The new Notre Dame coach met the old Notre Dame players on the second weekend in December. Here was Charlie Weis, a big man with bigger plans and three Super Bowl rings--fast going on four--to back him up. He once had been a Notre Dame student, before learning to coach football the hard way, on high school fields and in darkened video rooms, absorbing both abuse and wisdom from taskmasters like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. This was his room and his moment.
Before him in the locker room at Notre Dame Stadium were the Fighting Irish players, damaged goods in need of repair. They were the latest incarnation of a faded program that had produced just 56 victories in the past eight years and hadn't won a bowl game since after the 1993 season. Some of them were staring down their third head coach (four if you count the five-day tenure of George O'Leary).
They carried their affection for Weis's predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, on one shoulder--"He was almost like a father figure to me, says senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte--and an inflated opinion of their accomplishments on the other. The Irish went 6--6 last fall, including upsets of Michigan and Tennessee and losses to Brigham Young, Boston College and Pittsburgh by a total of seven points. "A lot of guys in the room felt like we were a lot better than 6-6," says junior quarterback Brady Quinn. "It could have been a whole different season." Still stinging from those narrow defeats, on this day they needed a collective hug. They didn't get one.
"Fellas," Weis said to his new players, "you are a 6-6 team. You can say whatever you want. 'We could have won this one, we could have won that one.' Well, 'could have' doesn't mean anything. You are what you are. You don't want your head coach to get fired, win more games."
In his crewcut and his suit Weis kept talking. Somewhere in the middle of his speech he stopped dissing and started selling. He talked about running the Patriots' offense and winning Super Bowls. About getting "nasty" on the field. At one point he told his new charges, "Every game, you will have a decided schematic advantage."
In the back of the room sat Mike Goolsby, a departing player who'd attended the meeting curious to hear the latest new guy. Goolsby thought, The guy is confident. That's something we haven't had around here in a long time. We've won some games here and there. Had some nice performances. But we haven't had confidence.
The parting was ugly, no question about that. On Nov. 27 USC made short work of the Irish, 41--10, and three days later Willingham was fired. Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White was the front man for the dismissal, which had been decided upon by a committee formed by the Reverend John Jenkins, who will take over from the Reverend Edward Malloy as university president on July 1. A week after the firing Malloy appeared on a panel on collegiate sports in New York City and said Willingham's firing had made him "embarrassed" to be Notre Dame's president.
Amid that climate Notre Dame sought a new coach. After first choice Urban Meyer of Utah took the Florida job, Jenkins and White traveled to Providence to interview Weis. They found a man deeply connected to the passions surrounding Notre Dame football. He's an alumnus (class of '78) who spent four years living on the second floor of the 11-story Flanner Hall, watching Notre Dame win a national championship in football and reach its only Final Four in basketball. "I never missed a game," Weis says. "Doesn't get any better than that."
Weis grew up as a sports nut in central New Jersey, playing center at Middlesex High and living and dying with the Giants, Knicks, Rangers and Yankees. After graduating from South Bend, he coached high school in his home state, then worked as an assistant at South Carolina. One afternoon in early February 1989 Weis had lunch with Gamecocks head coach Joe Morrison, who promised him more responsibility and a new contract. A few hours later Morrison dropped dead of a heart attack.
The South Carolina assistants scattered; one of them, Al Groh, landed with the Parcells-coached Giants. Through him Weis got a part-time job analyzing tape for the team. "In the beginning," he says, "it took me 10 1/2 hours to do a game." Now he can break down a game in 90 minutes. The following February, Parcells hired him as defensive quality control and assistant special teams coach--low man on a gifted staff that included not only Parcells but also defensive coordinator Belichick, linebackers coach Groh, offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt and defensive line coach Romeo Crennel, past or future NFL head coaches all. Weis lived alone in a tiny apartment and slept at least two nights a week in his office at Giants Stadium, where his typical workday lasted from five in the morning until well past midnight. "I enjoyed it because I was a fanatical Giants fan," says Weis. "But if you're talking about a life of utopia, this wasn't it."