By ANTHONY MOSKO
Alcoholics, pedophiles, Young Republicans, Michael Moore....all have nothing on me. I have the worst sickness of all: I am a Notre Dame fan.
And before you trip over yourself out of your OSU, Michigan or USC beanbag chair to tell me how fat Charlie Weis is, how badly Notre Dame was beaten in their last game against your team and how Notre Dame has not won a bowl game since Carlton Banks was in primetime, please understand that I’ve heard it all. I have been desensitized to the anti-Notre Dame invective that has been bandied about since the days of the Rocket.
But now that we’ve gotten to know each other (I like Notre Dame, you have a beanbag chair), I would like to try to refute (or even corroborate) popular notions about Charlie Weis and his Fighting Irish. As my good friend, classmate and co-founder of this blog, Graham Filler said to me, “Charlie Weis is a mythical figure in the blogging world.” And hopefully, I can work to dispel some myths, or maybe we can even reach a common ground.
So in no particular order, here is a list of some popular conceptions and misconceptions about Notre Dame football’s big cheese: Charlie Weis.
1. CHARLIE WEIS IS FAT
This is often a criticism leveled by individuals with no substantial argument to make (ahem, Mr. Filler). But yes, Coach Weis is both large and in charge, and he doesn’t aid any visual efforts to trim down with the way he pulls his slacks up about four inches below his chin on game day. Hadn’t I always heard that those Adidas stripes can be “slimming”?
And yes, the “Beat Notre Dame and send Charlie Back to the Chocolate Factory” shirts are amusing (and just speak volumes for how clever the t-shirt wearer is), but of course it’s more of a testament to how one feels about Notre Dame than Weis himself. Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen and Kansas’ Mark Mangino both seem to be a bit larger, though their girth hasn’t quite been the subject of ridicule to the degree of Charlie Weis. Charlie is a portly fellow; that I’ll give you. But in a profession that often comprises former football players that have let their physiques go to pot, he’s certainly not the portliest of them all.
2. CHARLIE WEIS IS ARROGANT
This typically depends on whom you ask. To Notre Dame fans (or at least to some) it’s confidence; to others, it’s bravado, hubris, arrogance, indigestion...whatever you want to call it.
Much was made of Charlie’s comments at an alumni fundraiser over the summer regarding his team’s upcoming September 13 clash with the University of Michigan, and the anticipated “excuses” the Wolverines would make in the midst of a rebuilding year. Weis reportedly finished up with a “to hell with Michigan.” Considering that Michigan will be in a rebuilding phase not dissimilar from Notre Dame’s in 2007, these comments certainly seem tasteless. Then again, if every alumni gathering for every major athletic program was mic’ed, I’m sure we’d all hear something similar. I can’t defend the “winning with thugs and hooligans” comment, as that was indeed a stupid assertion to make. Still, I feel Weis’s actions are a better reflection of what type of person he is than a few off-the-cuff remarks he made at some booster dinner.
Weis may not have as much humility as Sweater Vest, but that doesn’t necessarily make him arrogant, nor is he close to the malcontent Nick Saban is. He’s never seriously denigrated an opponent, nor made any gesture close to belittling an opposing team’s victory over the Irish. So many seem to forget that after easily the most crushing defeat of Weis’ young Notre Dame career – a 34-31 loss to #1 USC in 2005 – Weis walked into the visiting Trojans’ locker room and thanked them for a fine game and wished them the best for the remainder of the season. When asked for his opinion on the Trojans’ game-winning touchdown where running back Reggie Bush illegally shoved quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone (a runner’s progress can’t be aided by a teammate), Weis responded that if Brady Quinn was stuck in a similar situation (Leinert had actually been stopped at the goal line), he’d hope that his teammates would have been there to push him in. And after the second-most crushing defeat in Weis’ head coaching tenure at Notre Dame – a 46-44 triple overtime loss to Navy, their first loss to the Midshipmen in 43 years – Weis made sure his players kept up with the tradition that he started two years prior by having his Fighting Irish team stand behind Navy at the conclusion of the game to sing Navy’s alma mater.
These are just a few examples, and on more than a handful of occasions, Weis has remained gracious in defeat, which is typically not a trait of arrogance.
3. CHARLIE WEIS WON WITH TYRONE WILLINGHAM'S RECRUITS
I always found this argument to be more of an indictment of Willingham’s acumen than of Weis’s. Brady Quinn was consistently running for his life as a young quarterback in Ty’s ill-managed West Coast offense, while wide receiver Jeff Samardzija rode the bench. Enter Charlie Weis, and Brady Quinn was quickly in Heisman conversations, and Samardzija became one of the most dominant receivers in college football, earning All-American status and an almost certain first round pick before ultimately opting instead for a professional career in baseball. If Charlie was indeed winning with Willingham’s recruits, then Charlie was developing them and showing them how to win in a way Ty couldn’t. But when Willingham started his first season with the Irish in 2002 at 8-0, there was nary a criticism echoed that Ty was winning with Bob Davie’s players.
4. CHARLIE WEIS CAN'T WIN THE "BIG GAME"
It’s difficult to argue that in the biggest games on the brightest stages, Weis has had his Irish prepared.
Everyone remembers the narrow loss to USC in 2005. Everyone also remembers Buckeyes Ted Ginn, Jr. and Santonio Holmes running wild in the Irish secondary in the Fiesta Bowl that same year in a 34-20 Ohio State romp. People also remember Michigan tearing apart #2 Notre Dame in South Bend, USC humiliating Notre Dame yet again in the Coliseum and the Tigers of LSU running Notre Dame off the field in the Sugar Bowl. Whenever the light seemed to shine the brightest on Weis and the Irish, they scattered for cover. The big boys of the BCS conferences always seemed to make games against the Irish look like walk-throughs against the local middle school team.
"[N]ow that we've gotten to know each other (I like Notre Dame, you have a bean bag chair), I would like to try to refute (or even corroborate) popular notions about Charlie Weis and his Fighting Irish."
But at the outset of Weis’s career at Notre Dame in 2005, each game seemed to be “the big one.” Often overlooked, Weis became the first coach in Notre Dame history to win his first two games on the road: at #24 Pittsburgh and at #3 Michigan. At the time, each could certainly be deemed as a “big game,” especially the 17-10 victory against a third-ranked Michigan team in Ann Arbor, where the Irish hadn’t won since 1993. It is also worth noting that Charlie Weis won his first nine road games at Notre Dame, spanning all of his first season and almost all of the second before a loss at USC in the final regular season game of 2006. As any ardent college football fan would attest, it’s never easy to win on an opponent’s home field.
So, all tolled, Weis has won really...um...one big game with the Irish.
5. NOTRE DAME IS A THING OF THE PAST, AND CHARLIE WEIS WON'T BRING THEM BACK
When USC split a national championship with LSU in 2003, it was USC’s first in 31 years. 2003 also marked LSU’s first national title in 45 years. Ohio State won it all in 2002, its first in 34 years (since Woody in 1968). The Texas Longhorns ended a 36-year drought when they won it all in 2005. Michigan’s split national title with Nebraska in 1997 was its first in 49 years.
Oklahoma went 3-8 just five years before winning a national title in 2000. Penn State hasn’t won a title in 22 years, but Joe Paterno is still the dean of college football.
And you get my point.
Notre Dame is approaching the 20-year anniversary of their last consensus national championship, and they last competed for a national title about 15 years ago. No doubt, Notre Dame hasn’t won with the consistency of years past, but the argument that Notre Dame will never win it all again has no rational support.
As long as Notre Dame has a national audience, a national TV contract and continues to bring in top-10 recruiting classes, they will remain relevant in the college football world. Any program with that kind of support always has a chance to win. When beating Notre Dame is no longer a headline on ESPN.com, then maybe one could argue irrelevance.
6. CHARLIE WEIS IS NO BETTER THAN TYRONE WILLINGHAM
I honestly feel this criticism will last only until 1) Notre Dame has a better season in 2008 and 2) Willingham is summarily dismissed from Washington. After three years as Notre Dame’s coach, Weis has just one more win (22-15) than his predecessor Tyrone Willingham (21-15) in the same amount of time. Willingham owns an 11-25 record as the head coach at the University of Washington.
The difference most remember is that Weis was delivered a massive contract extension just six games into his career at Notre Dame. Most shocking of all, the extension came the week following a loss (the aforementioned setback to #1 USC). Despite the loss, for whatever reason the athletic department saw this as Notre Dame finally turning the corner against an archrival that had humiliated them by a combined 93 points in three previous contests. At the time, who could blame the athletic department? Notre Dame’s offense became something to be feared and, at least, their defense wasn’t yet losing games. Further exacerbating the haste of the decision were the swirling rumors that several floundering NFL teams were looking to Weis as a possible head coaching candidate. If Charlie could turn around Notre Dame so quickly by transforming Willingham’s rejects into All-Americans, he could do something similar in the NFL, right? Not wanting him to waddle back to the professional ranks, Notre Dame slapped Weis with a fat contract extension when just a year earlier they wouldn’t even let Willingham finish out his first one. It’s arguable that the move was equal parts opportunism and foolish haste, just like the firing of Willingham.
No one’s going to confuse former Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White for George Patton. The dismissal of Tyrone Willingham in 2004 and the hiring of a successor was one of the most botched and humiliating procedures in the history of the University of Notre Dame, so much to the point that faculty, students, famous alumni and revered former University President Rev Edward Malloy spoke out publicly against the termination of Tyrone Willingham. Critics even went so far as to say that Willingham was the victim of a racial hit, and that blue and gold were no longer important colors to Notre Dame, but that black and white were.
The truth was, green is the most important color for Notre Dame, and I’m not talking about the green that adorns the leprechaun’s pantaloons. Feel free to make a value judgment, but Willingham showed little sign of commitment in getting Notre Dame back to prominence. Sub-par recruiting classes (which many point to the reason for Notre Dame’s poor performance in 2007), alleged increased golf outings during critical recruiting and practice periods, and categorical refusals to make adjustments on his coaching staff didn’t sit well with the athletic department (if you think coaches are the only ones who make personnel decisions, you’re officially adorable). It appeared to all the big donors that Willingham wasn’t as concerned about national titles as he was about maintaining a status quo: as long as they had semi-winning seasons, players weren’t flunking out and no one was arrested, all was well. But if that’s the case, what separates Notre Dame from Northwestern or Stanford? Notre Dame’s sea of green doesn’t grow from clover.
As far as an on-field difference between Weis and Willingham, Willingham’s Irish teams seemed to wilt commensurate with the autumn leaves, instead of buckling down for the stretch runs. In each coach’s two most successful seasons in South Bend, Willingham was 3-4 in the month of November, Charlie Weis was 7-1. Specifically, Willingham’s teams lacked any consistency from game to game, sometimes beating teams they weren’t expected to and often losing to teams they shouldn’t. Willingham’s teams never could find a rhythm throughout the season, specifically on offense. In Willingham’s final season with the Irish, they lost to Brigham Young, were destroyed by Purdue, beat Michigan and Tennessee, blew a big lead at home and lost to Boston College and were downed at home on Senior Day by Pitt.
Willingham’s last two recruiting classes weren’t even filled, with the dwindling upperclassmen in this year’s and last year’s class as evidence. He signed three offensive linemen in three years, and often his recruiting classes finished outside the top 30 nationally. Weis’s last three recruiting classes have each ranked nationally in the top 10, with his most recent being ranked at #2 by most recruiting publications. In addition, Weis took Notre Dame to two BCS bowl games, essentially paying back the university for his lofty contract. He was also the first coach to give Notre Dame back-to-back 9+ win seasons since Lou Holtz did it in 1992 and 1993. Make no mistake, a 3-9 season is inexcusable considering the talent on Notre Dame’s roster, and if Weis repeats such a season, you can expect his dismissal, but differences between Weis and Willingham’s respective horizons at Notre Dame are jarring. And it doesn’t appear Washington fans are all too thrilled with Willingham either (www.byebyety.com).
And unlike Willingham, Weis has at least made an effort to learn from his mistakes. He has ceded all play-calling duties to (*gasp*) third-year offensive coordinator Michael Haywood. In efforts to increase defensive pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Weis hired defensive lifer Jon Tenuta from Georgia Tech. And after watching his young players become physically over-matched and out-classed in games against Georgia Tech, Michigan and USC, Weis quit the NFL-run practices of minimal contact and set his players loose on each other. Weis may seem obstinate when it comes to the media, but he certainly hasn’t been averse to change on the field.
As a Notre Dame fan, I have high hopes that Weis will succeed. The fact that despite the turmoil, Weis continues to reel in consecutive Top 10 recruiting classes has many of the Irish faithful dreaming for the glory days (or at least better ones). And as far as where the blame lies in Notre Dame’s 3-9 season of 2007, Weis has repeatedly fallen on the sword, pointing the biggest finger at himself and saying simply that he was out-coached, which is in stark contrast to Willingham’s post-loss press conferences, complete with shrugging shoulders and “we just didn’t execute” ho-hums. The only problem with Weis’s wholehearted acceptance of accountability is that fans will know exactly where to point their torches if play doesn’t improve, so it’s now up to Fat Charlie the Archangel (or is he a cherub?) to take the next step forward...slacks permitting, of course.
Anthony Mosko is a special guest contributor to The Rivalry, Esq. He is a third-year law student at The University of Detroit Mercy. Please direct comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.