Luke Fickell had one last test for Marcus Freeman, albeit a year after he was done coaching him. It didn't take long for Freeman to recognize the challenge, which pretty much explains the potentially awkward scene that will unfold this Saturday when the former Ohio State linebacker coaches against the Buckeyes at Ross-Ade Stadium.
"I'm a fan of Ohio State when I'm not playing them," said Freeman, in his first year as Purdue's linebackers coach. "I'm the biggest fan there is."
The story goes like this: Freeman's brief NFL foray ended when conditioning tests for the Colts -- who would be his fourth NFL team in a year -- determined that he had an enlarged heart valve. His pro playing career essentially over before it really started, he had already decided what he wanted to do next.
So he followed-up on earlier phone conversations he had had with his Ohio State coaches, and he made the roughly three-hour drive from his physical in Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio, where he was living at the time. He walked into the Buckeyes' football complex the next day to meet with their staff, and he joined as a graduate assistant for the 2010 season.
"Three years later," Freeman said, "I'm here."
Of course, it was hardly that simple for the Boilermaker assistant, who had won four Big Ten titles and played in two BCS title games as a Buckeye from 2004-08. Freeman had long discussions with Fickell and former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock prior to jumping into the business.
"The first thing you try to do is talk them out of it," Fickell said. "Crazy business, a lot of things you give up. Obviously there's things you get. But the No. 1 thing is, especially if you played here and win here, sometimes you think I want to get into coaching because I want to coach at Ohio State. The reality is not every place is like this. The reason I tried to talk him out of it -- if you can't talk them out of it then you know they're fit for the coaching profession. As much as I tried I couldn't do it. You see why."
Freeman loved watching film. He loved the environment at practice. As he became further immersed in his duties at Ohio State, his passion for the profession continued to grow.
And he realized exactly what Fickell was getting at in their initial conversations.
"You want to talk him out of it, because it's such a selfish profession on your family, and it's hard on you as an individual but more so the people that are around you -- your family, your kids, your wife," Freeman said. "Being a college football coach, a football coach period, is something that you must have extreme passion for.
"If one of my players came up to me and said, 'Coach Freeman, I want to be a coach,' I'd say, 'No you don't, there's tons of other things you can do that fulfill you,'" he later added. "But if they continue to want to do it and want to do it, they've got to realize you're not just going to wake up and be a coach at Purdue University. I'm very fortunate and lucky to be where I'm at, and the path to get here is not easy, and you try to let them know, ‘Hey, there's many years and long hours and low pay along that dream to where you want to go.’"
Freeman sounded like some of his older peers in saying that he guesses he's stuck coaching now. He joked that he is not smart enough to get into another field, and that his wife of three years would prefer he coach at the high school level, something he cannot do without a teaching degree. He has been unable to convert any of his former teammates into Purdue fans, saying that fellow linebacker James Laurinaitis signed a chalkboard wall during a summer visit to his new home with "Go Bucks!" And Freeman has willingly conceded that Braxton Miller has eclipsed him as the most successful Wayne High School graduate to play for Ohio State.
Surrendering the shoulder pads for the headset was a difficult adjustment at first, but it was one that had to be made. He has followed former Buckeyes receivers coach Darrell Hazell to Kent State and now to Purdue, and he is hoping to continue a trend in a series that has seen the Boilermakers win three of four in West Lafayette, Ind.
"You have a passion for playing, it's difficult to give up playing because that’s what I've done since I was about 6: I've played football," Freeman said. "I've played youth football, I've played high school football, I've played college football, I've played professional football -- that's all I thought I knew.
"But just like anything else, you adjust and you figure out what's the next thing in your life. And it's almost like I've got a passion for coaching more than I did for playing. I get more excited to coach, and I think it's different because yeah, it's football, but you live through young men and you get fulfilled when you see a young man that you work with and you coached hard go out and be successful. That, to me, is more satisfying than anything I could've done on the field."