Saturday, July 30, 2005

Golden ticket | by Jay

Chris Dufrense of the LA Times has a lengthy refresher on where we are/where we've been/where we're going with Charlie, and while it's nothing all that new, it's just about a perfect read for a Saturday morning. Here's the whole shebang.

Charlie and the Football Factory
Notre Dame hands the reins to Weis, one of its own and a proven NFL winner

By Chris Dufresne, Times Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It's the vampire's side of 6 a.m. on the Saturday of a three-day holiday weekend — the only interview slot available on first-year Coach Charlie Weis' monthly docket.

Morning, you could say, has broken again at Notre Dame.

"Touchdown Jesus" seems to be stifling a yawn as a three-quarter moon in the West offsets first light. Notre Dame Stadium is a quiet cavern, opening kickoff is still weeks away, the Irish's last national title is still 1988.

As a student here, Weis did not play football. He studied speech with the idea of becoming the next Marv Albert — yes, and it counts!

Thirty years later, after considerable toil and some serendipity, Weis has returned to call the real play-by-play for college football's most important franchise.

File this under: dream big.

"I'm livin' proof," Weis says between sips of bottled water.

And that pretty much wraps things up in the sentiment department.

Weis, the first Notre Dame graduate since Hugh Devore in 1963 to lead the football program, makes his home debut Sept. 17, against Michigan State. He suggests any emotional outpourings will "last seconds, not minutes."

Weis has yet to change a tangible perception of a Notre Dame program that was 6-6 last season and hasn't won a bowl game in a decade, but he has already changed the rules of engagement.

Holdovers from the Tyrone Willingham era got their first glimpse at spring practice.

Brady Quinn, last season's starting quarterback, noted of Weis, "He obviously knows how to get as close to perfection as you can get."

Since taking over full-time in February, Weis has reconfigured Notre Dame into the Midwest branch of New England Patriots Enterprises.

He will control everything, from the play-calling to the information flow, to how Notre Dame chooses its toothpicks.

Weis is the medium and the message, his mantra shucked and honed from mentors Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, two of the NFL's most practiced coaching dictators.

Popular sayings in their doctrine include "you are what you are" and "we'll do all the talking."

Weis was a longtime NFL influence peddler, most recently the offensive coordinator for the three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots. Yet, his inner core remained largely impenetrable because Belichick, who fell approximately two feet from Parcells' coaching tree, did not allow his assistants to talk to the media.

"That's what the rules were," Weis says. "Sitting in this chair now, I can see some of the benefits from it being that way."

One is keeping your organization's private business private; the downside getting named coach at Notre Dame and people saying "Charlie Who?"

"When I came here, people said he won't be able to deal with recruiting, he has no charisma, he has no personality," Weis says. "What do they know about my personality? When people don't talk to you, how do they know anything about you?"

Weis' self-confidence teeters toward arrogance, but Notre Dame's recent tribulations, coupled with his finger jewelry, give him start-up political clout.

You could argue that hiring a Dome descendant was the logical next step after a recent rash of out-of-towners that included:

• Gerry Faust, the lovable loser, recruited straight out of high school.
• Lou Holtz, a Nervous-if-not-ingenious Nellie who delivered a title in 1988 but, like Larry Brown, was a leader you felt like you were renting.
• Bob Davie, who tried hard, talked with a drawl and never won a BCS bowl (he did lose one to Oregon State, 41-9).

He was shown the dome door and replaced by George O'Leary, fired in what seemed like minutes after it was learned he fudged on his resume. This public relations fiasco begat Willingham, whose expected five-year go lasted three.

Utah Coach Urban Meyer, named after several popes, was supposed to rescue the ship, but Florida's private jet beat Notre Dame to Salt Lake City and Meyer is doing Gator claps in "The Swamp."

And so the awesome Irish football responsibility fell to Weis, Notre Dame class of 1978, a resident of Flanner Hall, a Jersey kid who sat in Row 59 at home games never imagining the seat he'd one day sneak down to.

Dan Lombard, a Notre Dame student at the time Weis was there, recalled conversations he used to have with someone named Charlie at Flanner Hall but didn't make the synapse connection until attending a football fundraiser in Chicago that included a keynote address by the new Irish coach.

And then it hit Lombard.

"That Charlie?" he said.

Still, the quickest way to get the laser-eye from Weis is to compare his story to the heart-tug of "Rudy," the former Notre Dame benchwarmer who once talked his way into a huddle.

"Give me a break," Weis says. "Let's not use that analogy. I'm 49 years old. I mean, it's not like I've been doing this a couple years. This has been a long, arduous process."

Where to start, with the long part or the arduous?

Called originally to Notre Dame by the siren of legendary announcer Lindsey Nelson, Weis ditched his sportscaster dreams because he didn't see a quick payoff.

He worked his way into teaching and coaching, turning a six-year high school stint in New Jersey into a four-year ride as an assistant at South Carolina that ended solemnly in 1989 when Joe Morrison, the head coach, died of a heart attack.

Weis returned to New Jersey to coach high school and landed some personnel work with the New York Giants, which eventually led to the break of his life — a low-level job offer from Parcells.

A single guy willing to turn the lights on in the morning and off at night, Weis rode the Parcells train from New York to New England and then to the Jets, returning to New England in 2000 when Belichick became coach.

Four Super Bowl rings later (one with the Giants, three with the Patriots), had Weis not earned the right to be considered Notre Dame's fall-back choice?

It wasn't all ticker tape. Weis fought an obesity problem, nearly dying in 2002 after complications from gastric bypass surgery.

Weis is relatively trim now and rejects the idea he had the surgery to improve his professional look, making that perfectly clear at his introductory news conference:

"You want to know why you do it?" he said. "Because for 10 years you're over 300 pounds and your father died at 56 of a second heart attack."

Weis is married, with two kids. His daughter, Hannah, suffers from a learning disorder, which made uprooting her from the Northeast more complicated.

So maybe this isn't Rudy, or even Walter Mitty.

Weis was two laps behind at the South Bend Indy 500 the second he revved engines, left to participate remotely for National Signing Day in February because New England was in the Super Bowl.

It wasn't going to be easy playing catch-up against coaches telling recruits Notre Dame isn't what it used to be.

"They've just joined the rest of us, that's all that meant," one top 20 coach mused recently of Willingham's firing after only three seasons.

Weis thinks he can out-scheme any coach he lines up against, but also knows there may be no cognitive solution to stopping USC tailback Reggie Bush.

Notre Dame needs a Tim Brown-type talent infusion, the reason Weis spent every day on the road from April 28 through May 27 — almost unheard of in coaching circles.

One day, Weis recounts, "I went from Houston, to Lafayette, Louisiana, to Oklahoma City, to Springdale, Arkansas, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."

It will take at least a year to determine exactly where the Irish stack up on national recruiting flow charts.

Weis says his handshake meant something, although not even he's sure if kids were squeezing back the Notre Dame in him, or the Patriot.

Recruiting conversations started with academics but ultimately turn to pie-eyed NFL expectations, at which point Weis put to chin the right hand bearing his latest Super ring and mused, "So you want to play on Sunday?"

Weis adds with a laugh, "If they didn't get it, then I rub the ring."

He rejects the argument Notre Dame is too hard academically to compete anymore in upper echelon, reminding everyone that New England won three Super Bowls with as much brain as brawn.

"We had the highest graduation rate of any team in the NFL," Weis says. "We had more smart guys. What we did on offense and defense, it pays to be smart."

Of course, if all it took was SAT scores wouldn't Harvard be No. 1 in the BCS?

"That's the question," Weis says. "Where is that fine line, where you get enough smart players that can play? That's what we're trying to do right now."

Everything Weis says now is pre-fight hype.

The first inspection comes with the Sept. 3 opener at Pittsburgh, when Weis makes his Irish debut against Dave Wannstedt, another former NFL coach.

Tom Panzica, a South Bend architect and contractor who graduated in Weis' 1978 class, says it is high time Notre Dame had one of its own running the show, although anyone old enough to remember the Joe Kuharich (Class of '38) years can tell you it's no cinch for success.

"If Charlie doesn't start off well, I honestly think people will cut him more slack, because they're getting what they're asking for," Panzica says.

Mysteries abound, including how Weis, a relative Boo Radley when it comes to outside exposure, handles the extracurricular influences — media, fans, the Peacock Network, Regis Philbin and legends of Irish bashers.

It's one thing having Patriot owner Robert Kraft stop by practice in a golf cart. At Notre Dame, half of America thinks they have a stake in the franchise.

Weis is already starting to feel the opposite of ignored.

"You look a lot like Charlie Weis," a shopper said recently as Weis stocked up on groceries at a South Bend supermarket.

"I've heard that," was all Weis could think to say.

Unlike those old Lindsey Nelson-narrated highlights, Weis cannot simply fast-forward to more prosperous fourth-quarter action.

He can, by the power of proclamation, put an end to all discomforting internal noise.

"I don't really want to go there," Weis says when asked if he thought Willingham's firing was fair. "I'll tell you what, I'm going to turn this into a positive spin. When you hired a guy this time, they wanted a guy with ties here, no pun intended, OK? See, I actually have a sense of humor.

"I think they wanted someone who really understood Notre Dame."

From this day until the day he's not, Weis is coach, king, trial judge and museum curator.

Dawn breaks anew over America's castle, even if the drawbridge may be closing on openness.

"I told our team there are several things you can count on," Weis says. "One thing I told them is our laundry will never be in the public. In other words, when something goes wrong, I told them you can count on me shouldering the blame. I won't blame a player, I won't blame an assistant coach, I won't blame the president or the AD. …

"Expect the headlines to be 'Weis is a Dummy' the next day. But that allows me, behind closed doors, after I've publicly taken the blame, to start spreading the wealth. OK? But I wanted them to know how this is going to go.

"You better have some broad shoulders now."