- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- So a couple of years ago Charlie Weis was sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico when a USC grad, of all people, approached the Notre Dame coach and asked whether Albert Pujols, who was sitting a shovel pass away with his family, could stop by and say hello.
Pujols, the best baseball player on the planet, wanted to talk to him?
Weis, a baseball guy who adores the New York Yankees, said yes. Pujols and Weis hit it off. They talked ball. They talked family. They talked charities. (Both are heavily involved in special-needs fundraising.) Go figure, Charlie and Albert -- pals.
"It was like an instant click," Weis said.
Flash forward to July 2009 and the All-Star Game in St. Louis. Weis and his son Charlie Jr. were there for the Home Run Derby. Pujols had called and invited Weis to sit with Albert's family in a private Busch Stadium suite. Weis rooted for the Cardinals first baseman to win the contest (Pujols finished fourth), but he also studied how Pujols handled the weight of the expectations placed on him.
Weis could relate. You can't swing a gold helmet on this campus without hitting a Domer who doesn't think the Irish should win no fewer than 10 games and play in a BCS bowl, preferably the one in which you hold a national championship crystal trophy at night's end.
And this being Weis' fifth season at Notre Dame, they've just about had it with being America's college football punch line. A nine-loss season in 2007 (the most in school history) was the absolute low point. A 7-6 record and Hawaii Bowl win in 2008 was better, but Domers want to play their postseason games in January, not December. And they want them to be against programs with big-name muscle mass, like Florida, Oklahoma or Texas, not Hawaii.
So Weis observed Pujols and afterward sent the Cards first baseman a Notre Dame care package and a letter. Pujols gave Weis a Cardinals jersey.
"Not only is he arguably the best player in baseball, but he was the king," Weis said. "He was like the face of baseball. He almost had to handle the pressure of not just the city of St. Louis, but [of] baseball on his shoulders. I thought it was remarkable how he handled himself in those days."
Weis is the face of Notre Dame. The three most recognizable things here are Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome and Weis' crew-cut dome. And in the past, Weis hasn't always handled himself in Pujols-like fashion.
His smugness and arrogance are legendary. But so is his commitment to his family, his work ethic and his pain tolerance. (He coached with torn ligaments in his left knee last season and had replacement surgery on his right knee during the offseason.) Weis is a jelly bean jar of different moods and personalities, but the one constant has been his belief, both spoken and unspoken, that he's smarter than you. (Remember his introductory news conference about outscheming his opponents?) The trait is his strength and his weakness.
But the new and improved Weis is keeping his mouth shut for now. He speaks, but there are no predictions attached. When you have the worst two-year total of losses (15) in Notre Dame football history, you learn the power of choosing your words carefully.
"Show me, right?" Weis said. "OK, that's what we're going to do. We intend to show you."
This can't be easy for Weis. There has to be part of him that wants to tell no, scream, to his supporters and critics alike that his program is finally configured the way he wants it -- the recruits, the infrastructure, the facilities and the support (for now) of his administration.
Eighteen starters return, including third-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who also has ingested daily doses of humility pills. It is the most returning starters in Weis' tenure, the 10th-most in the FBS and the first time since 2001 when the Irish have had this kind of roster experience. One problem: That 2001 team finished 5-6.
Notre Dame's offensive line has a combined 100 career starts. Clausen gets to throw to Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, two of the best receivers in the country. The three leading Irish players in scoring, rushing yards, receiving yards, all-purpose yards and total offense are all back. Notre Dame is ranked, ta-da, 23rd in the preseason coaches' poll. (Don't laugh; it's the first time since the 2006 season ND has sniffed the Top 25.)
And still, Weis is taking the less-is-better approach.
"There's almost some things that you would expect everyone to say," Weis said. "You'd expect me to sit there and say it, too. But I'm tired of sitting there and telling people how good we're going to be and then that's not the product. So we intend to give a good product, but we just can't talk about it."
The product is 0-2 in BCS bowls since Weis arrived. The product is 0-4 against USC. The product is 10-15 during the past two seasons. If the product doesn't improve this year, Weis might not be in charge of the product next year.
"There's always pressure at Notre Dame, but now that talk is over and we're just ready to get out there and start getting to work," Clausen told reporters before fall practice began.
Who knows how close Weis came to being canned last year. He said the late-season job speculation was "a big deal publicly, but wasn't a really big deal for us. We were on the road recruiting."
Weis got what his predecessor Tyrone Willingham didn't: fourth and fifth seasons. But just as there are no predictions, there can be no excuses. To his credit, Weis has never offered any.
So this is a pivotal year for Weis' program. Check that -- this is the pivotal year. Given its schedule (only one opponent, USC, is ranked in the preseason Top 25) and its roster depth and experience, a double-digit win total isn't unreasonable for Notre Dame.
"It's time for us to show you," Weis said. "That's what you want to see. That's what I want to see."
Actions, not words. It's the theme of 2009. If Weis is back in 2010, you'll know it was a theme that worked.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
Charlie Weis has talked a good game since arriving at Notre Dame. In 2009, action, not words, is the theme in South Bend.