Ohio State game ‘surreal’ moment for Marcus Freeman’s family

Wayne grad’s first full season as Notre Dame coach starts Saturday in Columbus

Mike Freeman always sends his brother a text message on game day — words to motivate him.

“It’s something he probably gets from everybody,” Mike said. “He’ll send me a like symbol or a heart.”

Marcus Freeman’s older brother won’t be the only one reaching out with an inspirational message this weekend when he makes his debut as the head coach at Notre Dame. If phone’s still rang off the hook, his would do that.

The No. 5 Fighting Irish play the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Marcus played for the Buckeyes from 2004-08 and started his coaching career at Ohio State as a graduate assistant in 2010. Three years ago, he experienced the Horseshoe as a visitor when he worked as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. Now he will stand on the opposite sideline for the second game of his head coaching career — he led the Fighting Irish in the Fiesta Bowl last season — and first game of his first full season.

Mike, a 2002 Wayne High School graduate who was two years ahead of his brother, will watch the game in the visiting fans section with the rest of the Freeman family.

“It’s surreal,” said Mike, who now lives in Austin, Texas, and works as a director of internal audits and compliance for the Veteran’s Administration. “You just never imagined this. When he started coaching, you always knew he eventually wanted to be a head coach. That was something he targeted the moment he got into coaching. He was like, ‘One day, I’m going to be a head coach.’ I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’ When I looked at it, I was like, ‘What about defensive coordinator? You don’t have to worry about the pressure.’ But he’s always had a dream to be the head coach, so we knew it would happen.”

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Explore» PHOTOS: Marcus Freeman through the years

When Jay Minton, who coached the Freeman brothers at Wayne, took a call from the Dayton Daily News last week to talk about Marcus, he opened the conversation by saying, “Great things happen to great people.”

Minton won’t be able to watch the game in person Saturday night. He’s now the tight ends coach on Rick Chamberlin’s staff with the Dayton Flyers, who have a game at Robert Morris on Saturday in Pittsburgh. He’ll turn on the game when he gets home.

“I feel so blessed to have been around people like Marcus and Mike and others like them,” Minton said. “It’s shows why you coach. One of the reasons you coach is to see kids succeed like this.”

Intense focus

As of Monday, Ohio State was favored by 17½ points against Notre Dame. Marcus learned just how big of an underdog his team is during his weekly press conference in South Bend, Ind., on Monday.

“I didn’t know that,” Freeman said. “I’m gonna write that down. You said 17.5 points, right? We’ll use that in a team meeting today. It’s good to know.”

Freeman enters the game with an 0-1 record as a head coach. Brian Kelly left Notre Dame two days after the regular-season finale against Stanford in November. Notre Dame gave the job to Freeman one day later. He was the head coach when the Irish lost 37-35 to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Freeman downplayed his own history going into the game, saying he was “emotionless” about returning to Ohio Stadium. He started 37 games for the Buckeyes and twice made the All-Big Ten second team.

“You spend time wondering what do you have to do to make sure your team is prepared, and that’s what my focus has been,” Freeman said. “It’s all in the preparation. What have we done, and what haven’t we done to make sure this team is prepared? I spend countless hours. That’s all I worry about. Are we preparing the right way? Is this team prepared for what we’re going to encounter Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio? That’s what I’ll spend the rest of this week thinking about.”

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For Freeman, it’s all about the opportunity for his program. It will be the seventh meeting between Ohio State and Notre Dame. The Buckeyes lead the series 4-2 and won the last meeting 44-28 in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016.

“Any competitor wants this,” Freeman said. “You want an opportunity to go and play against the best. There’s no better way to see where we’re at as a football team than to go and say ‘OK, let’s go play one of the best teams in the country.’”

Among the many storylines for Freeman on Saturday is the presence of his former coach, Jim Tressel. Ohio State will honor Tressel, who coached the Buckeyes for 10 seasons (2001-10), and members of the 2002 national championship team Saturday.

Tressel taught Freeman the importance of understanding Ohio State’s traditions and history. He’s carried over that thinking to Notre Dame.

“To me, it’s an appreciation for what you have and an appreciation of where you get to do it at,” Freeman said Monday. “Does it a correlate with winning? I think deep down maybe it does when you love what you’re doing and where you’re doing it and you own it. I say all the time, ‘We’ve got to own it. This is our program. This is our university.’ I think you sacrifice a little bit more for it when things get really hard. That’s my belief in my heart.”

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

Proud brother

Mike Freeman just wants this first game to be over. He’ll be a bundle of nerves rooting for his brother against the team he’ll cheer for in every other game this season. His wife Hannah is a big Ohio State fan, too. In fact, they met at an Ohio State bar in Austin.

Mike expects his parents, Michael and Chong, to get to the game early as they usually do and park in their normal spot. They still often go to Ohio State games, so other than the color of the clothes they’ll wear Saturday, there won’t be much new about this experience.

Eighteen years ago, the Freemans had to choose which brother to watch in Columbus. During Marcus’ freshman year at Ohio State in 2004, Ohio State had a home game against Cincinnati on the same day Mike played across town with Wittenberg University against Capital University.

That was Mike’s senior year. He was an All-North Coast Athletic Conference second-team selection at cornerback as a junior when he had four interceptions. He saw Marcus play against Marshall during Wittenberg’s off week that season, and Marcus came to a game at Edwards-Maurer Field in Springfield to see Wittenberg play Huntingdon College two weeks later.

“I record every game he plays,” Mike said then, “and I talk to him almost every other night during the week and every Saturday night just to see how he played and if he got in.”

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Mike is still his brother’s biggest fan. He talked to the Dayton Daily News last week about Marcus’ coaching journey and then followed up with a text message later to provide more insight on his emotions.

“I’m probably more excited about my brother being the head coach of Notre Dame than anyone on this planet,” Mike wrote, “including my parents. Ha. I just know the work he has put in as a coach in general. Just the late night calls around 11 p.m. driving home to say wassup to a 3-4 a.m. message when he’s already getting his day started. He has been preparing himself to one day be a head coach, and God has blessed him with an amazing opportunity. I am just so excited to see what he does with it, but no matter what the results are, he knows I am there supporting him and proud of him.

“Now i still don’t know what type of emotions i will have come the OSU game. I will probably have some abnormal moments pregame while wearing Irish gear and cheering against OSU (definitely unfamiliar territory). However, nervous or excited, I know one thing: I am going to try my best to take it all in. How often does someone get to say my brother is the head coach of Notre Dame!”

A big thing

Mike and Marcus enjoyed only one full season together in high school on the football field. Mike broke his ankle four games into his junior year in 2001 just as Marcus was starting to break out and get playing time as a sophomore linebacker. In fact, Marcus played so well in the game his brother suffered the injury, that was his turning point, Mike said. That was the moment everyone knew Marcus would be a star.

Freeman became the 31st-ranked recruit in the class of 2004 and picked Ohio State over Notre Dame and Michigan in September 2003. Minton saw the potential of Marcus before his sophomore season.

“If that kid pans out to where he should, man, he’s going to be something else,” Minton told the Dayton Daily News in August 2001.

Twenty one years later, Minton says he thought Marcus would have a long career in the NFL but couldn’t have predicted a coaching career.

“The way Marcus dealt with people even in high school, you knew he was going to be in some business that he dealt with people,” Minton said. “You can see now his personality’s coming out, and it’s fantastic. Everybody loves him. And, it’s true, too. It’s not a facade.”

When Freeman’s pro career was derailed in 2010 when he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart, his coaching career took off. After one season at Ohio State in 2010, he coached two seasons at Kent State, four at Purdue and then four at Cincinnati before joining Kelly’s staff as defensive coordinator in 2021.

Darrell Hazell, who hired Freeman at Kent State, told Marla Ridenour, of the Akron Beacon Journal, before the 2011 season Freeman had an unbelievable future.

“The thing that makes him different is he’s really smart, understands schemes, and he’s got a great connection with the players,” Hazell said then. “He can explain it in great detail so they understand it in the simplest forms.”

Minton crossed paths with Freeman many times when he stopped at Wayne on recruiting visits. Even if he wasn’t actively recruiting a Wayne player, he would stop to say hello. Minton visited a Notre Dame practice in the spring and will send him text messages from time to time, but he knows how busy he is in his new position, so he tries to leave him alone.

Minton knows as well as anyone how big the Notre Dame job is.

“Oh my mercy; oh gosh,” Minto said. “You think way back to Knute Rockne and all those guys and the storied history of that program and to see one of your guys become the head coach there, I don’t think it’s really hit home about what that means to have Marcus as the head coach there. It’s that big a thing. He’s doing a great job. He’s won the whole thing over. Now, obviously, he’s got to win, or else it’ll just be a ‘great guy, great coach, great recruiter but couldn’t win.’ Let’s hope he does that part of it, which is probably the most important part.”

Last season, when Freeman was defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, he told Minton, “This place will change you.”

“Come on, man,” Minton said. “I’m not one of your recruits.”

“I’m not lying to you,” Freeman said.

Minton had never stepped foot on Notre Dame’s campus in all his years in the game, but he visited for the Georgia Tech game in November and realized what Freeman meant.

“There’s just something, a mystique, or I don’t know what you want to call it,” Minton said, “but it just jumps on you. I don’t mean this arrogantly, but I’ve been blessed to be in a lot of places, to see games, but there was something special about that place. Marcus is right.”

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