Over the weekend, Charlie Weis will reach his three-month anniversary as an undistracted, full-time head coach at the University of Notre Dame. It’s a decidedly tricky time for new coaches, as there’s never a shortage of good feelings in the spring -- yet precious little hard evidence to back up the good cheer. The most concrete display of observable progress involves half of the team playing against...well, the other half of the team.
“Great run there by #31. Really slipped that tackle. Our offense could be deadly if he gets fifteen touches a game in the fall.”
“Lousy job by that linebacker, though. Can’t miss a ballcarrier in the open field like that. If he’s not busted back down to third string by the opener, we’re in serious trouble.”
If you pored over the archives of ND football for the past decade, you'd find many a springtime testimonial extolling the virtues of Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie. And although coaches are in general more PR-savvy than in the past and increasingly aware of their own self-image, the plaudits can’t all be chalked up to simple spin control. The fact is, we want to think the best when change is afoot, whether we're a player, someone in the athletic department or even just the beat writer assigned to the team.
Charlie Weis is enjoying more than his share of good vibrations so far, much of which is due to his pedigree as a domer -- and even more based on the resounding success of his previous employer, the world champion New England Patriots. However, there are reasons to believe that the sugarcoating goes deeper than the surface, and there's something sweeter at the core than just another well-disguised lemon.
"Some people said, 'Why would you want (Notre Dame and the inherent rebuilding project)?' My answer is, 'Why wouldn't I want it?' I love the culture. I think there's an aura here. And as I've told kids, if you can't feel this place - if you can't feel it - then it probably isn't right for you...
"But I came here because expectations were not met. And my job here is to raise those expectations. I'm not talking about it as an alumnus, I'm talking about it as the football coach. My job is to raise the expectation of the football team and the players. That's why I'm here."
First and foremost, Weis is a man who, as an alum and lifelong Irish fan, appears to not only understand the magnitude of the position, but actually relish it. It seems the coaches who have the most success at Notre Dame are the ones who throw themselves headlong into the job and make it their life’s work at the expense of all else, and Charlie certainly fits this bill.
On the flip side, Davie’s discomfort with the standards of the program handcuffed him, and his failure to embrace all things Irish ultimately led to his demise. In a similar fashion, ND fans have received a lot of criticism for never truly accepting Willingham as its coach, but it cut both ways. Willingham never rose to the challenge of ND; a singular, unique challenge that demanded much more of him than what was required at Stanford. Willingham’s tenure in South Bend was a hodgepodge of passive leadership, mixed signals and misplaced loyalty. He spoke with effusive praise in the early stages about his appreciation for Notre Dame and what made it special, but his performance and behavior over time revealed the truth: this job represented little more to him than a bigger paycheck and a larger audience.
“This is an end-all for our family. We come to Notre Dame, it's with the intent of retiring here. That's why we're coming here. We don't come here to bounce somewhere else. If that's what I was going to be doing, I would not be taking this job and I would be waiting till the season ended in the NFL and try to get one of those jobs. I'm here because I want to be here. I'm proud to be here.”
When Weis talks about ND, and how he sees this as the final stop in his coaching career, he has some evidence to back up the talk. Given his success with the Patriots, it’s very likely that Charlie would have been in line for a head coaching job in the NFL at the end of the season (just as fellow New England coordinator Romeo Crennel received from Cleveland). The opportunity would have offered him at least as much money as Notre Dame paid him, and in an environment with which he was much more familiar; yet he still jumped at ND’s offer. In a situation where many coaches would have exploited the University’s desperation for their own personal gain (see Mariucci, Steve), Weis dealt with Notre Dame in good faith and finalized a deal in short order.
I’m doing some emotional extrapolation here, but I also believe that there is a part of Charlie Weis that feels vindicated that his first offer for a head coaching job came from his alma mater. In part due to his bulldog-with-a-lunchpail appearance, Weis has been overlooked -- or simply ignored -- by teams looking for coaches at both the past few years, in spite of a good pedigree and even better results on the field. The New York Giants had interest in talking to Weis last year, but unwilling to wait until the Patriots’ playoff run ended, they instead tabbed his old colleague from his assistant days with the Giants, Tom Coughlin. When Charlie communicated his interest four years ago in the vacant job at Rutgers, his hometown school –- even going so far as to request that local writers plant his name in the papers in connection with the position -- Weis wasn’t even interviewed. And this was a program that had won an average of just over two games a season for the previous five years.
"Let's see how (Notre Dame’s opponents) are going to do. They've had their advantage because I've come into recruiting late. Well, now it's X's and O's time. Let's see who has the advantage now."
Weis has made a number of comments since taking the ND job that would qualify as certifiably cocky, especially to those familiar with the tentative, defensive Davie or the listless, nondescript Willingham. A certain part of this is likely by design, as reestablishing a confidence in players who have suffered through the mediocrity of the past two years is certainly one of Weis’ chief goals. Still, you can sense that this braggadacio is an essential part of his makeup; he's a Parcells-schooled perfectionist chomping at the bit to prove to Rutgers (and everyone else who passed on him) that they really made a colossal mistake. That chip on the shoulder, combined with the indignity of a moribund ND football program -- and the slings and arrows of detractors gleefully writing off the Irish -- may have created a “perfect storm” of sorts: a coach on a mission, hellbent on success and redemption, and willing to work himself to halfway to the grave to make it happen.
"I enjoy recruiting. I've been around coaches who just can't stand it. I enjoy it. I enjoy going up against other schools. If you enjoy something, you'll be good at it."
Without a doubt, one of the most absurd dismissals of Weis as a candidate for this job was his unfamiliarity with the college game, and the misplaced perception that an NFL coach wouldn't adapt well to the hyperactive recruiting scene. We often overlook the institutional parity of the NFL: an inherent repressiveness imposed on the league by the draft, salary cap and other structural factors. The margin between success and failure in the league is absurdly thin, as evidenced by situations such as the turnaround in San Diego (4-12 to 12-4) last year -- wild swings which are all too common. Most pro coaches spend entire weeks, if not summers, poring over game reviews and looking for nearly imperceptible flaws and advantages to exploit. The playing field is so level that oftentimes there's a very thin line between going to the playoffs or getting fired for a 6-10 campaign, and talent is fairly diluted throughout the league.
College is different. Imagine a game where you're welcome to as much free talent as you can get your hands on, a virtual candy store for great evaluators...and you start to understand why NFL veterans might like campus life. Pete Carroll arrived at Southern Cal four years ago and has since accumulated as much prep talent as any college coach in the nation. Al Groh left the New York Jets to set up shop at his alma mater in Virginia and has led the Cavaliers to a great resurgence. Fired by the Oakland Raiders, Bill Callahan resurfaced at Nebraska to transform the Cornhuskers into a pro-style juggernaut, and immediately signed a class ranked as the best in the country by certain analysts. Not only do former NFL coaches seem to transition to recruiting without much trouble, they actually appear to be beating their college counterparts at their own game.
Based on the early returns, Weis’s appreciation for the value of recruiting is no different. In hiring his assistants, Weis plucked two different recruiting coordinators (Wisconsin’s Rob Ianello and Central Florida’s Brian Polian) and another assistant nationally recognized for his acumen in attracting top talent (Mike Haywood of Texas). He spent whatever free time he had during his double-duty stint in January calling hundreds of recruits, leaving no stone unturned, and even hitting up players who'd already committed elsewhere. Once his '05 class was signed, and the Patriots were finished winning the Super Bowl, Charlie immediately turned up the heat on the upcoming prep class of seniors-to-be. He and his staff orchestrated a huge junior day at the end of February, inviting dozens of prospects to campus. He threw himself into the scouting and evaluation process, keying in on his preferred prospects and not hesitating to offer scholarships to players he liked. This aggressive attack has reaped great benefits. Charlie's already secured the commitment of some top players, including quarterback Zach Frazer and tailback James Aldridge, recruits whom other major programs such as Florida and Southern Cal were just beginning to seriously court. Too late: for the first time in quite a while, other national powers actually appear to be following Notre Dame’s lead instead of the other way around.
"It comes down to X's and O's. To be honest with you, when it gets to that point, I think that's when we have the greatest advantage...I have to believe we're going to win most of the time.”
Of course the biggest reason to think that Weis is going to be successful at ND is his technical skill, and the skill of the assistants he's brought to the program. Although a number of pro coaches have moved from the NFL to the college ranks, the arrival of someone with Weis’ prominence -- four Super Bowl rings and a reputation as one of the best offensive minds in the game -- is quite unusual. As a benchmark, Pete Carroll showed up at Southern Cal four years ago with credentials as a talented NFL coordinator but a lackluster head coach, and he’s turned the college world on its ear, winning back-to-back national championships.
Below is a breakdown of how a few coaches who have worked on both sides of the pro/college fence have fared at each level. Because Weis has never been a head coach before, this illustration won’t be entirely applicable; however, it offers a look at how much more difficult it is to succeed in the NFL:
Pete Carroll. NFL: 34-33 (.508) / College: 42-9 (.824), 2 championships
Butch Davis. NFL: 24-35 (.407) / College: 51-20 (.718)
Dan Devine. NFL: 25-28-4 (.472) / College: 173-56-9 (.755), 1 championship
Lou Holtz. NFL: 3-10 (.231) / College: 249-132-7 (.654), 1 championship
Jimmy Johnson. NFL: 89-68 (.567), 2 Super Bowls / College: 81-34-3 (.704), 1 championship
John McKay. NFL: 45-91-1 (.331) / College: 127-40-8 (.760), 4 championships
John Robinson. NFL: 79-74 (.516) / College: 130-68-4 (.657), 1 championship
Howard Schnellenberger. NFL: 4-13 (.235) / College: 106-92-3 (.535), 1 championship
Steve Spurrier. NFL: 12-20 (.375) / College: 122-27-1 (.819), 1 championship
Almost to a man, the coaches here – mostly consisting of individuals who were judged to be among the cream of the crop at one point or another – have been more successful at the college level than in the pros, some extremely so. Obviously, part of difference can be chalked up to the parity of the NFL, and the ability to pad your schedule with weaker teams in college. Still, it seems reasonable that a coach like Charlie, who has outwitted his NFL peers on a weekly basis might find even more success moving down a rung.
Yet, there are no guarantees, and we won't have an idea how successful Charlie Weis will be at Notre Dame until his team takes the field in Pittsburgh on September 3. Even then, first impressions can be deceiving.
However, we can look at how a coach lays the foundation for his program, and perhaps glean some insight on what's to come. Charlie's work ethic and his attention to detail are immensely positive attributes, and the impressive group of coaches that he's hired illustrates both his drawing power as a formidable coaching mind, as well as his unabashed willingness to surround himself with the best coaching talent he can find. For a man so often tagged as "cocky", he's not so arrogant as to assume he knows it all, and he's obviously unafraid (and secure enough in himself) to attract other high-performance minds. His early successes on the recruiting trail bode well for further commitments, and his honest embrace of the tradition -- and the challenges -- of being the head coach at Notre Dame has already revitalized the entire program, from the athletic department to the administration, from the students to the alums, from the players to the fans.
All of this, of course, is simply a prelude -- the Charlie Weis era won't officially begin until the kickoff in Pittsburgh. But if the last three months are any indication of what lies ahead, we're in for a great ride.