The new Notre Dame coach met the old Notre Dame players on the second weekend in December. Here was Charlie Weis, a big man with bigger plans and three Super Bowl rings--fast going on four--to back him up. He once had been a Notre Dame student, before learning to coach football the hard way, on high school fields and in darkened video rooms, absorbing both abuse and wisdom from taskmasters like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. This was his room and his moment.
Before him in the locker room at Notre Dame Stadium were the Fighting Irish players, damaged goods in need of repair. They were the latest incarnation of a faded program that had produced just 56 victories in the past eight years and hadn't won a bowl game since after the 1993 season. Some of them were staring down their third head coach (four if you count the five-day tenure of George O'Leary).
They carried their affection for Weis's predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, on one shoulder--"He was almost like a father figure to me, says senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte--and an inflated opinion of their accomplishments on the other. The Irish went 6--6 last fall, including upsets of Michigan and Tennessee and losses to Brigham Young, Boston College and Pittsburgh by a total of seven points. "A lot of guys in the room felt like we were a lot better than 6-6," says junior quarterback Brady Quinn. "It could have been a whole different season." Still stinging from those narrow defeats, on this day they needed a collective hug. They didn't get one.
"Fellas," Weis said to his new players, "you are a 6-6 team. You can say whatever you want. 'We could have won this one, we could have won that one.' Well, 'could have' doesn't mean anything. You are what you are. You don't want your head coach to get fired, win more games."
In his crewcut and his suit Weis kept talking. Somewhere in the middle of his speech he stopped dissing and started selling. He talked about running the Patriots' offense and winning Super Bowls. About getting "nasty" on the field. At one point he told his new charges, "Every game, you will have a decided schematic advantage."
In the back of the room sat Mike Goolsby, a departing player who'd attended the meeting curious to hear the latest new guy. Goolsby thought, The guy is confident. That's something we haven't had around here in a long time. We've won some games here and there. Had some nice performances. But we haven't had confidence.
The parting was ugly, no question about that. On Nov. 27 USC made short work of the Irish, 41--10, and three days later Willingham was fired. Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White was the front man for the dismissal, which had been decided upon by a committee formed by the Reverend John Jenkins, who will take over from the Reverend Edward Malloy as university president on July 1. A week after the firing Malloy appeared on a panel on collegiate sports in New York City and said Willingham's firing had made him "embarrassed" to be Notre Dame's president.
Amid that climate Notre Dame sought a new coach. After first choice Urban Meyer of Utah took the Florida job, Jenkins and White traveled to Providence to interview Weis. They found a man deeply connected to the passions surrounding Notre Dame football. He's an alumnus (class of '78) who spent four years living on the second floor of the 11-story Flanner Hall, watching Notre Dame win a national championship in football and reach its only Final Four in basketball. "I never missed a game," Weis says. "Doesn't get any better than that."
Weis grew up as a sports nut in central New Jersey, playing center at Middlesex High and living and dying with the Giants, Knicks, Rangers and Yankees. After graduating from South Bend, he coached high school in his home state, then worked as an assistant at South Carolina. One afternoon in early February 1989 Weis had lunch with Gamecocks head coach Joe Morrison, who promised him more responsibility and a new contract. A few hours later Morrison dropped dead of a heart attack.
The South Carolina assistants scattered; one of them, Al Groh, landed with the Parcells-coached Giants. Through him Weis got a part-time job analyzing tape for the team. "In the beginning," he says, "it took me 10 1/2 hours to do a game." Now he can break down a game in 90 minutes. The following February, Parcells hired him as defensive quality control and assistant special teams coach--low man on a gifted staff that included not only Parcells but also defensive coordinator Belichick, linebackers coach Groh, offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt and defensive line coach Romeo Crennel, past or future NFL head coaches all. Weis lived alone in a tiny apartment and slept at least two nights a week in his office at Giants Stadium, where his typical workday lasted from five in the morning until well past midnight. "I enjoyed it because I was a fanatical Giants fan," says Weis. "But if you're talking about a life of utopia, this wasn't it."
Especially in the meeting room, where Parcells would regularly humble Weis with withering sarcasm. "Charlie was the whipping boy," says Parcells. "I was the whipping boy once, Belichick was the whipping boy once. Everybody gets to be the whipping boy."
Yet it was a perfect environment in which to learn the game. "From the beginning he could keep a lot of balls in the air," says Belichick. "He was breaking down film for me, for Romeo, for [special teams coach] Mike Sweatman. He's a really smart guy--you could see that from Day One."
The Giants won Parcells's second Super Bowl in January 1991, and barely a month later Weis met his future wife, Maura, at a pub on the Jersey shore. They were married that summer and now have two children: Charlie, 11, and Hannah, 10. (Hannah is globally developmentally delayed, meaning that her motor, social and speech abilities have been slow to progress; in 2003 the Weises started Hannah & Friends, a foundation that has raised nearly $600,000 for underprivileged families with special-needs children.)
Between 1990 and 2004 Weis did the NFL's Northeast corridor tour: three years with the Giants, four years with the Patriots, three with the Jets under Parcells and five back in New England as Belichick's coordinator in three Super Bowl wins. "He has a knack for calling plays, for timing and setting things up," says Belichick of Weis. The Patriots' coach remembers two games in particular: Super Bowl XXXVIII, in which Weis orchestrated the game-winning drive, and January's divisional playoff victory over Indianapolis. "In the Indianapolis game, Charlie was really efficient in terms of keeping our offense on the field and theirs off the field," Belichick says.
Both of those games came after Weis almost died in the summer of 2002. With roughly 340 pounds on his 6'1" frame, he decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery. It was widely reported that he did it to improve his appearance and thereby boost his chances of a head-coaching job. "My father had a heart attack at 51 and died at 56--that's what scared me," says Weis. "Was I concerned with my appearance? Yeah, but I was also concerned with being a fat slob, dropping dead and leaving my wife with two kids, one with special needs."
His wife felt the surgery was impulsive and unnecessary. "It was typical Charlie," says Maura. "He decided to do it, and two weeks later he had the surgery.''
After the surgery Weis was hospitalized for a month with complications from severe internal bleeding. Yet he recovered in time for the Patriots' training camp, where he used a wheelchair and a motorized scooter to get around. He took practice tapes home at night, and quarterback Tom Brady visited every evening after practice. Three years later Weis is down to about 255 pounds, but he has no feeling in the lower part of his right leg and walks with a noticeable limp. He has filed suit against Massachusetts General Hospital.
"I probably should have died," he says, and then pauses for effect and raises his eyebrows. "But I didn't."
Weis may or may not be the right person to lead Notre Dame back to the elite. But he is arriving at a time when some long-standing obstacles to that goal are falling. Willingham and his predecessor, Bob Davie (and even Lou Holtz in his later days in South Bend), were bedeviled by the three-headed monster of substandard facilities, unrealistically difficult scheduling and often too-exacting admissions standards. Glacially, Notre Dame has addressed these issues.
Late this summer the school will unveil the $22 million Guglielmino Athletics Center, a sprawling network of football offices and meeting rooms, along with a recruiting lounge and a 25,000-square-foot conditioning center, which is already in use. The complex brings Notre Dame squarely alongside schools like Oklahoma and Texas in the arms race to attract recruits and make them play better. "I hope it's not a palace," says Jenkins, sheepishly. Well, it's a palace. And it was long overdue for a football program that aspires to greatness.
The schedule has been another problem. During the dark days of his tenure, Davie would pull a copy of future schedules from his desk drawer and place it on the desk as if it were a death sentence. While maintaining independent status and playing a national schedule, Notre Dame has too often loaded its docket with powers from major conferences. Change is in the works. "It's nice to play a Top 10 team every week," says Jenkins, "but it's too much to ask." If the NCAA, as expected, passes legislation permitting teams to play 12 regular-season games a year, Notre Dame will adopt a schedule that will include seven home games, three of which will be against lower-tier teams from BCS conferences or mid-major conference teams--not patsies, but schools that Notre Dame will consistently be expected to beat.
Admissions is a more nebulous issue. Notre Dame famously took a pass on such future stars as 2002 Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer (USC) and T.J. Duckett (Michigan State), but sources familiar with the school's admissions system insist this wasn't because Notre Dame was rejecting all athletes with grades or test scores below the Notre Dame norms; it just made poor choices (in football terms) as to which underperformers to admit. The school has a sterling record of graduating whomever it accepts, and Weis says, "I've found admissions more than willing to work with us."
For now Weis will have to win largely with Willingham's--and even some of Davie's--players. "We have enough here to be very competitive," Weis says. At spring practice he did no coddling. On the first day, his players needed more than a dozen tries to complete eight satisfactory sprints. In the spirit of the Patriots, there will be no individuals, only a team. "He told us that playing like champions means more than touching the sign [in the stairwell leading from the Notre Dame locker room, which reads play like a champion today] on the way out to the field," says senior kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick. Weis built a first-rate Notre Dame staff in January while he was game-planning for the Super Bowl, which should put him in the multitasking Hall of Fame.
The players have also learned that the coach can, indeed, X and O. "He tells you what every player on the field is doing," says sophomore tailback Darius Walker. "Then you watch the tape and it's, like, Man, he knows what he's doing." Quinn has been force-fed the Patriots' offense, a multiple package widely praised for its flexibility, while Weis tries to assess how much the quarterback can handle. If Weis is worried, it doesn't show. "I went into the Jets and New England with Parcells and Belichick, and those situations were much worse than this one," he says.
Malloy, meanwhile, serves out his term across campus, beneath the venerable golden dome in the same modest office where over the 18 years of his presidency he has regularly professed his belief that the university will return to football preeminence. "Hopefully Coach Weis and his staff will be successful," he says. "Only time will tell how quickly he can be successful at the level that some parts of our constituency expect." This is Weis's honeymoon, of course, but at Notre Dame, honeymoons are not what they used to be.