Weis in midst of Notre Dame's star-making machine
They were upstairs in the Monogram Room of Notre Dame's Joyce Athletic Center, Ara Parseghian and Charlie Weis waiting for the 6:40 p.m. call into a Fighting Irish yesteryear. The eve of the Michigan State game had brought the beginning of one more era in South Bend, 11,500 packing the gymnasium for the pep rally, with 6,000 more turned back at the doors.
Old times for the Irish, the old coach was thinking.
"Whether you like it or not, Charlie, you're a national figure today," Parseghian told Weis. "You're coast to coast now."
Weis was bringing everyone back into the Irish family now, and here was Parseghian, the great Irish coach out of the 1960s and '70s, fighting through traffic into the parking space officials left for him outside the basketball arena. For the first time in 30 years, they were giving Parseghian a microphone for the pregame pep rally, giving him back that rush that only the newest Notre Dame coaching star can understand.
Once, it had been Parseghian here. Once, they all got quiet when he started to talk to the Notre Dame people.
They make these coaches bigger than life in South Bend. And they make them that way quickly. For better and worse, there's no other job like this in America. This is the greatest star-maker in sports, bigger than UCLA basketball, bigger than the Yankees, bigger then them all.
"Two games at Notre Dame, and that's all it takes for them to know you everywhere," Parseghian said. "It's already happened to Charlie."
Weis and his Irish destroyed Pittsburgh, shocked No. 3 Michigan, and had been on the way to what would have become one of the greatest comeback victories in Notre Dame Stadium history before losing 44-41 to Michigan State in overtime. Now, Weis goes to the University of Washington on Saturday, where Ty Willingham can tell him all about star-making at Notre Dame. Four years ago, they were talking about Willingham's 8-0 start as Fighting Irish coach, the way they were talking about Parseghian's debut in 1964.
Before losing that season's final game at USC, and the national title with it, Parseghian started his Irish coaching career with nine straight victories after the deflated expectations of taking over a 2-7 team. Everyone remembers that brief, beautiful interlude when his introduction to the Golden Dome left him larger than life, when one wintry Saturday in South Bend inspired the student section to start a chant.
"Stop the snow, Ara," they screamed. "Stop the snow, Ara."
Down on the field, Parseghian turned to one of his assistants and wondered: "Can I?"
Parseghian had been the coach for Miami of Ohio and Northwestern before Notre Dame in 1964, and always insisted that he needed every one of those head coaching seasons to prepare him. When Weis invited Parseghian, 82, to dinner over the summer, Parseghian was impressed with the new coach's vision. Watching those opening weeks of offense against Pittsburgh and Michigan State, the defense against Michigan, sold him completely. In every way, Notre Dame had hired a pro coach. In every way, they had someone for the long run.
"Charlie is trying reunite the whole thing," Parseghian said. "After the Ty Willingham dismissal, and the George O'Leary business, things were down. Charlie is bringing the Notre Dame spirit back, the Notre Dame history back."
He laughed, though. He knows how it works in South Bend. There's no shaking down the thunder with 3 yards and a cloud of dust. "What's most important is that Notre Dame is moving the ball again," he said. "This team seems to be exceptionally well-coached on the offensive side of the ball. Weis has taken a team that had difficult getting 200- and 300-yard games the past couple of years, and is running up 400 and 500 a game, putting touchdowns on the board."
Weis had sure sounded arrogant in the winter, insisting that everything would change when the recruiting season was over, and the X's and O's started. The suggestion was simple: If he was behind everyone else on talent, he would make up the ground with his teaching, his game planning and play calling. He was right. He did. He's turned a dreadful Notre Dame offense into touchdown-scoring machinery. He has turned quarterback Brady Quinn into a first-round pick. He's turned a dreadful, antiquated offense into 21st century eye candy.
What's more, Weis' education under Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick has defied the sound reasoning that Notre Dame should never be an entry-level head coaching job. This time, they think Weis will have the staying power that Willingham never did, a space-age spread attack restoring faith that Notre Dame is the choice of destination for the next Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis.
They need playmakers again, and three Super Bowl rings, the development of Tom Brady and the early returns at Notre Dame give Weis monumental credibility walking into America's living rooms.
During Super Bowl week in Jacksonville, Fla., in January, on the 2005 national signing day, I asked Weis about plugging the Patriots player personnel program into recruiting. To work for Parcells and Belichick was to understand what one of your guys looked like -- whatever the recruiting analysts said, whatever schools had validated him with scholarship offers.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls with a lot of players whom others passed over, who were a certain kind of breed. Weis' eyes lit up over the possibility of bringing that model to college recruiting, trying out the Patriots' Sunday way on Saturdays.
"Everyone says, 'Here's the top 20 players in the country,'" Weis said, "but what guys are going to fit into what you do? What guys are your type of guys? I brought in a guy from Indiana that they weren't recruiting, that is a lot like our [2003 fourth round pick] Dan Klecko.
"So many times people get enamored with what the class is rated. Of course you want the best athletes. But you also want the guys that fit your system, and fit your personality. I'm not the most pleasant person in the whole world. You have to be able to deal with the personality of the head coach, because that's going to be the reflection of the team.
"All scouts want height, weight, speed guys. [Patriots personnel director] Scott [Pioli] goes the extra mile and worries about fits. I think the same is true in recruiting. You want to get the best athletes you possibly can, but can they read and write? Are they high character kids?
"Do they fit your system?"
Three games into the season, and there is a Weis system. A stamp. Ara Parseghian has been watching these coaches come and go for a long time at Notre Dame, but thinks this Charlie Weis is different. A keeper.
Yes, Weis brought him back for a pep rally for the first time in 30 years, gave the old coach the microphone and it made it feel like old times for the old coach. Yes, Weis is bringing the Fighting Irish family back together. He's moving the ball. He's winning games. One more star born in South Bend, one more coast-to-coast legend spit out of sport's biggest star machinery.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His critically-acclaimed book, "The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty" can be purchased at Amazon.com.
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