Al Golden to Notre Dame: What are the Irish getting in their new defensive coordinator?
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Six weeks after Marcus Freeman knew he needed help and two days after the candidate Notre Dame’s head coach wanted to fill his former role officially became available, the Irish have their defensive coordinator.
A source told The Athletic that Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden is expected to be Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator, with the hire likely to be made official in the coming days. Golden’s season ended Sunday night after the Bengals lost to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.
Golden had been the top target for weeks, but the NFL playoffs complicated Notre Dame’s pursuit, with Freeman adamant that Golden connect with the Irish defensive staff before moving forward with the hire. Unlike many incoming defensive coordinators, Golden will have to work with a staff already assembled by Freeman, with safeties coach Chris O’Leary and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens holdovers from last season’s staff, plus defensive line coach Al Washington replacing Mike Elston.
Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and Boston College defensive coordinator Tem Lukubu were also high on Freeman’s list, per a source. If the Golden hire fell through — there was concern he could remain in the NFL with the Bengals or move up to a coordinator spot elsewhere — Freeman would have moved quickly with either of those candidates.
Oddly, the first job to open following the tumult of Brian Kelly leaving for LSU was also the last to be filled, after Notre Dame welcomed Washington, Deland McCullough (running backs), Harry Hiestand (offensive line), Chansi Stuckey (receivers), Brian Mason (special teams) and Gerad Parker (tight ends) as new assistants. Parker’s hire was officially announced by Notre Dame on Monday; Freeman and Parker worked together at Purdue and Cincinnati earlier in their careers.
The complexity of Golden’s hire went beyond the football calendar. Freeman wanted experience in the role, something that was noticeably absent in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl collapse against Oklahoma State. But a willingness to run the head coach’s scheme was non-negotiable.
When Freeman arrived as defensive coordinator a year ago, he adapted his terminology to former defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s system. Now he expects Golden to do the same.
“I’m gonna encourage whoever becomes that defensive coordinator, as much as we can keep same as,” Freeman said during bowl prep. “Put it on the defensive coordinator to be able to relearn names and terminology, but don’t put all that stress on the players. Let’s put that on a coordinator. So that’s probably one of the things that I’m going to just demand a little bit of, hey, if we can keep as much same as that they know, it’s going to help them learn whatever new scheme adjustments that we have.”
Golden should have the experience to do that, even if he hasn’t been a defensive coordinator since Freeman was a sophomore linebacker at Ohio State. A former Penn State tight end under Joe Paterno, Golden’s full-time coaching career began coaching linebackers at Boston College (1997-99) and Penn State (2000) before becoming Virginia’s defensive coordinator (2001-05).
From there, Golden became the head coach at Temple, taking over a program so moribund that it had been asked to leave the Big East. Golden opened 1-11 with the Owls but produced 9-4 and 8-4 seasons during his final two years in Philadelphia, which earned him the Miami job in 2011. Golden’s work at Temple was so highly regarded that he was under serious consideration for the Notre Dame job that went to Brian Kelly a year before his departure for Coral Gables.
The Golden experience never worked at Miami: He went 32-25 leading the Hurricanes before being fired midway through his fifth season. He has spent the past six seasons in the NFL as an assistant with the Detroit Lions (tight ends and linebackers) and Bengals (linebackers).
He was also under consideration for the defensive coordinator position at UCLA.
Barring the departure of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees for the NFL — Rees was a serious candidate for the same position at Miami before Mario Cristobal hired Josh Gattis away from Michigan — the first staff of the Freeman era is complete. It took more work than expected for Freeman to get to the finish line considering the advertisement of coaching continuity at the time of his hire.
The six weeks after his debut showed just how much of a learning experience the Notre Dame job may be for a first-time head coach, and Freeman needed to get the pieces right for his first staff no matter how many needed to be replaced. Eventually, the Irish head coach got his staff rebuild over the line.
Much has changed for Notre Dame in the past two months, but Freeman’s process for hiring a defensive coordinator was consistent from the start.
“I want it to happen fast and want it to happen as fast as we can, but I’m not going to take away from the right fit for time,” Freeman said. “That’s the one thing I know. However long it takes to make the right guy, whoever the right guy is, however long that takes, I’m gonna take it. But the sooner the better.”
Now Notre Dame has finally hit that mark.
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