Weis has seen the best and worst of Notre Dame

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Tonight could be the last time we see Charlie Weis roam the sidelines of his alma mater’s football team. If that’s the case, the man deserves a very large thank you from fans and foes alike.

Five years ago, Weis was the perfect man for Notre Dame. He had a Super Bowl winning pedigree. He not only understood the unique difficulties of the job, he embraced them. And he was one of us. He charmed us with stories from his days in the student section. He validated many of our own feelings, that we had the answers for the football program (if only we decided to commit a lifetime to coaching). And he talked a game that so many Notre Dame fans needed to hear. You just wait, he might as well have told us. We’ll back back and better than ever.

We watched him work two jobs that first winter, coordinating the Patriots offense during a Super Bowl winning run, while putting together a coaching staff and recruiting class in the wee hours of morning. He didn’t play golf or hit the tanning bed, he slept in his office and built winning football teams. This was the guy Notre Dame needed on the sidelines. This was the guy that was going to truly wake up the echoes.

And to think that he almost did…

While people forget, Weis is the same coach that brought the program out of its darkest times in 2005. With a group of players that had floundered under Ty Willingham and a school dealing with a serious PR problem after firing their coach after only three seasons, Weis stormed out of the gates, drubbing a ranked Pitt team 42-21. The Irish put up 28 points in the second quarter, before coasting to an easy win. This was the offense Notre Dame was supposed to have, many thought. And for those of you looking for a “signature win,” Weis had two those first two weeks, none bigger than the shocking 17-10 upset of #3 Michigan in Ann Arbor. As for that golden Saturday afternoon when the Irish battled USC… there’s just too much to say. But if tonight brings a close to the Charlie Weis era, the lasting remnant could be his terrible luck.

If you want to fire Charlie Weis because of his last three seasons, you need to appreciate his first two. Regardless of whose players he coached, Weis propelled a rudderless program to a 9-3 season in 2005. In 2006, he had the Irish on the cover of Sports Illustrated and had the media buying into a program that many had counted out as irrelevant. The Irish garnered 10 first place votes in the Week One AP poll, were ranked number two in the country, and placed the much yearned for bulls-eye once again on the Notre Dame football program. Weis didn’t run from it, he embraced it, challenging his players to achieve more with an infamous banner that hung in the Loftus center weight room that summer: “9-3 ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH.” And while the season ended with two disappointing losses to USC and LSU, on Thanksgiving day that 2006 team sat at 10-1, and its three losses that season were to 3rd, 4th, and 8th ranked teams in the country.

That Weis has been unable to recapture the early success he had at Notre Dame has been obvious. Yet he’s the very same coach that propelled the program to the upper stratosphere of college football and got players and recruits excited about a NFL ready system. It’s a system that will churn out two first round quarterbacks and two first round wide receivers (it would’ve been three if Jeff Samardzija decided to play football for a living). And it’s a program that is in much better shape than the top heavy one he inherited.

Like Charlie Weis or not, the man did not forget how to coach football. Whoever replaces Weis when his time at Notre Dame is finished, will also have strengths and weaknesses. Whether it’s Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Brian Kelly, or Jon Gruden, no coach is bullet proof. Stoops lost five games this season, the last by four touchdowns to a 7-4 Texas Tech team. And while Urban Meyer continues to be the apple in many Irish fans’ eye, if he does backpedal out of Gainesville, he’ll be forced to coach without a transcendent quarterback in Tim Tebow, and will install an offense that does nothing but hurt the professional potential of his players (ask an NFL scout if you don’t believe me… or Louis Murphy.) While Brian Kelly’s run at Cincinatti has been impressive, he’s only won three games in three seasons against BCS teams outside of the Big East and he’s another offensive guru whose team struggles to play defense. And Jon Gruden will bring another complex NFL offense to South Bend, and has a personality that doesn’t exactly fit with Notre Dame’s image. While many choose to look at these coaches with rose-colored glasses, it’s easy to find warts on any coach if you look hard enough.

If tonight is Charlie Weis’ last game on the sidelines, his successor will likely benefit from the man’s tireless work ethic and young stable of talent. They’ll also be forced to live up to the offensive standard that Weis delivered, no small task when you consider how prolific the offense has been.

More detrimental, they’ll also be forced to live up to the expectations of Notre Dame nation, a group of alumni and fans that feel like elite football is a birthright, something that goes hand-in-hand with Touchdown Jesus, Knute Rockne and gold helmets. Charlie Weis was never one to run away from those unrealistic expectations, even while they suffocated his past two football teams. While these past three seasons certainly didn’t live up to standards, he dazzled us all in that rousing beginning, a beginning that reminded everyone that Notre Dame can still be an elite team on Saturdays.