May 26, 2008
Editor’s Note: Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis is taking part in a first-of-its-kind tour of the Middle East, with four other college football coaches, to meet with members of the U.S. military. The other coaches are Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville, Georgia’s March Richt, Yale’s Jack Siedlecki and Miami’s Randy Shannon. The tour started Tuesday at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and concludes Memorial Day with a visit to President Bush at the White House. Weis, who got to meet roughly 5,000 troops in the Middle East, shares his thoughts with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen for a daily diary. This is the final installment in the series.
Sometimes military protocol dictates you can’t be real specific about your location, so let’s just say I spent the day (Sunday) somewhere in the Southwest Pacific. But we’re in the middle of a desert again, so it’s hot as hell, which is about 115 degrees.
The quarters we’re staying in are actually pretty comfortable. As hot as it is outside, you’ve got air-conditioning, and it’s very livable and all the people here have it. All the soldiers have it. They work long, hot days, but in turn they treat them pretty decent.
We went over to their dining hall and sat down there and did a long meet-and-greet — a conga line of signatures like we’ve been doing. That went really well. Probably the highlight was this one girl who was supposed to be flying on one of the most secretive planes (Sunday). She is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. Her first name is Laura. They were scheduled to fly out (Sunday) morning. So she was going to miss me being there, and she was miserable.
This got back to me as the day went on. She was all geared up and walking up on the plane to take off. Her commander said, “Nah, we’ve got somebody to cover for you. Go ahead and meet coach Weis.” This girl was doing cartwheels the rest of the day. She was at the lunch and then when we went on a tour of the base, who’s standing there on the tour, showing off a plane? Her. Smiling as big as you can imagine.
Later in the day, I’m driving around, and the guy in the back seat is from Indiana and a huge Notre Dame fan. It’s almost like you’re set up everywhere you go. There’s somebody from Indiana that’s a Notre Dame fan that’s either in your car or on your bus or on your plane. They’re everywhere — it’s unbelievable.
I met a couple of guys from South Bend (Sunday). One went to John Adams High School. One went to Culver Military Academy. You’re in the middle of signing for people in this long line, and you hear this voice saying, “Yeah, I went to John Adams. If you’re going to my house, you turn off Twyckenham …” Here you are in the middle of the desert! Those three kids were like my three highlights of the day.
Late in the afternoon, they held a flag football game on the base. The Southeastern Conference coaches — (Auburn’s) Tommy Tuberville and (Georgia’s) March Richt — coached one team. And (Yale’s) Jack Siedlecki and (Miami’s) Randy Shannon coached the other team. I was the head referee, because I was the only one not affiliated with a conference. So I got to bust everyone’s chops.
So right away I called a 5-yard, delay-of-game penalty on Mark Richt for “overcoaching.” And then Tuberville’s yelling, “The fix is in. The fix is in.” Actually their team won 14-12. It was 6-6 at halftime. Their team scored and went for two to go up 14-6. The other team scored with 14 seconds to go, went for two and didn’t make it. Everyone loved it, the base just loved it. The field was 80 yards long and made of dirt. No grass anywhere. After the game, they had a big cookout. They gave them kebabs and ribs and lobster. That was like the big Memorial Day cookout they had.
We’re leaving for the airport at 1 o’clock in the morning (Monday) and we’re flying out of here at somewhere around 3 a.m. And it’s at least a 15-hour flight going back. We’re going to land in Washington, get cleaned up, then we’re going over to the White House and have a private meet-and-greet with the president for about 15 minutes. Then he’s going to bring us outside the White House and do a little press conference with him talking about us, with us standing behind him. I’m sure we’ll answer some questions after he says what he has to say. That whole thing will last until about 4:45. Then I’m going to head to the airport, hop on a plane and come home.
Fifteen hours will be the longest flight I’ve ever been on. Remember, it was broken up coming over in that we went to Germany first. The longest flight I’ve ever been on prior to this was Newark, N.J. to Honolulu, and I think that might have been about 10 or 11 hours. Now the difference is that was a 10- or 11-hour flight in first class with people catering to your every whim. We’re going on a military tanker.
It’s way different. They had to put some seats in there for us. Usually there’s some product in the middle and some fold-off seats off to the side, like portable seats. That’s what the guys who work the plane are sitting in. But they did bring in some seats for us to sit on. There are almost no windows, either. There are two little windows in about the middle of the plane. What I’ll do is spend some time up front in the cockpit. That’s about the only place you can look out.
There’s no announcement of putting your tray tables up. Food is a bag of peanuts. There’s some coolers with water, Gatorade and sodas. “Go serve yourself.” The temperature ranges anywhere from 120 degrees to 40 degrees within the flight. On the way over, the heat didn’t faze me too much, but a couple of us walked up and down checking on people to make sure they were OK, that they weren’t getting sick or dehydrating.
I think the other coaches and I have become pretty close on this trip. I don’t think you can help it. We’ve been busting chops with each other pretty good, to tell you the truth.
What I learned from this trip is that it’s strikingly obvious that everyone over here is so upbeat and optimistic and so proud of what they do. They’re just happy that we’re over here to let them know how much they mean to everyone. It’s almost like validating their existence, so to speak. But they are prideful, and it’s important to them and they have total faith in what we’re doing.
They want to be here. Other than a handful of people who were right at the end of their tour and just a couple of days from going home, there wasn’t one person that had a long way to go that complained about how much time they had left. Not once did I hear that. Not once. And I must have talked to 5,000 people.
If I were single — which I’m obviously not — I wish this thing went on for a month. I could do this for a month. But I miss my family. Sometimes it was frustrating not being able to have access to (wife) Maura and (son) Charlie, because I’m so used to talking to them so much every day. I thought it was a small price to pay for what I gained. There isn’t one day where you couldn’t be over here doing some good and just perking up the troops. You should see the reaction we’ve gotten. It really has been unbelievable. I’ve had some good good-natured teasing moments. I’ll always remember those.
My biggest hope coming over here was obvious — going in a role to try to lift the spirits of our troops and tell everyone how important they were. However, one of my biggest concerns was that these kids, these soldiers would think we were hypocritical, that we were just one big PR stunt. You don’t know how they’re going to take it. The big dogs are proud to have you there, but you’re always concerned on the ground floor how they’re going to perceive it — like is this a dog-and-pony show or is this the real thing? Not once did you feel anything but thanks, sincere thanks. Walking out the door, you’re convinced and they were very, very, very happy you were here.
And what better way to end the trip than standing outside the White House behind the president of the United States on Memorial Day?
It doesn’t make any difference if you’re Republican, Democrat. You just came back from the Middle East and you’re visiting with the president and standing behind him while he talks to the media on Memorial Day. Does it get any better than that?