Why Notre Dame’s Football Coach Tells His Team to “Choose Hard”

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This is a special episode of The CEO Series for me because we took a trip to Notre Dame Stadium where I played football as a walk-on alongside my brother during the undefeated season of 2012. We went to my old stomping grounds to sit down with head coach Marcus Freeman to talk about leadership and how, in many ways, he is the CEO of their incredible program.

Below are some highlights of that conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full video above.

The coach as CEO

“A CEO is in charge of a big company, and my company happens to be Notre Dame football. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for every decision that affects the people in the program and the results that are on the field. So you don’t make every decision, but you’re responsible for every decision. That’s important to make sure you understand. Throughout my coaching career, the greatest satisfaction came from seeing the players you were involved with have success.”

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The celebration video that went viral after he was hired as head coach

“It was a blur. But I remember walking out of that door and seeing the team going crazy — all I wanted to do was hug them. It wasn’t about a speech. It was a chance to celebrate and be with your guys, right? I tell them all the time: I’m a teammate. I might be the captain, but I’m a teammate. I understand the things you’re going through. I’m in this fight with you. And I think they respect that and they understand that. Walking out that door is a moment I’ll never forget and one I’ll cherish forever.”

The meaning of his mantra “Choose Hard”

“It all started a couple of years ago when I was in the Notre Dame weight room and was working out as our players were being pushed hard. And I remember thinking that you can choose to go through the motions or you can choose to go as hard as you can. And that’s when I came up with this thought of ‘Choose Hard.’ We put up a sign you see when you walk into this building that says ‘Choose Hard.’ Because when you walk into Notre Dame football, you’ve got to have that mindset. We’re going to choose hard today in practice, choose hard today in meetings, choose hard today in the weight room. And for the players, you’re going to be challenged in the classroom, right? You’re going to be in class with some of the most intelligent people in this world. And it’s difficult, but ultimately you’ve chosen to come here so choose hard, accept it, and know that the rewards from choosing hard every single day can’t be found anywhere else.”

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Problem-solving philosophy

“When a team isn’t winning, a lot of people say, trust the process. My mantra is: fix the process. I spend a lot of time evaluating everything we were doing. Why aren’t we playing better? What are we doing schematically? Is there something our players don’t understand? Losses happen and it’s a part of life. But they hurt. As a leader, you don’t want to have too many. Fix it with urgency.”

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Retaining players in the age of the transfer portal

“Look, if you’re the CEO of a company, you got to pay your employees, right? Now if they can go somewhere else and make a lot more money, no matter what type of company you’re running, they’re going to probably leave. So we have to make sure that our players can maximize the opportunities of name, image and likeness. That’s important, but what else keeps them at Notre Dame? What else attracts them here? And you’ve got to believe it’s your culture. You’ve got to believe it’s the way they’re treated. Do they enjoy being part of your program? That’s so important. And that’s a message for myself and our other coaches. Let’s make sure that as hard as we push them, as demanding as we are, we are not demeaning. We want them to enjoy being a part of this team and all of the opportunities that the University of Notre Dame provides.”

Check out more profiles of innovative and impactful leaders by visiting The CEO Series archives.