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Marcus Freeman’s surprising rise at Notre Dame was also predictable

Notre Dame Coach Marcus Freeman will lead the Fighting Irish against Ohio State on Saturday (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune/AP)

Lately certain citizens around southwest Ohio in the Dayton north suburb of Huber Heights have known a jumbled feeling that can be described as deeply human. It might have found its best wording in an email from A.J. Lash, who played quarterback at Wayne High around there two decades back.

“Definitely disbelief,” Lash wrote, “but I am not surprised at all.”

It goes something like this: Somehow, Lash’s former high school teammate Marcus Freeman keeps turning up on TV at the mere age of 36 as the new coach at Notre Dame. And this: Well, of course Lash’s former high school teammate Marcus Freeman keeps turning up on TV at the mere age of 36 as the new coach at Notre Dame.

It’s startling and also so very much not.

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Yeah, it’s weird that the schedule, in an act of schedule puckishness, would place Freeman’s regular season debut Saturday night at Ohio State, where he attended and played linebacker from 2004 to 2008. The two titans agreed upon this rare meeting (and another in 2023) long ago in 2014, while Freeman coached linebackers at Purdue.

It’s further weird that amid all its fresh realities, college football has reached an era when a big recruit choosing caps at one of those ritual school-gym ceremonies might wind up coaching the team from one of the caps in front of him — except not the cap he chose. That dates from Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003, when hundreds packed a Wayne gym to see Freeman pick the Ohio State cap over the Michigan cap and the Notre Dame cap while telling Mark Gokavi of the Dayton Daily News, “I wanted to give Michigan and Notre Dame respect.”

Nowadays, there’s Freeman up there in South Bend on Monday speaking fluent head coach in the weekly news conference. Like so many coaches through time, he’s a compelling story who tends to avoid the idea he’s a compelling story. Nine months after Notre Dame lifted him from defensive coordinator to replace Brian Kelly, Freeman starts off with phrases such as “establish a run game offensively,” “take care of the football,” “be disciplined in what we’re doing defensively,” “multiple different fronts” and “got to be superior in our special teams play.” He says, “You don’t have to change to head coach. You’ve got to be who you are.”

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He awaits his return to the famed Horseshoe like, yeah, not really all that self-interested: “Again, I’m pretty, right now, emotionless about going back to Ohio State, but more it’s like about — the emotions you have is like, man, we get to go play a great team, right? You get to go play in a great, hostile environment.”

Somehow, that’s the same guy from two decades ago …

Well, of course that’s the same guy from two decades ago …

“He was so genuine,” said Mike Fernandez, whose 30-plus years coaching track and field at Wayne included coaching Freeman, a source of immense pride. “It’s probably cliche to say, ‘That’s just how he was,’ but he really was.”

In so many towns and so many years, there’s that player who remains a minor yet whom everyone pegs as a future coach. It doesn’t mean he’ll make it to the helm at Notre Dame after his boss exits to the recruiting gold mine of Louisiana, but it also doesn’t mean it’s implausible.

“He’s that kind of natural leader,” said Gokavi, who writes at Colorado State nowadays and wrote often about those Wayne teams of Freeman et al. “You see it in sports, you see it in other places in society, where somebody talks and you’re thinking, ‘People want to follow that guy.’”

The second of the two sons of an American father and Korean American mother who met in Seoul during the father’s 26 years in the Air Force, Freeman starred — as much as Americans let linebackers star — at Wayne, which had been the high school of Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders, whose “Last Splash” record filled many an early-’90s ear. Gokavi remembers Freeman as “nice, polite, smart,” as seeming “older than he was,” as “funny” like a grown man but also “self-deprecating” like a grown man. Gokavi wrote back then about Freeman’s capacity to wink, about his chronic but unserious self-reference as “The Deuce,” an homage to his jersey number. (“The Deuce is here,” he would say upon arrivals, as chum Alex Pruitt told it to Gokavi.) Freeman went from chubby in eighth grade to athletic in ninth because, he put it then, “I got taller, and my weight stretched out.”

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Gokavi’s writings tell of an untold versatility that might befit any head coach of any sport. “Freeman is also a capable punter,” Gokavi wrote at one point. He also blocked at least one of somebody else’s punts. He also could play some fullback if asked. He could, as Gokavi quoted then-coach Jay Minton, bench-press 420 pounds, squat 625, hang-clean 335, leap 33 vertical inches and run a sub-4.5 40 yards. He served as both linebacker and director, sometimes deciphering opponents’ plays and making most of the tackles. “He was lining up people when he was on the field,” Gokavi said. “He was pointing or telling people.”

Still more: He finished 13th in the state in the shot put in 2003, per Ohio records. He would have contended in 2004 had he not left for Columbus and football that winter. “He also, believe it or not, ran on my state relay in the 4-by-100,” Fernandez said. “What a uniqueness in his speed and strength.”

And if the College Football Playoff committee ever decides to break a voting tie by having competing head coaches throw the discus, Notre Dame is in.

It was obvious he would end up heading a kingdom such as Notre Dame.

It’s surreal he ended up heading a kingdom such as Notre Dame.

It makes such sense. Fernandez: “He’s a student of everything.” And: “There’s no secret why he gets those recruits.” Lash writes that Freeman remaining the same guy makes all this less strange. “If I text him,” Lash writes, “he will text right back or he will call me when he is free usually after 10 p.m. lol because he is soo busy.” And of course, there’s no way the Freeman whom Lash knows would revel like some diva in his own return to Ohio State because of course he would be “totally focused on making sure his team is ready” and so, “I don’t think it will hit him as far as the magnitude until possibly he gets off that bus from the team hotel!!”

Yet sometimes those long since in-the-know look at Freeman videos channeling Knute Rockne or “The Hangover” and marvel it’s the same him, Fernandez said. And there was that big day in December when it all came true. Lash, who works these days at Wayne and coaches wide receivers there, heard the rumors. Notre Dame named Freeman as Kelly’s successor. Notre Dame’s players exulted in that well-circulated video. Lash got home. He turned on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.”

“And my mouth just kind of dropped like WOW!!” he wrote. “Soo unbelievable.”

It was bizarre while, of course, sensible.