Weis brings back past to shape the future
SOUTH BEND, Ind. The guy with the microphone is working it, delivering his best Knute Rockne rah-rah material. He's here at the Eck Center on Notre Dame's campus to introduce Charlie Weis to a crowd of several hundred fans, and Weis in turn will introduce the official Fighting Irish T-shirt for the 2005 football season.
The event was forced indoors by a capricious April cold front, but it has no chilling effect on the speaker's ardor. If volume alone can wake the slumbering echoes, this is a human alarm clock.
"We'll beat Michigan! And we'll beat Pittsburgh! And we'll beat Washington!" he booms. "And we'll play a team from LA and we'll beat them, too!"
The crowd roars. Behind the blue curtain, waiting to take the stage, Weis arches the brows over his heavy-lidded eyes and looks sideways at his cherubic 11-year-old son, Charlie Jr.
Fifteen minutes later, after a brief speech and a flurry of signed autographs and posed pictures, Weis is back in his black Escalade, traversing this idyllic campus to the football offices.
Question: What did he think of the pronouncement that his first Notre Dame team, fresh off a 6-6 season that got the previous coach fired, would beat two-time national champion USC?
Answer, after a small chuckle: "Nothing like a little pressure."
The perfect marriage
Great expectations are as intrinsic to Notre Dame football as gold helmets. And as the firing of Ty Willingham after three seasons proved, the only acceptable way to fulfill those expectations is to win. Big and often. Class, comportment and character are officially subordinate to being an ass-kicking winner.
To meet expectations, Weis has consummated an intriguing arranged marriage of art and science. He's wedding the school's unmatched emotional intangibles (spirit and tradition) to his own gift for coldly analytical football strategy. The new coach figures that a little bit of Rudy and a whole lot of film study gives the Irish their best shot at a bounce-back season in 2005.
Weis started with the heart strings. Since helping New England to its third Super Bowl victory in the last four years, the man with the obscenely large championship ring on his right hand has made some inspired overtures to the fan base.
A 1978 Notre Dame graduate who sat in Row 59 as a student, critiquing Dan Devine's teams, Weis spent 14 winter nights making the rounds to Notre Dame's dormitories. From 10:15 p.m. until 11, he'd meet and greet students.
With his family still living in New England, the coach had no one to go home to after work. So he went to the dorms instead. Asked if he enjoyed it, Weis laughed and said, "No. I enjoyed the first couple, but by nine or 10 you're out of ways to get your message across.
"But I wanted them to think that the leader of the program truly understands what being a student at Notre Dame is all about. ... When I was a student, if they told me the head coach was going to come to the dorm, I'd say it was the greatest thing ever."
Enduring the monotony was worth it. The student body thinks Weis is the greatest thing ever.
"Football is the heartbeat of Notre Dame," said an editorial last week in The Observer, the school's student newspaper. "And it's been more than 12 years since the campus blood pumped as it does now."
Attending the T-shirt ceremony was another deft touch. The shirt literally speaks to the school's mystique, reading, "If you could find a way to bottle the Notre Dame spirit, it would light up the universe."
And inviting ND heroes Joe Montana, Tim Brown, Joe Theismann and Chris Zorich back to campus as honorary captains of the spring game thrilled fans and players alike. It was, in the words of junior quarterback Brady Quinn, "the best thing that's been done since I've been here." All four spoke to the current players, stirring them with stories of what the Notre Dame experience meant to them.
"This is a special place, and it's up to you to make it special," Montana said he told the players, "They hadn't lived up to other people's expectations of this program, and they need to take it upon themselves to take it down the path. Make their own prints in the snow, so to speak."
Said star-struck sophomore tailback Darius Walker: "They told us to keep living the tradition. Hearing that from those types of players, that brought it way, way home. I had to get all their autographs."
So Weis has delivered romance to the altar. But if you think he's Gerry Faust Jr., you've got the wrong guy. He's working harder in the dispassionate realm of Football 101, trying to escort gridiron knowledge down the aisle.
Weis was asked if he felt any emotion leading his team into Notre Dame Stadium Saturday for the spring game. His response: "This is a business for me."
The day before, at the T-shirt unveiling, Weis told the fans, "I look at this more like a business. You look at it as a sport. I know that's a tough concept to fathom, but I believe my responsibility is a little bit different."
To Weis, business is blocking and tackling, X's and O's, alignments and scouting. You don't learn the game from Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick and approach your new job with gushing sentimentality. (Though Weis did call both men on the first day of spring ball to thank them for helping him get here.)
They don't call this guy Tuna Jr. in some corners of campus because he's a dewy-eyed cheerleader. Weis might be able to hum the Notre Dame fight song in his sleep, but any first-year success is more likely to derive from his uncanny ability to undress a defense.
"We want to identify our strengths and weaknesses," Weis said. "Then we'll play to hide those weaknesses and take advantage of those strengths. And I certainly wouldn't tell you what they were.
"In the opponents' case, we'll go after their weaknesses. It's not about what you like, it's about what you can attack. We're going to be a game plan-oriented team."
That, according to future Hall of Famer Brown, is where Weis should excel.
"We'd look at the Patriots and say, 'Oh, you can shut that offense down,'" Brown said. "But it was Charlie's ability to make calls and their ability to make plays that put them over the top.
"Charlie's going to put these guys in a position where they look like super athletes, like superstars."
One last nasty touch
The other thing Weis wants to do is enhance scheme with mean. Even the prettiest plays won't go if your players aren't enthusiastic about burying the guys in front of them.
"Nasty" was the word Weis used during his introductory news conference, and many times thereafter. It's a football necessity, and Notre Dame didn't possess it in abundance during the Willingham years.
For the record, Weis is not demanding a nastiness that has never existed under the Golden Dome. The last Irish national championship team, in 1988, brawled with the ultimate bad boys of the time, Miami, at the stadium tunnel. That Notre Dame team had something of a wild-man swagger to it and it worked.
Zorich, who played on that team, would like to see that attitude make a comeback.
"I think it's no secret that I was p----- off at the way the university handled coach Willingham," Zorich said. "However, I got a phone call from coach Weis and spent half an hour or 45 minutes on the phone. He reminded me so much of what Holtz talked about, bringing back that attitude, that winning desire.
"That's something that, unfortunately, Notre Dame hasn't had in a long time. When he started talking about being mean and nasty, I got fired up."
We'll see in the fall whether the Irish have had a nastiness transfusion, but there were a few signs of increased attitude in the spring game. On the first possession of the game, defensive lineman Chris Frome charged up the middle and knocked reserve quarterback Adam Wolke to the turf even though Wolke was wearing a red no-contact jersey.
Weis himself signaled the personal foul on Frome. The coach also piled up penalty yardage on the Blue team for excessive end zone celebrations after three of its four touchdowns. But when a reporter asked an overly grave question about the celebration flags after the game, Weis laughed it off.
There are plenty of other concerns to address right now, starting with a defense that returns just three starters. Given Weis' offensive pedigree and the return of quarterback Quinn, running back Walker and the entire offensive line, the Irish might start the season having to outscore opponents.
They'll also start it on the road, with four of the first five games away from Notre Dame Stadium. Weis has established a no-whining policy at the school about the schedule, about academic requirements, about any of the popular theories as to why the Irish have struggled to succeed in modern times.
Survive the early stretch of the schedule and the Irish will return home Oct. 15 to face USC the school that did more than any other to get Willingham fired, thanks to three straight blowouts.
Of course, the guy with the microphone at the T-shirt ceremony already has that one written in as a W. Nothing like a little pressure, Charlie. Just win 'em all and everyone will be happy.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.