The first official recruit of Marcus Freeman’s coaching career, junior college linebacker C.J. Malauulu, transferred to Kent State in 2011. Malauulu soon realized he drastically underestimated the seismic culture shift that comes with moving from Southern California to Northeast Ohio.
Malauulu showed up on a winter recruiting trip dressed in slippers and shorts, the wind chill welcoming him to a new world. When seeking a burrito after arriving, he was stunned when teammates directed him to Taco Bell. When Malauulu’s teammates held jam sessions, he’d play his ukulele while they strummed country tunes.
“From the culture that I come from, there’s a lot of brown people,” he said. “When I came there, it wasn’t the same. I was a little nervous.”
About a decade before Freeman became the head coach at Notre Dame, he’d just turned 25 as a member of Darrell Hazell’s first Kent State staff in 2011. He took his first recruiting trip as a full-time coach to meet Malauulu in Oceanside, California, and Freeman unknowingly hatched a gameplan of forging deep and indelible relationships that have enabled his meteoric career ascent.
Recognizing the stark cultural differences for Malauulu, Freeman immediately began scouring campus to find anyone of Polynesian heritage. Eventually, he tracked down a custodian of Tongan descent. Malauulu never actually met the custodian, but he recognized Freeman’s extreme effort.
Freeman’s wife, Joanna, would prepare Hawaiian barbecue mix when the Kent players came to his cozy condo and then slip Malauulu a container of leftovers. Freeman later organized the linebackers to perform the Haka, a ceremonial dance with Polynesian roots. They showed more heart than art. “We weren’t exactly looking like the All Blacks out there,” Malauulu recalled with a chuckle, comparing them to…