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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — So Marcus Freeman thought he wanted to be a coach, huh?
Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell shook his head.
It was February of 2010, and Freeman suddenly — and unimaginably — faced a life without football. The former Buckeyes linebacker had been set to sign with the Indianapolis Colts when a routine physical revealed an enlarged heart valve in his left ventricle that made it unsafe to play.
Freeman’s first call was to Fickell.
He wanted in on a life of darkness-to-darkness hours, sleepless nights, and low pay. He wanted to be a college coach.
“First thing [Fickell] said was, ‘Don’t do it. You’re crazy, and you don’t want to do this,’ ” Freeman said. “He tried to change my mind.”
It was no use.
When the fourth-ranked Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) travel to Purdue today, they will find a couple of familiar faces on the home sideline.
Former OSU receivers coach Darrell Hazell turned a two-year stay at Kent State into the top job at Purdue, and he took one of his most trusted young assistants along with him. Freeman, the same player OSU’s seniors once watched from the stands on their recruiting visits to Columbus, is now in his first year as the Boilermakers’ linebackers coach.
The 27-year-old Freeman has transformed from an All-Big Ten linebacker who loved being around the film room to one of the youngest full-time assistants at a BCS program.
Hazell said he expects Freeman to be “bouncing off the walls [today], as he always is.”
Added Freeman: “I would be lying if I said it’s just another game,” Freeman said.
The former three-year starter remains loyal to the Buckeyes and has yet to convert any of his old teammates to Purdue fans.
When James Laurinaitis stopped by his home in West Lafayette last summer, the former All-American linebacker added a “Go Bucks” to his signature on a guest board.
“I wasn’t able to convert him to a Boiler guy,” Freeman said. “He’s still a fan of Coach Hazell, and ourselves, and of mine and Ohio State. Obviously, we’re all fans of Ohio State. I’m a fan of Ohio State when I’m not playing them. I’m the biggest fan there is.”
For now, though, Freeman is a a bigger fan of the school that signs his checks. When the Boilermakers (1-6, 0-3) take the field as a 32-point underdog today, his heart will bleed black and gold.
“It’s about doing what it takes to win,” he said. “That’s the profession we’re in. It’s not fair for me as a coach to not have my guys as prepared as they can to be successful on Saturday.”
Freeman knows this is a business. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round of the 2009 draft and bounced among three teams his first year before being red-flagged by Colts doctors. He spent the 2010 season as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, the next two years as the linebackers coach at Kent State, then followed Hazell to West Lafayette.
Though Freeman counts his near-instant rise to a Big Ten job with a six-figure salary a blessed anomaly, he appreciates why Fickell tried to steer him elsewhere.
“It’s such a selfish profession on your family,” Freeman said. “Being a football coach — period — is something that you must have extreme passion for. ... Same thing here at Purdue. If one of the kids said, ‘Hey, I want to be a coach,’ I would say, ‘No, you don’t. There’s tons of other things that you can do that fulfill you.’
“If they continue to want to do it and want to do it, they have to realize that you are not going to wake up and be a coach at Purdue University.”
As for his future in coaching, Freeman said, “Well, I guess I’m stuck in it now.”
He does not have a teaching degree to coach in high school — his wife, Joanna’s, preference — and joked he is not smart enough to do anything else.
In truth, though, the exceedingly bright Freeman doesn’t want to do anything else.
“As much as I tried to talk him out of it, I couldn’t do it,” Fickell said. “You see why.”
Freeman said coaching is what “fulfills my passion.”
“It’s what I love to do,” he said. “As long as my wife says I can keep coaching, I will.”