Notre Dame announced last week that defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman had been promoted to head coach at the historic program. It was a rare, internal promotion after a drama-filled post-regular season coaching carousel that featured major programs and big names making huge moves. It also meant a familiar, friendly name would be taking the reins in South Bend.
The power vacuum left by the void of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame was interesting for many reasons, but, to Ohio State fans, the fact the top rumored candidates for the role, including Freeman himself, had Ohio State connections made it even more intriguing. Luke Fickell, the former Ohio State nose guard who rose through the coaching ranks in Columbus, would have seemed to be a prime candidate to head to South Bend — especially after the historic season he’s had in Cincinnati.
Then, while more far-fetched (though, was it, really?) there was Urban Meyer who, while never having played at Ohio State, was a grad assistant in Columbus from 1986-87 and, as we all know, coached the Buckeyes from 2012-18.
It makes sense that the prime candidates for one of the hottest vacancies in college football would have connections to Ohio State. After all, Notre Dame wants someone proven, and what better proving ground is there than another elite program? Whether earning a scholarship as a player or a spot on the staff, players and the coaches have to be at the tops of their respective fields to be considered for the Ohio State program — which means others, like Notre Dame, can take advantage of that vetting process.
Having Fickell at the helm in Cincinnati makes it easy to cheer for the Bearcats in the College Football Playoff — especially against Alabama — but there’s more to it than that, especially when it comes to the long game. What does it mean that the head coach of one of the most prominent historical programs in college football cut his teeth with the Ohio State program? What about the fact the first coach to lead a Group of Five school to the College Football Playoff learned his ways in Columbus?
While it would be fantastic if all Ohio State-affiliated talent could stay in Columbus forever, that’s not realistic, and it’s also not a bad thing to expand brand advocates and representatives to new programs.
These incidents are also not isolated ones. With his promotion, the 35-year old Freeman becomes the third former Ohio State defenseman to earn a head coaching position since 2017.
In addition to Freeman and Fickell, there’s also Mike Vrabel. After an outstanding career at Ohio State as a defensive end (he was a two-time Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year), and a professional run that included three Super Bowl rings, Vrabel started his coaching career in 2011 as linebackers coach. As we well know, he moved to the Houston Texans as a linebacker coach and defensive coordinator before being named head coach with the Tennessee Titans in 2018.
As has been well-documented in recent years, Ohio State has built an incredible and reinforcing recruiting engine that continues to generate program success. Churning out first-round NFL Draft picks, winning Big Ten titles and regularly making the College Football Playoff means more top high school recruits sign with Ohio State, which perpetuates the positively reinforcing cycle and builds brand equity for Ohio State as the metrics continue to improve: more championships, more players in the NFL, more Heisman Trophy finalists.
Ohio State, however, hasn’t stopped there. Former Ohio State players are having success in the coaching ranks at both the college and NFL level, which only serves to add to the Buckeyes’ recruiting pitch. Not only are there career opportunities on the sideline, there are also more influential individuals in the football ecosystem who have a connection to the program, and while Freeman and Fickell have their pitches down for their respective roles at Notre Dame and Cincinnati, there will always be pictures of them in Ohio State uniforms — a pitch that stands for itself.
Yes, this argument is perpetuated on a sample size of three. However, there are other rising stars who will get their shot soon. While there’s the obvious fact that Ryan Day did not play at Ohio State, take a look at his coaching staff, which includes wide receivers coach Brian Hartline. Hartline himself played at Ohio State in the mid-2000s and returned to his alma mater in 2017 as a coach. So prolific has been his recruiting in just a few seasons (Jameson Williams transferred to Alabama after he saw limited playing time behind a star-studded receiver room at Ohio State) that Hartline could be the next head coach coming out of the Ohio State staff.
Another thing that’s interesting about the aforementioned coaches is their roles as players at Ohio State, which were relatively recent, especially in the case of Freeman (who also played in the mid-2000s at Ohio State) and Hartline. Again, these two coaches are in their mid-30s, and rapidly rising up the ranks. While Hartline, as mentioned, has not yet gotten the nod for a head coaching role, there is also a pattern of abbreviated coaching experience before getting that top position. Vrabel, the most striking example, had just seven seasons of coaching experience before getting into his current role with Tennessee.
Coincidentally, all these coaches came back to Columbus to learn their coaching craft before earning their new roles. The trend toward younger coaches that we’ve seen in both the NFL and college ranks would tend to favor former Ohio State players, who made names for themselves both as part of championship-caliber teams but also as coaches on an elite staff. Again, there’s limited data here, but the anecdotal evidence is interesting nonetheless.
While it’s easy to think about coaching trees from a classical perspective of head coaches and their former assistants, there’s also an opportunity to think about coaching groups from their own origins — something which builds the brand of the alma mater rather than the coach at the root of the tree.