How Gerard Parker’s promotion is helping Marcus Freeman build Notre Dame in his image

SOUTH BEND, Indiana — A year ago, Marcus Freeman made a statement about Gerard Parker, though few people noticed when he did it.

Back when the Notre Dame head coach filled his first staff, attention turned to who stayed (offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, director of football performance Matt Balis) and who left (defensive line coach Mike) as Freeman’s version of Notre Dame football Elston). began to take shape. Rees turned down Brian Kelly’s offer to join him at LSU for reasons including Notre Dame paying fair market value and Freeman offering his first offensive coordinator more autonomy than his old boss would. The ability to sculpt a staff and edit a playbook appealed to Rees. He brought back offense coach Harry Hiestand, a move supported by Freeman.

But when Rees introduced his nominee for tight ends coach, Freeman didn’t hesitate. He put his foot down. Rees’ candidate had experience as an offensive coordinator and tight ends coaching. So does Freeman. And while Freeman Rees would continue to provide ample offense on the 2022 season, Freeman would not let Gerd Parker get away.

Freeman and Parker had shared a touchline at Purdue for four seasons, a streak that ended with Parker being promoted to interim head coach after the Boilermakers went 9-33 under Darrell Hazell from 2013 to mid-2016. (They went 6-0 with Parker on interim in 2016.) When Freeman moved to Cincinnati the next season to join Luke Fickell’s staff, Parker followed briefly before joining Duke and West Virginia. When the Mountaineers made an offensive coordinator change after the 2021 season, the door opened for Freeman and Parker to reunite. What Rees wanted was less important than what Freeman needed.

“I’ve been fortunate to have trained with Gerad earlier in our careers,” Freeman said at the time. “The energy he brings every day is contagious. It’s part of what makes him a great leader. He is also a very detailed teacher and this combination of skills will make us a better program.”

Parker’s take was neither celebrated nor slammed when it happened, and made headlines mostly as the last piece of the offensive coaching staff. But after Parker’s promotion from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator over the weekend, with a press conference featuring Freeman and Parker scheduled for Monday morning, it feels like something more.

Say what you say about the process Notre Dame used to get to Parker, a search so sideways that athletic director Jack Swabrick sent out an email clarifying Notre Dame’s willingness to play 3 -Paying the million dollar buyout that would have been required to hire Andy Ludwig thereafter the athlete reported a reluctance to participate in arms race spending of this magnitude. Parker wasn’t brought to Notre Dame to make a splash a year ago. He was called in part to add a loyal voice to Freeman in the offensive briefing room and perhaps give Notre Dame an offensive coordinator option after Rees’ inevitable departure.

Parker’s ad may be short in style but long in content. Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator is less a brand and more a manifestation of what Freeman wants with his program. More than anything, Parker is another step in Notre Dame’s journey to a program not only led by, but embodied by, its head coach.

There’s a misconception when it comes to hiring college football that familiar equals lazy, that tapping into a head coach’s network shows a lack of imagination. But talk to coaches who’ve tried to fill in a staff, and the viewpoint changes, even as Kelly was panned for bringing one too many former Grand Valley State colleagues to South Bend. The best head coaches look less for validation than loyalty when they are hired. They are looking for trainers who understand their language and can speak it fluently.

After his freshman year at Vanderbilt, former Notre Dame defense coordinator Clark Lea lost both his coordinators and a handful of position coaches. Prior to his freshman season, he was recommended to defensive coordinator Jesse Minter by the Baltimore Ravens. He had hired the Arizona Cardinals’ David Raih to lead the offensive line, but he hadn’t had much of a relationship with either of them before. Minter proved so good that Michigan hired him last winter. Raih was such a bad fit for the post of offensive coordinator that Lea switched staffs in his first training camp. Raih resigned after the season.

Amid last winter’s staff turnover, Lea hired linebackers coach linebackers coach Nick Lezynski and defensive line coach Larry Black, two colleagues from Lea’s last season at Notre Dame. Neither had much full-time positional coaching experience, but both spoke Lea’s language and stood behind Lea.

“Once you’ve risen to the top seat, you’re totally dependent on the people you hire to be the echo chamber of your message,” Lea said the athlete last year. “You quickly realize that the ability of employees to do this either dilutes the culture or strengthens the culture. And it’s every day, it’s a steady drip.

“In the beginning I felt like if you find qualified people, you can kind of connect them and things will go the way you want them to. What I learned was that it takes a lot more effort into chemistry to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. The chemistry of the employees is reflected in the chemistry of the team.”

Vanderbilt went from 2-10 in Lea’s debut season to 5-7 in his second while nabbing a 26-game SEC losing streak by beating back-to-back Kentucky and Florida.

The improvement Freeman needs to see won’t be as obvious after a 9-4 debut that saw Notre Dame win six of their last seven games, knocked out Clemson at home and edged South Carolina in a thrilling Gator Bowl. The Irish don’t do a tear-down conversion; They’re looking to make the college football playoffs with an offense that should include the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, two future NFL offensive tackles and a wealth of running back talent. That’s the challenge for Freeman and Parker. It’s their chance too.

And starting Monday, Freeman will have absolute confidence in his next offensive coordinator to deliver the results he needs by applying the process he’s demanded, a confidence built by this assistant who has served the head coach for nearly a decade has turned his back.

So no, the Irish haven’t made the biggest name they could, despite Parker having more experience as a Power 5 offensive coordinator than Notre Dame’s last seven OC hirings combined. And yes, the road to this point has not been pretty. What matters most going forward is that Freeman makes Notre Dame football more his own by hiring coaches who understand what he wants with this program. To that end, Parker brings more to the table than the reaction to his promotion suggests.

You just have to know how to look at it.

(Photo courtesy of Matt Cashore) How Gerard Parker’s promotion is helping Marcus Freeman build Notre Dame in his image

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