DAVE WANNSTEDT looked at his schedule last week and saw that he had been penciled in for an appearance at Pitt's bonfire rally two days before the football team's season opener against Notre Dame. "Bonfire?" said Wannstedt, the Panthers' new coach. "I haven't been to a bonfire in 35 years." That's one difference between running a college program and coaching in the NFL, which Wannstedt had done for the last 16 years.
But other than that, he and Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis--also making his debut as a college head coach, after 15 years as an NFL assistant--might have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between Notre Dame's 42-21 demolition of Pitt at Heinz Field last Saturday and their recent experiences in the pros. Just as he did in helping the New England Patriots win three of the last four Super Bowls as offensive coordinator, Weis watched a quarterback named Brady coolly execute the game plan that Weis had given him, operating a balanced, efficient offense that left its opponent looking flummoxed. From the other side of the field Wannstedt surveyed wreckage all too reminiscent of his dispiriting Sundays last season as the Miami Dolphins' coach. The only bit of good news was that he didn't have a ganja-puffing running back skip out on him at the last minute.
Judging from the opener, the Fighting Irish are much further along in their efforts to regain their past prominence than the Panthers are, which is somewhat surprising because it had seemed that Pittsburgh's short-term outlook was more promising. Although Pitt is no longer the elite program it was in the 1970s and early '80s, Wannstedt is working with the core of a team that was 8-4 last season and went to the Fiesta Bowl. Also, the Panthers can take advantage of playing in a Big East weakened by the defections of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC.
Weis, on the other hand, is trying to revive a program that hasn't won a bowl game since 1994 yet still has a significant number of boosters who seem to expect every season to produce a national title and every coach to be another Rockne. It was that mentality that cost Weis's predecessor, Tyrone Willingham (21-15 in three seasons), his job and spurred the school to turn to a favorite son in Weis, Notre Dame class of '78.
When Weis took over, his message to quarterback Brady Quinn was the same one he gave to his former protégé in New England, Tom Brady: "Don't think. I'll do the thinking. You just run the plays." Quinn did that exceptionally well against Pittsburgh, finishing with Tom Brady--like passing numbers: 18 for 27 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. But the stats alone didn't do justice to how well he guided the Irish offense. At times Quinn even looked like the other Brady; in the first quarter, for instance, he deftly slipped away from the rush and flipped a screen pass to tailback Darius Walker, who dodged defenders and ran 51 yards for a touchdown. "I just put my trust in Coach Weis," Quinn says. "We know if we just put forth the effort, he'll take care of the rest. With his track record we'd be crazy to question him."
The Irish defense, expected to be vulnerable because it has only three returning starters, was surprisingly stout after the Panthers' opening drive, which ended with a 39-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tyler Palko to wide receiver Greg Lee. "By halftime our players were starting to realize they're better than they thought they were," Weis said afterward. "That's what I've been trying to tell them."
When Weis was hired he bought a house in Granger, Ind., from former Irish coach Bob Davie, who went 35-25 before being fired after the 2001 season. Perhaps to offset that potential bad karma, Weis also dined with two much more successful former Notre Dame coaches, Ara Parseghian (95-17-4) and Lou Holtz (100-30-2); he appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly to be anointed by Irish backer Regis Philbin; and he brought in famed walk-on Dan Ruettiger, a.k.a. Rudy, to give the players a motivational talk. But all Weis really needed were the plays and formations he carried on a piece of cardboard last Saturday, a script that Irish fans may one day regard as holy writ. Wannstedt's defense seemed powerless to contend with Notre Dame's occasional five-receiver sets, its slip screens and, once the Irish took the lead, its punishing offensive line. "I must not have done a good enough job of preventing our guys from reading newspapers and magazines and thinking we were a little further along than we are today," Wannstedt said. "This is not the team we'll be when we play West Virginia in Week 11."
The disappointed Pitt fans are no doubt willing to take the long view with Wannstedt since he is not only a former offensive lineman for the Panthers but also a native of Pittsburgh. While Weis is a self-described "Jersey guy" who found his way to Notre Dame as a teenager, Wannstedt's roots take firm hold in the western Pennsylvania soil. He grew up six miles from the Pitt campus, and the football team's practice facility sits on the land once occupied by the Jones & Loughlin steel plant where, during breaks from high school and college, Wannstedt worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift with his father. He usually got home in time to sneak in a quick nap before heading over to campus to hit the weight room.
It's not hard to imagine Wannstedt's telling that tale in the homes of prospective recruits in the area. He knows his success will depend heavily on his ability to mine the fertile ground from which he came, and he quickly made it a priority. In the first meeting of his coaching staff, he pulled out a map and drew a circle extending about 300 miles from the Pittsburgh campus in all directions. He told his assistants that if they kept enough talent from leaving their own backyard, they could eventually compete for a national title. The early returns are promising: Among Pittsburgh's 17 oral commitments for 2006 are 12 prospects from western Pennsylvania, including a nationally ranked tight end (Nate Byham of Franklin) and wide receiver (Dorin Dickerson of Imperial), which is why recruiting gurus say the Panthers are on their way to one of the top classes in the country. "Last year Michigan had three players from western Pennsylvania starting on defense," Wannstedt says. "That's what we can't let happen."
The Panthers' performance against the Fighting Irish makes it clear that Wannstedt has even more pressing concerns. Notre Dame dominated Pitt along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, a situation Wannstedt will have to rectify before reinforcements arrive. "There's work to do," he said, rubbing his face with both hands. "But one game doesn't determine the course of your season. I don't think the guys in the other locker room are celebrating too much over being 1-0."
He was right about that. Weis was far from satisfied, as was his 12-year-old son, Charlie Jr., who walked with him from the field to the locker room following the victory. "The first thing he said to me after the game was 'Sloppy second half, Dad,'" Weis said. "He hammered me right off, just like always. Some things never change."
Considering the way things have gone for Weis lately, why would he want them to? --Phil Taylor