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Notre Dame coaching search: Candidates to replace Brian Kelly in South Bend

The winningest coach in program history is gone, and the Irish now have to replace him.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame
Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman looks on during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are unexpectedly in the middle of a coaching search this offseason, after the LSU Tigers managed to lure Brian Kelly away on a 10-year, $95 million contract. Kelly was the winningest coach in program history and had taken the Irish to a national championship game and the College Football Playoff twice. He take a career record of 263-96-2 to Baton Rouge, with stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame.

Irish AD Jack Swarbrick claims he was not surprised by Kelly’s decision, and the money is substantial. However, it’s rare to see coaches at big-time college football jobs leave for other big-time college football jobs. That’s already happened twice this offseason. Kelly leaves with Notre Dame still in contention for College Football Playoff, so the timing certainly isn’t ideal for the Irish. Here are some candidates who could replace Kelly at Notre Dame.

Marcus Freeman - Notre Dame defensive coordinator

Notre Dame hasn’t named an interim coach yet, but it’s expected the defensive coordinator will take over the remainder of the season. Kelly has reportedly asked Freeman to join him at LSU and he’s likely to leave unless the Irish give him the lead job. Freeman has been at Notre Dame for just one season, and spent time as defensive coordinator at Cincinnati prior to landing in South Bend. He’s considered a rising star in coaching circles but the Irish might be hesitant to go with a first-time head coach.

Luke Fickell - Cincinnati head coach

The big problem here is timing, although the Irish will also be in CFP contention so they have no real reason to hurry in naming a head coach. Notre Dame is only really competing with Oklahoma in this search, as USC, LSU, Florida and Virginia Tech have all named head coaches. Fickell reportedly wants to stay at Cincinnati and in the Midwest, but this would be a job he’d have a hard time passing up. The Irish went to Cincinnati before to get Kelly, and Fickell would be an easy sell for the fanbase and boosters. The only question is whether he wants to leave the Bearcats.

Matt Campbell - Iowa State head coach

It’s been a less than stellar year for Campbell, who came into the season with what many expected to be a top-10 team. Turning Iowa State into a contender on the gridiron is no joke though, and Campbell does have good relationships in the Midwest. He also had a successful run at Toledo, so he’s got multiple success stories under his belt. If the Irish want someone with a track record as a head coach, Campbell would be the pick.

Tommy Rees - Notre Dame offensive coordinator

Freeman is getting a lot of shine and rightfully so, but Rees is the current coordinator to watch closely as a sneaky candidate. He’s part of the Notre Dame family, having spent four years there as a successful quarterback. He’s been a quarterbacks coach in South Bend since 2017, adding offensive coordinator duties in 2020. Rees has more experience under Kelly and has been part of both of Notre Dame’s CFP teams.

Mike Macdonald - Michigan defensive coordinator

Macdonald admittedly doesn’t make much sense, because the Irish would likely stick with Freeman if they were comfortable going the coordinator route. However, the Michigan defensive mastermind does have NFL ties, spending time on that side of the ball the Baltimore Ravens from 2014-2020. He’s also from Georgia, which is a recruiting hotbed. As an out-of-left-field candidate, Macdonald fits the bill.