Florida's Weis enjoying serendipity of surprisingly ideal situation
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- From the moment the news leaked that Charlie Weis would leave the Kansas City Chiefs for the University of Florida, everyone began looking for reasons. Why would a successful NFL offensive coordinator -- a former head coach at Notre Dame, no less -- leave an NFL job at which he'd been quite successful to hold the same position at the college level?
The problem with the question is that it seeks a football reason for a family decision.
Had Weis stayed in Kansas City, his family would have been split into three camps. His son, Charlie Jr., will graduate high school in May and head to college. Meanwhile, Weis and wife Maura had decided it would be best if she and daughter Hannah moved back to the family's home in the South Bend area to help prepare Hannah for her slow transition to the nearby farm run by Hannah and Friends, the nonprofit Charlie and Maura Weis founded to help children and adults with special needs. Hannah, who turns 16 next month, has a rare seizure disorder called electrical status epilepticus during slow-wave sleep. The disorder has affected her development -- she has about a 50-word vocabulary -- and she'll have special needs for the rest of her life.
So when freshly hired Florida coach Will Muschamp called in December and asked Weis if he wanted to return to college as a coordinator, Weis had an idea.
Despite his best efforts, Weis has been unable to disabuse Charlie Jr. of his desire to become a football coach. "I've done all I can to try to talk him out of doing it," Weis said. Weis and son agreed Florida would be as good a place to chase that dream as any. So while the elder Weis runs the offense, the younger one will attend school and learn the coaching profession by doing some of the least glamorous jobs the program has to offer. "People don't realize the amount of time you spend away from your family," Muschamp said. "You spend more time with other young men than you do your own. When you have an opportunity to have your son be involved, it's a good way to connect."
Maura, meanwhile, keeps horses and loves to ride. Weis reminded her that 30 miles south of Gainesville is Ocala, an equine haven bounded by split-rail fences and covered with rolling pastures. As luck would have it, Ocala also has an excellent special-needs school that is perfect for Hannah. Weis couldn't believe his luck when he visited the school. He had looked in much larger cities and hadn't found one that fit Hannah so well. So Maura and Hannah will be snowbirds. When the temperature dips in Indiana, they'll come to Florida to live at the Ocala farm Weis picked out earlier this month.
So while everyone has been wondering if staff friction or some other competitive factor chased Weis from Kansas City and the NFL, Weis has been busy enjoying the serendipity that will allow him a job he loves, time with his son and a perfect situation for his wife and daughter.
"Everyone wants to look for some different agenda," Weis said. "But why does there have to be a different agenda than having things fall just right for your family later in your career?" When football coaches change jobs, we usually examine their decision through a football prism. We forget that they usually ask the same question we do when we consider changing jobs: Will this make my spouse and children happy?
Still, it's hard to accept that a guy who won Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots and was the head coach at Notre Dame can be happy taking orders from someone else at the college level. This has to be a ploy just to get back into a head-coaching gig, right? Weis will never say never. Nor should he. But he will say this:
"I could see myself ending up here," Weis said. "I could see myself retiring in Ocala. ... I'm buying. Not renting."
Of course, Weis wanted to retire in South Bend after several decades of service to his alma mater. That didn't work out. Even when he led Notre Dame to BCS bowls in his first two years, he rubbed people the wrong way. When the Fighting Irish descended into mediocrity the next three seasons, mild dislike of Weis turned into outright hatred.
Asked to name his chief regret from his tenure at Notre Dame, Weis didn't mention any of the losses. "My biggest disappointment," he said, "is that I didn't finish what my initial intent was." And what was that intent? "For people to say, 'That guy did it the right way.' I felt that's what I was trying to do -- to do it the right way," Weis said. "But unfortunately, if you don't win enough games, all that other stuff ... does not become the priority. That's not a complaint. That's just the cold, hard facts."
In a more relaxed setting, Weis seems nothing like the confident-bordering-on-arrogant tyrant who lorded over those stiff press conferences at Notre Dame. He's genuine. He tells great stories. He makes fun of himself. He frets over the "honey-do" list he knows his wife is about to send. He certainly is confident, and his intelligence is obvious. Being the Notre Dame coach requires a larger-than-life personality, and when Weis' personality got magnified by the job, that intelligence came off as condescension. It translates far better in a casual setting. He might very well be the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't seem determined to let everyone know it.
Weis' penchant for playing small rooms should have been obvious from his recruiting success at Notre Dame. It also shows in some of his recruiting failures. Weis clashed quite often with former Gators coach Urban Meyer on the recruiting trail. As a result, Gainesville is crawling with players who developed a rapport with Weis in high school. They liked him so much, in fact, that some have had a hard time facing him years after they turned down his scholarship offer. That's especially true of two Gators who originally committed to Notre Dame and wound up signing with Florida. "[Defensive tackle] Omar Hunter avoided me like the plague," Weis said. "As a matter of fact, [former Florida defensive end Justin] Trattou just sucked it up and got enough nerve to come into my office today. He's getting ready for the draft, but today was the first time he got enough nerve to pop his head in."
Weis may be incorrectly pegged as a pro guy, because he loves to recruit. While at Notre Dame, he seethed when the NCAA forbade coaches from visiting schools during the spring evaluation period. Now, he'll be unleashed in May. "I'm not the head coach. And I'm not the head coach in waiting," Weis said with a smile. "That means I can get on the road. So I'm dialed up five days a week for the month of May." Muschamp noticed immediately that Weis had the recruiting bug, and he believes Weis' past will help him gain an audience with most prospects. "You open so many doors with instant credibility and name recognition," Muschamp said. "In recruiting, it's about building trust and relationships. If you can get the door open, it's a lot easier to build the trust and relationships."
Before he can begin chasing the next generation of Gators, Weis will spend the spring trying to rebuild an offense that imploded in Meyer's final season. When spring practice opens Wednesday, Weis will try to reboot senior quarterback John Brantley, a former national high school player of the year who threw for 2,061 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his first year as the starter. "You've got a fifth-year senior who, on the hoof, looks like a pure dropback quarterback, that was playing in a spread offense," Weis said. "It's not a natural fit. That's not an indictment of John or the previous staff. It's just reality."
Weis, who turned Brady Quinn from an average college passer into a first-round draft pick, believes the problem has nothing to do with Brantley's arm. It's in his head. "A guy coming off a year where your interceptions are way too high and your touchdown passes are way too low, the first thing you have to do is work on their confidence," Weis said. "Because nothing else really matters. If you can't get the quarterback to be confident in his own abilities and lead the team, then you have no chance."
Weis believes Brantley can salvage his confidence. He has seen Brantley carry himself like a leader in offseason workouts. Trey Burton and Jordan Reed, who split time with Brantley last season, have moved to different positions. Brantley will compete this spring with freshman Jeff Driskel and redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy, and Weis said Brantley will get the first crack at the starting job. "He starts off first because of seniority," Weis said. "If he's the best guy, he'll play. If he's not, he won't."
Weis probably will have the most input in that particular decision, but unlike at his last college job, he can now be vetoed. Weis accepts that. Even though he has led a prestigious program, he never wants to undermine Muschamp. "It'll never happen," Weis said. "Never. Never is a long time, but it'll never happen." Instead, Weis hopes he can be a sounding board, and he'll gladly offer any advice as Muschamp negotiates the land mines every first-time head coach encounters. Muschamp, meanwhile, hopes Weis will challenge his thinking on occasion. "I don't want a bunch of yes guys," Muschamp said. "I don't want a bunch of guys to agree with everything I say."
Monday, Weis planned to take Charlie Jr. -- who was visiting his future home for spring break -- to see the family's new house in Ocala. Maura will see it in person soon, but after seeing "about 2,000 pictures," Weis' real estate purchase already has spousal approval. Last week, Weis paid a visit to Hannah's new school to make absolutely sure it will suit the child he has called the family's "guiding angel."
Wednesday, Weis will take the practice field for the first time as a college coach since his firing at Notre Dame in 2009. Even if his move seems curious to those who don't know him, he has everything he wants. He doesn't know if his course will get diverted again, and he'll never say never, but the longtime quarterback guru feels comfortable looking deep.
"I could see us happily ending our career at the University of Florida," Weis said. "Hopefully, it'll be happy for everyone -- not just for me."