It was a sultry August day, and first-year Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was out of sorts. In a passing drill quarterback Brady Quinn had just ignored an open receiver nearby, chucking the ball deep instead. When the pass fell incomplete, Weis stopped practice. "You know what, Quinn?" he barked, according to several witnesses. "This is why, for your entire frickin' life, you're going to be a 50 percent passer." He started to walk away, then stopped to repeat himself: "Your entire frickin' life." ¬∂ Eight games into the Weis Era, the man with the flattop has been proved wrong. Quinn has connected on 195 of his 299 passes for the 6-2, seventh-ranked Fighting Irish--a completion rate of 65.2%--with 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions. While a number of players in college football have undergone extreme makeovers this season (box, page 58), none has improved more dramatically than Quinn, who has gone from a 6'4", 231-pound tower of mediocrity to a Heisman candidate and likely first-round pick in the 2007 NFL draft. ¬∂ In leading his team to a 41-21 win over reeling Tennessee last Saturday (a game dubbed the catholics vs. the clampetts on T-shirts worn by wiseass Notre Dame undergrads), Quinn completed 20 of 33 passes for 295 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was, by his new standards, a so-so game. He is a different player this season--as Weis knew all along he would be. ¬∂ It's a good time to be Weis. The week that ended with a victory over the toughest team remaining on Notre Dame's schedule had begun with the announcement that the university had added five more years to the coach's original six-year contract. While the windfall struck some as premature, considering that Weis had won all of five games, it was necessary, school officials said, to prevent negative recruiting by rival coaches who would claim that Weis, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, was likely to jump back to the NFL at any moment. ¬∂ While he significantly increased his net worth, Weis remains a tad miserly with his praise. Asked what he thought of strong safety Tom Zbikowski's pair of scores against Tennessee--the Golden Gloves boxer from the Chicago area nearly KO'd the Vols single-handedly, returning a punt and an interception for touchdowns--the coach deadpanned, "He lifted my spirits."
Weis has been slightly less stingy in his praise of Quinn, whom he has described several times as "all-day tough." That's an excellent quality in, say, a pickup truck or a deodorant, but what does it mean in a quarterback? Is Weis talking about the time Quinn fractured his foot during a high school game but refused to come out? Or is he referring to the way Quinn peeled himself off the turf after the scores of savage shots he absorbed in his first two seasons as a starter?
"I think he's talking more about the mental aspect," says the unassuming Quinn, a chiseled former catalog model from serendipitously named Dublin, Ohio. "Someone who's mentally tough all day long." Someone capable, in other words, of enduring the verbal fusillades of Weis, whose vast football knowledge is not matched by a deep reservoir of patience.
If Weis has been the toughest, most caustic coach Quinn has ever played for, the quarterback can expect little sympathy from his mother. "Charlie," says Robin Quinn, a striking woman with a direct gaze, "is exactly what Brady needed at this point--in every respect." To chat with her is to realize that she has a bit of Weis in her. While each of the three children she and Ty Quinn brought into the world is exceptional--Brady's older sister, Laura, a senior at Cal State--Los Angeles, is an aspiring sportscaster; his younger sister, Kelly, is a freshman forward on Virginia's seventh-ranked soccer team--none was coddled. Among the sports that young Brady dabbled in before settling on football was wrestling. One day when he was six or seven, after a particularly grueling match, he informed his parents he was finished with the sport. "When this season is over," Robin promised, "you'll never have to wrestle again for the rest of your life," but he would finish the season. "Quinns," she told him, "don't quit."
"But, Mom," shouted Brady, "that kid was trying to cut off my air supply!"
Having barely escaped asphyxiation, the lad blossomed into an outstanding athlete with remarkable self-discipline. He never drank soda, having read that it was bad for him. By the seventh grade, according to Ty, Brady was a workout fiend and religious weightlifter. But in a foreshadowing of his college career, he was halfway through high school before folks realized they had a star on their hands.
Following Brady's sophomore season at Dublin Coffman High, the Shamrocks hired a new football coach. The first time he addressed the players, Mark Crabtree vowed that "we will throw the ball here." At that moment, he recalls, "every set of eyes swung to a guy to my left. I remember thinking, That must be the quarterback. I didn't know what I had yet. But the players knew."
Quinn threw for 2,200 yards and 21 touchdowns his junior season, leading the Rocks to the state semifinals and thrusting himself onto the radar of Division I coaches across the nation. By the end of what Robin calls "his world tour" the following summer--she chauffeured him to football camps at Ohio State, Michigan, Tennessee, Louisville, South Carolina and Kentucky, among others--he had fielded dozens of scholarship offers.
It rankled him that none of the offers came from South Bend. Quinn's go-to receiver at Dublin Coffman was Chinedum Ndukwe, whose older brother, Kelechi, graduated from Notre Dame. Several times Quinn had accompanied the Ndukwes to the campus for football games. The school had worked its magic on him, but his affection was unrequited.
That changed in July 2002, when Chinedum and his parents made an unofficial visit to South Bend. (Chinedum would be offered a scholarship and is now a defensive back for the Fighting Irish.) Toward the end of the visit Chinedum's father, Stephen, offered a suggestion to then coach Ty Willingham, "You need to get Brady Quinn up here."
After reviewing video of Quinn, Willingham agreed. An invitation was extended and accepted. As he was squired around campus, Quinn decided it was the place for him. This was bad news for Michigan, to which he'd come close to committing. Quinn was deeply impressed by Willingham and thought he'd probably get on the field at Notre Dame earlier than at Michigan, but he also told his mother, "I think I could grow there spiritually." Quinn is a Methodist--"a big believer in my faith," he says.
He would need every ounce of that faith to get through his first two seasons in South Bend. After watching the Irish drop two of their first three games in '03, Willingham benched quarterback Carlyle Holiday, who was ill-suited for the coach's West Coast offense, and threw Quinn into the fray. The true freshman played well in spots but still lost four of his first five starts.
Quinn helped Notre Dame win three of its last four games and carried that improvement into the next season, when the Fighting Irish went 6-6, but it wasn't enough to save Willingham's job. Like most of his teammates Quinn took issue with the way the administration treated Willingham, for whom he retains much respect. That said, there were times during Quinn's sophomore year when, his uncle Dave Slates recalls, "Brady would say, 'I don't feel like I'm being coached.'"
Lack of instruction has not been an issue under Weis. In addition to presenting Quinn with a playbook about as thick as The Oxford English Dictionary, the coach immediately tinkered with his new pupil's mechanics. He noticed, for instance, that Quinn was having problems simply taking the snap. Center John Sullivan was so low in his stance that he forced the quarterback into an ungainly squat. That was an easy fix: Sullivan was instructed to get his butt up in the air. New quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas has worked with Quinn on everything from his drop to his hand placement on ball fakes to keeping his hips open when he throws to the left. Also pitching in has been Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Not in person, of course. From New England, Weis brought with him four years' worth of video showing Brady running the same offense the coach has installed at Notre Dame. "The ability to watch a Pro Bowl quarterback run the same plays you're running," says Weis, "is an advantage not many people have at the college level."
It all sounds clinical and painless, but it wasn't--for Quinn or his teammates. "In the beginning," says Weis, "I beat them down, physically and psychologically. Things had to hit rock bottom before they got better." In the preseason, Quinn recalls, "he would ride you and ride you and ride you. He'd take you to the point where you thought, Man, I just want to go to sleep. I just want it to be tomorrow."
These days the Irish can't wait for Saturday. (Navy, Syracuse and Stanford remain on the schedule.) The swagger, long missing from this program, is back. Trailing by three touchdowns with 20 minutes to play against Michigan State on Sept. 17, Quinn led three scoring drives to tie the game. Although Notre Dame lost in overtime, the team gained faith in Quinn, who threw for 487 yards and five touchdowns. He was similarly composed while marching the Irish for the go-ahead touchdown against No. 1 USC--only to have his heroics trumped by those of Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart. Asked for his impression of Quinn during that drive, in which he completed all four of his passes and ran for the touchdown, Weis responds, "How calm he was." Notre Dame players came into this season hoping something good would happen, but now, Weis says, "when [Quinn] gets in there, they expect something good to happen."
And so it has. Quinn, who is likely to hold every major career passing record when he leaves this place, threw a school-record six touchdown passes in an Oct. 22 rout of BYU: four to wide receiver Maurice Stovall, whose 14 receptions set another single-game record, and two to wideout Jeff (Shark) Samardzija. Against Tennessee, Samardzija set two more Notre Dame records, catching his 12th touchdown pass of the season and making a scoring reception in his eighth consecutive game.
Just because Quinn is turning him into a blue-and-gold legend, Samardzija felt no obligation to go easy on his quarterback at last Friday's pep rally in the Joyce Center. Standing at the podium in front of 10,000 spectators, Shark ribbed Quinn over his former career as a model. "Come on, Brady," he said, "let's see Blue Steel"--the favored facial expression of the male model played by Ben Stiller in Zoolander.
Quinn took a pass. Sitting in his chair with a smile on his face, shaking his head at Shark's treachery, he was the picture of a guy having the time of his entire frickin' life.
See where Brady Quinn ranks on Gene Menez's Heisman Watch at SI.com/collegefootball.
Quinn, throwing often to Samardzija (83), has improved his completion percentage by almost 15 points from his first two seasons.
Zbikowski lifted Weis's spirits--and deflated Tennessee's--with two TDs.