Former Notre Dame All-American, first-round draft choice, seven-time Pro-Bowler and future NFL Hall-of-Famer Zack Martin hanging around the current Irish offensive line is not a new development.
With the return of Harry Histand as Notre Dame’s offensive line coach, it’s not uncommon for his devoted disciples to pay a visit to their alma mater to reconnect with the touchstone of modern-day Irish offensive line play.
Many others will follow Martin back to Notre Dame, and not just those who came under the tutelage of Hiestand. First-year Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman is on a mission to not only acknowledge the Irish players of the past, but to usher them back onto campus whenever they wish, particularly during the excitement and pageantry of the fall football season.
“When I was being recruited by Notre Dame, they did a great job of incorporating all the tradition,” said former Irish linebacker Wes Pritchett, the leading tackler on the 1988 national championship squad under the direction of Lou Holtz.
“Lou kept that going. Players would always come back and he would open practice. I never really had a lot of interaction with Brian Kelly. I just knew him from afar.
“Marcus Freeman is getting back to the core of what made Notre Dame so great – love for the school, tradition, past players, commitment, trust…all that stuff that Lou talked about.”
Freeman didn’t attend Notre Dame, but he seriously considered choosing the Irish as a linebacker out of Ohio before ultimately picking Ohio State. He understood what Notre Dame offered to a student-athlete, which was enhanced by nearly a year on campus as defensive coordinator.
Tack on a relationship with former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock in Cincinnati and Freeman’s rapid ascent to the head-coaching position at Notre Dame is accompanied by a bit of a running start heading into the windstorm that awaits him.
Most of his decisions thus far have impacted those in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex where the day-to-day operation takes place. But he’s been thinking beyond the Notre Dame doors. His hiring rallied an overwhelming majority of Irish fans and has prompted Freeman to spread the love with the worthiest of all – the former players.
“They built this place,” Freeman said. “For any person to come in here and act like this is about one person, you’re crazy.
“It’s about the people that have come and bled that have built Notre Dame to be the place it is. This is their home and it will always be their home. I want to make sure that it’s clearly communicated that they’re always welcome back here.
“They’re the reason we’re at the position we’re in. I only think it’s right to make sure those guys know it’s always an open door for them here.”
Shortly after Freeman was named Kelly’s successor, he created a “state of the union address” between him and the former Irish players, many of which were part of the Holtz era that flourished from 1988-93 when the Irish were 64-9-1 with six straight major bowl appearances and a national title.
Freeman is in steady communication with the sagest of all living Notre Dame football counselors — Holtz. Chris Zorich was one of the first to embrace the hiring of Freeman as head coach. He was in attendance for the announcement on Dec. 3. Jerome Bettis is finishing up his degree this semester at Notre Dame. He’s spoken to the team and has periodic visits/meetings with Freeman.
After getting the ball rolling with a couple of Zoom calls to rally the former troops, Freeman is expected to conduct a virtual meeting once a month.
“Right out of the chute, he said, ‘I want to incorporate the ex-players,’” Pritchett said.
A flood of former players are expected at Notre Dame for the Blue-Gold Game as Freeman accelerates the process of pulling the Notre Dame football alumni together.
“He’s created a whole spring game weekend,” Pritchett said. “We come in on Thursday. There’s a cocktail party on Thursday night, a golf tournament Friday, a meeting with all the players in an interactive kind of thing one of those days.
“He wants all the players to come down on the field and be on the sideline for the Blue-Gold Game. This is powerful.”
Freeman, appreciative of the positive feedback he’s received from the former players, says he’s not looking for a pat on the back for doing what already should have been done. He’s asking for their participation.
“They like hearing there’s an open door, but I don’t need for somebody to say thank you,” Freeman said. “Just come back. Thank me by coming back and being around our players. That’s all I hope they do.”
It’s difficult to quantify the advantages gained from former Notre Dame players having a dialogue with current Notre Dame football players. But like most Notre Dame students in general, Notre Dame football players tend to have success in their careers after their football careers. That can only lend valuable perspective to the current players.
“Coach Freeman said to us, ‘I want the players to understand what the opportunity at Notre Dame is for them outside of football,’” Pritchett said. “He’s telling them, ‘These are the guys who played. These are the guys who can give you advice. These are the guys in the business world.”
It’s all part of what made Freeman feel a positive vibe from Martin’s presence with the Notre Dame offensive linemen Saturday.
“The power of the Notre Dame network is you’ve got a guy like Zack Martin coming around for practice,” Freeman said. “Zack Martin gives back to the current players. So you’ve got those current players getting information from one of the best to do it.
“That’s what you want to create, that network of guys that have done it at the level, everybody, in here wants to do it. Guys that are not only successful in football, but in business and life. They’re coming back and they’re paying it forward to our current players.”
Pritchett believes former Irish players will flock back to Notre Dame.
“On a scale of one to a hundred, we were at a one,” said Pritchett, referencing the closed doors prior to Freeman’s hiring as head coach.
“Now we’re at 85. Where this could go is all very positive in my opinion. Marcus Freeman is just being Marcus Freeman. It comes naturally to him.”