Daegu – and came to Seoul for schooling, he said. That’s where they met and fell in love.
Several years ago, Chong and I talked about the beginning of that relationship. She noted there were similarities to the parents of Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl wide receiver.
His mother was from Korea and his dad was a black service man from the United States. Ward’s mother said they faced discrimination in her homeland because some people didn’t approve of the mixed race marriage.
Chong’s parents had died by the time she met Michael.
She said some people initially disapproved: “They were disappointed, but then they saw how my husband respected me and treated me nice and they changed.” When we spoke Friday, Michael said they had had “no problems.”
While Ward’s parents divorced when he was young, the Freemans provided their boys with a rock solid relationship and some true examples of work ethic.
“My wife is a serious person and she believes in working hard,” Michael said. “She worked for Texas Instruments at first and when we moved to Huber Heights, she worked at the Mound 20 years.” He said she recently retired from a robotic company based in Miamisburg.
After he retired from the Air Force he worked 20 years for the Dayton Metropolitan Housing Authority
They followed both of their sons college football careers – Michael Jr. played at Wittenberg – and over the years Chong has gotten to know the game, Michel said:
“She really enjoyed watching her sons, but because of her serious nature, it just breaks her heart if they lost.”
It didn’t take Freeman long to find out about the intense scrutiny that comes with the Notre Dame job.
When he wrote his Players Tribune letter, he included a reference to Ohio State that some Buckeye fans took issue with. They felt he was throwing shade at OSU.
Addressing the Notre Dame fans, he wrote about visiting the university for the first time when he was 16 or 17 and how Willingham, who recruited him, reminded him of his father.
He said his college decision came down to Ohio State and Notre Dame and he chose OSU.
Then he wrote: “Fast forward to last year and you might have heard I was being considered for a couple of coaching jobs. During that time, me and my wife Joanna took a trip down to Louisiana and them up here to South Bed – and when we got back home, it was another tough decision.
“I can’t tell you exactly what it was that told me to come to Notre Dame, but it was something. We all know there’s something different about Notre Dame. We all know it’s something special. And I just thank God that I didn’t t make the wrong decision twice.”
As the mini uproar gained steam -- “What was Marcus Freeman thinking?” was the headline on one newspaper column – Freeman addressed the matter five days ago using some of those same lessons learned from Mom and Dad. .
Before taking questions, he said he wanted to discuss: “my feelings on Ohio State.”
“I want to make sure to be very clear about how that relationship, that the time spent in Columbus impacted me. I have relationships that I built that will be with me for the rest of my life.
“I’m very passionate about being here, but in no way do I want to diminish my time in Columbus and the impact those times made on me.”
Back home in Huber Heights, Freeman’s days with the Buckeyes are displayed everywhere, including on the wall in the living room, where his framed No. 1 OSU jersey hangs. It’s one of the first things you see when you come through the front door.
Freeman has quite a following in Huber Heights, because he is a favorite son of Wayne High and because of his parents’ involvements in the community.
His dad is in a member of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio and also the General Daniel Chappie James American Legion Post.
In the past two weeks he said he’s heard from many of those folks, as well as neighbors and friends and people who know he and his wife from the Wayne High and Ohio State days.
As soon as their son took over the job, he went to work, flying immediately to Wisconsin and then Washington to help secure the Irish recruits who had committed when Kelly was the coach.
He ended up keeping 20 of the 23 players – several of whom he had previously helped recruit -- and rivals.com rated Notre Dame’s incoming class as No. 7 overall in the nation.
And now Michael figures they’ll be making several trips to South Bend in the future:
“I love to spend time with the grandkids. They’re young and really keep me going.
“And I’d like to go to the games. I’m hoping we can get some tickets.”
That shouldn’t be a problem.