Places like Ohio State and Notre Dame rarely hire head football coaches from within. Conservatively, those are two of the 10 best jobs in the sport, and as such they customarily draw some of the most established head coaches in the country as applicants. Between 1946 and 2018, Ohio State had one internal promotion and Notre Dame had two.
Yet when the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish play Saturday in South Bend, the men leading both teams out of the tunnel got those plum positions after serving as coordinators at the schools. They replaced hugely successful former bosses and were tasked with maintaining the machines—if not improving them. Their first college head-coaching jobs came at garden sports in their 30s. (Born on third base, a certain coach in Ann Arbor might say.) They also had mountains of pressure dropped on their relatively young shoulders the minute they took over.
Ryan Day, in his fifth season at Ohio State, has done everything but the two things the fan base ultimately demands from its head coach: dominate Michigan and win a national championship. Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel and Woody Hayes did both. Earle Bruce and John Cooper, who coached the 266 games between Hayes and Tressel, did neither and were tolerated more than revered before ultimately being dismissed. Day replaced Meyer, who merely had a 7–0 record against the Wolverines and won the Big Ten’s only national title of the past two decades (in 2014).
Marcus Freeman, in his second season at Notre Dame, has won over the fan base by being a nicer man than Brian Kelly and doing well in recruiting. His first season was a mixed bag of bad losses and big wins, resulting in a 9–4 record. In due time he will be expected to take the Irish to the College Football Playoff, something predecessor Kelly did in 2018 and ’20, in addition to an appearance in the BCS Championship Game in 2012. (“Due time” roughly translates to pretty damn soon.)
Both Day and Freeman appear to have very good teams this season—teams with a chance to fulfill towering expectations. Ohio State is 3–0 and ranked No. 6 in the country, with a road win over Big Ten opponent Indiana and a couple of walkovers against outmanned opponents. Notre Dame is 4–0 and ranked No. 9, with a three-touchdown win at North Carolina State and a trio of victories over lesser competition.
Winner takes the biggest step forward to date nationally in terms of playoff résumé. Loser is by no means out of playoff contention, but might have to win out the rest of the way against stiff competition. Winning coach has fed the beast for another week. Losing coach is subjected to fan criticism, pessimism and fatalism—he’ll never live up to the last guy.
In terms of being built to win national championships, Day has the better job than Freeman. Ohio State will spare no expense in pursuit of that goal and the football program has fewer constraints placed upon it by campus administration. Coaches use the word “alignment” a lot—loosely translated as the school’s willingness to do whatever the coach asks for—and few places are better aligned than Ohio State.
Yet Day also has a harder job than Freeman when things go poorly. The man’s record is 48–6, which is preposterous, and none of the six losses has come to a team ranked worse than 12th at the time. He’s yet to have a spit-the-bit game against an inferior opponent the way Meyer did against Purdue in 2018, Iowa in ’17 and Michigan State in ’15. He’s also kept the Urbanesque off-field drama at bay, which should count for something.
But his critics are louder than Freeman’s critics so far.
Day is 1–2 against Michigan, with two losses in a row—and both of them were emasculating second-half beatdowns that spurred fan outrage. Day’s Buckeyes were blown out of the 2020 national championship game by Alabama. And they lost a 14-point fourth quarter lead in the CFP semifinals last season to Georgia. If Ohio State loses to Notre Dame Saturday, Day will have lost his last three big games—Michigan, Georgia and the Irish.
Day actually proved more about his coaching and leadership in a loss than at any other point in his tenure with the Buckeyes. His game plan was brilliant against Georgia last season, and his team played with an inspiration and tenacity that had been called into question. That game came down to about four 50-50 plays, and all of them went the Bulldogs’ way. Otherwise, Ohio State would have won the game and almost certainly the national title against TCU.
Even consecutive losses to Michigan by a combined 37 points would have been forgiven in that instance. (By most of the fans.) Day was that close—a few inches, a few seconds—to being on easy street in Columbus. As it is, he’s still hearing from the He’s No Urban Meyer segment of the faithful.
Freeman is fighting up a slightly steeper hill to title contention. Notre Dame hasn’t been able to recruit quite at the level of Georgia and Alabama—and, yes, Ohio State. The school loves being good at football, but loves other things more. (Crazy concept in higher education, I know.) “Alignment” is a slightly tougher fit beneath the Golden Dome.
But Freeman also was allowed to grow through a debut season that might have caused active meltdowns if it happened at his alma mater, Ohio State. Kelly went 44–6 in his final 50 games at Notre Dame, and Freeman took it down a notch from there.
He started 0–2 last year, following a loss to the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe with a stunning debacle against Marshall, which went on to lose to Bowling Green and Troy in its next two games. A few weeks later Notre Dame lost at home to the worst Stanford team of the past 16 years.
With the exception of Tyrone Willingham, who was fired after three seasons on the job after an 10–3 record in his first year, Notre Dame has been more patient with its coaches than most elite football schools. Charlie Weis and Bob Davie each got five years, despite pretty clear evidence after their third season that they weren’t up to Notre Dame standards. Gerry Faust even got five, despite never winning more than seven games and following a national champion in Dan Devine. (The fact that Notre Dame hired the coach of Cincinnati Moeller High School to replace Devine remains one of the weirdest things that ever happened in college football.)
Freeman did the one thing he needed to do during the offseason to set himself up for a better second year: landed a big-time quarterback who could step in right away. Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman has been everything that was expected, ranking third nationally in pass efficiency despite breaking in a group of largely unproven receivers. Hartman might actually be the best Fighting Irish quarterback since Joe Montana in the late 1970s. (The historical competition is surprisingly slim: option QB Tony Rice, Rick Mirer, Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen.)
So the internal promotion coaches face off Saturday night in a fascinating game that will vault one of them forward and send the other into damage control. Born on third base but under the constant pressure of a pickoff throw, they can see home plate from here—can either of them get there?