Dec. 13, 2005
By John Heisler
Senior Associate Athletic Director for Media and Broadcast Relations
So, who exactly is this Charlie Weis guy anyway?
That’s the question Notre Dame football fans found themselves asking exactly a year ago this week when Weis was hired as Irish head coach.
Early on, it wasn’t easy to get a handle on the new head man in South Bend.
For one, Weis’ profile – though heightened by two Super Bowl wins in three years with the New England Patriots (a figure that would grow to three wins in four years two months later) – had remained relatively low. Other than his NFL-mandated accessibility at Super Bowl media days, Weis generally was unavailable to the media on any regular basis, making Weis sound bites few and far between.
Though Weis had been featured in Notre Dame Magazine, the University’s alumni magazine, a few years back, he remained something of a comparative unknown to Irish fans, even as a Notre Dame graduate, simply because he had not played or coached for the Irish.
Weis had built his coaching resume from scratch. His success level with the Patriots ultimately made him a far better Rudy story than Rudy himself.
While Weis may not have been a household name to Irish fans – and not in college football circles since he had not coached at that level since 1988 – Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White found no lack of respect when he and his staff did their homework on the Patriot offensive coordinator.
A handful of both players (Mark Bavaro, Marc Edwards, David Givens, Rick Mirer) and coaches (Mike Stock) with Notre Dame connections helped provide background on the Trenton, N.J., product and ’78 Notre Dame graduate. So did Joe Theismann, who had seen Weis work many times in Theismann’s position as an ESPN analyst. Maybe the ultimate compliment came from one of the Patriots’ most noteworthy adversaries, Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, who pleaded with White, “Get him out of the league!” Another individual with NFL connections suggested that Patriot wunderkind and quarterback Tom Brady believed Weis had “hung the moon.”
Irish fans quickly came to see a picture of a tough, confident if not brash, blue-collar Jersey guy who had developed something of a mad scientist reputation as a play-caller and was effectively joined at the hip with Brady. The NBC Sports Notre Dame announce team of Tom Hammond, Pat Haden and Lewis Johnson quickly learned that Weis’ ultimate compliment for a player was to describe him as “all-day tough” – and they went so far as to ask Weis prior to the final Irish home game to pick an All-Weis All-Day Tough team of Weis-coached players in the NFL.
They learned he had a daughter, Hannah, with global developmental delays and, within hours, at least one Notre Dame fan Web site, NDNation, had established a front-page link to Weis’ Hannah & Friends foundation.
It didn’t take long for Weis’ play-calling expertise to manifest itself at Notre Dame.
It started with Notre Dame’s first drive of the season against Pittsburgh (six plays, 78 yards, for a touchdown) and extended to the final drive of the regular season at Stanford (with the Irish down by a point and its Bowl Championship Series hopes on the line, six plays, 80 yards, all in 51 seconds, for anther TD). In between was an 87-yard, eight-play, TD-scoring drive that gave the Irish a late lead over top-rated USC. That one might have gone down in Irish annals as “The Drive” – if only the Trojans hadn’t trumped it with a 75-yard scoring march of their own moments later. The workmanlike Irish offensive approach in ’05 produced 36 TD-scoring drives of 60 yards or more, 28 of 70 yards or more, 13 of 80 or more, three of 90 or more.
Away from the technical aspects of football, Irish fans found their head coach had a pretty good feel for how to handle the other aspects of his job.
Just after spring football ended, Weis journeyed to New York to meet with NBC Sports staffers and lunched with NBC chairman Dick Ebersol, whose son had been killed in a plane crash a few months earlier. Ebersol asked what Weis was going to do with his 12-year-old son Charlie at games – and he quickly suggested to Weis that the seasons to come quite likely would be a chance in a lifetime for the Weis family and that Charlie ought to consider long and hard the prospect of having his son with him on the sidelines at games. Weis later admitted he took the advice to heart.
After the season-opening win at Pittsburgh the two Charlies left the field side by side, and the elder Weis seemed to enjoy casting his son as one of his tougher critics when it came to football. The scene lent a human side to the Irish coach who had been portrayed as a hard-boiled, tough guy by so many.
Having dealt with the challenges incumbent with his daughter Hannah, Weis obviously had a special feeling for anyone facing particular personal obstacles. Irish fans learned that firsthand later that month when some Irish players were invited to visit a young Mishawaka, Ind., resident batting terminal brain cancer.
Weis ended up going himself to visit 10-year-old Montana Mazurkiewicz (he had a brother named Rockne) on the Wednesday before the Washington game. Along the way, Weis asked the boy if he wanted to call a play in the game that Saturday, and Montana responded by asking for a pass to the right.
By Friday morning, Weis learned that Montana had passed away the previous night. By early in the first period on Saturday, Weis’ promise took on a new light.
Washington’s opening possession ended with an Irish fumble recovery at their own one. However, Weis stuck with his promise, called a pass to the right side on a play in which all the action went to the left – and Brady Quinn made it work out of his own end zone by hitting tight end Anthony Fasano, who promptly hurdled a Huskie defender for 13 yards and the first down.
Maybe no one would even have become aware of the situation had not Montana’s mother contacted a local South Bend television station later on Saturday. By Sunday, “Pass Right” had become a national story.
Three weeks later, after that fateful, game-winning drive by USC, Weis took his son along on a postgame visit to a surprised Trojan lockerroom to congratulate the visitors on their victory.
A month later, Weis brought his team to stand alongside the Navy players postgame — while the Naval Academy pep band played its alma mater. You could have heard a pin drop in Notre Dame Stadium – at a time fans normally are gathering their belongs and heading for the exits.
While Irish fans wanted to make BCS talk the topic d’jour the week Notre Dame closed its home season against a 1-9 Syracuse team, Weis kept the focus on the 34 Irish seniors and watched from afar as the Notre Dame veterans took an emotional, final victory lap after the Irish win.
So, while a BCS invitation and 9-2 regular-season mark (including a pair of three-point losses that went down to the final plays) lent instant credibility to the Notre Dame program, Irish fans learned their new head coach could warm – and earn — their hearts in more ways than one.