Hours after losing to Connecticut on Notre Dame's Senior Day, Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis sat down at length with John Walters and talked to the FanHouse writer one-on-one about his experience coaching at his alma mater. The following is what transpired between coach and reporter very early Sunday morning.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The November darkness is unseasonably warm. Charlie Weis steps out of his black Yukon SUV toting two bagels and two coffees. Clad in gray Notre Dame football sweats and shower sandals, America's most renowned embattled football coach, if not employee, has brought breakfast for his first visitor of the day.
The time is 4:28 AM.
"I bet you thought I wasn't going to show up," Weis says with a rueful smile Sunday morning.
"I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd hit the 'snooze' button," the reporter says.
"I spent about three hours last night answering text messages from players and coaches saying they're sorry," Weis says. "I'm texting them back telling them it wasn't their fault."
Earlier in the evening, Sergio Brown stood bawling in Weis's second-floor office in the Guglielmino Athletic Complex (a.k.a., the Gug). Brown, the senior safety whose late-hit penalty in the second quarter provided the game's first tidal shift in the Huskies' favor, feels particularly responsible. Weis was having none of it
"The bottom line is, we're 6-5 and somebody is responsible," says Weis. "That somebody is me. And I have to accept responsibility."
Sometimes you just cannot outwork a problem. Notre Dame is flirting with its second .500 regular season in the past two years. And while the past three weeks have seen a litany of inexplicable player errors, from a pass being thrown into Michael Floyd's back at the goal line to Brown's late hit (the pass was already out of bounds when he launched himself into the receiver), ultimately the buck stops at the man who makes the most of them. This Saturday at Stanford, Weis will likely be coaching his alma mater for the final time.
The fourth commandment ("Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy") is largely ignored during football season, but the coach of God's football team arrives at this ungodly hour every morning. This is the beginning of the daily routine. Standing at the bottom of the long stairwell, Weis grabs the left bannister. He gazes upward in the same way a teenager gazes at calculus homework.
"Sunday is the most excruciating day," Weis says, referring to the pain that he feels in both legs, "because I've been standing up at least four hours the day before. It'll start feeling better by Monday night."
The ravaged knees are the result of an accidental blindside hit Weis took during last season's Michigan game (although he has nerve damage in his lower extremities dating back to 2002, the result of a botched gastric bypass surgery). For a guy who only played high school football and who readily admits that "I wasn't very good," Weis can be as tough as any Big Ten linebacker.
On the play, a punt in the first half, Irish defensive end John Ryan was blocked into the legs of Weis, who was walking down the sideline and never saw Ryan. The blow was catastrophic, causing a tear of the ACL, MCL and PCL in Weis's left knee.
"And that isn't the knee I had to have replaced," Weis says. "One-eighth of my right knee broke off. And I didn't even miss the second half."
Of course, too many people were cracking fat jokes to care.
Weis's catastrophically impaired limbs are just one unforeseen trauma of his encore return to South Bend. During his first go-round, as a student from 1974-78, he was anonymous and single. Now the most visible and highly compensated person on campus, he has a family: his wife, Maura, son Charlie Jr., and daughter Hannah.
"The damage to Maura and Charlie Jr. is irreparable," says Weis, referring to the personal nature of the attacks he has been subject to for years now. "It's watching me get hammered. I'll never forgive the people who character-assassinated me without even knowing me. Those people did irreparable damage to my wife and son, and I'll never forgive them."
On Saturday, Maura Weis, for the first time since her husband was hired, opted not to attend a Notre Dame home game.
"They have the right to criticize the coach for being 6-5," says Weis. "They have that right. It's all the other stuff. You think I don't know that I'm fat? Duh!"
Asked if he should be gone, where would Charlie Jr. would go to college, the coach reponded: "I know where he won't be going to college."
This weekend "The Blind Side," a film based on a true story peripherally concerned with college football, opened. In the movie coaches such as Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Tommy Tuberville portray themselves on recruiting visits. They are all of them cocktail-hour all-stars, suave, well-coifed and silver-tongued.
Charlie Weis is not that guy. He pays for his haircut with a $20 and has enough left over for the tip. He lives in sweats and his language away from the media spotlight is redolent of another Jersey guy, comedian Artie Lange. To ask whether he has outside interests is funny because if it were not for his interest in football, he isn't the type of guy you'd expect to find outside.
"My wife has four horses, three dogs and a cat at our home," Weis says.
Are you into animals?
"No, I'm into paying the bills."
And about that salary of his, which has been reported to be as much as $4.2 million per annum. "I don't know where they get that number," Weis says. "I can promise you I don't earn $3.2 million a year."
It's still a lot of scratch, and his record the past three seasons is still underwhelming. It's just one more item he'd like to get straight before, or in case, he should be leaving.
The Working Life
Inside Weis' office, photos of his family outnumber football photos by at least a five-to-one margin. A mural of a legendary football coach adorns one wall, but it is neither Rockne, Leahy nor Parseghian; it is Vince Lombardi.
Behind his desk, the large flat-screen TV is already teed up to the opening kickoff of Saturday's UConn game. The only thing worse than getting three hours of sleep is waking up to a nightmare.
"I'll watch the replay of the game," Weis says, running through his morning calendar, "and then I'll meet with my assistants and grade the offense. Beginning at 9:30 AM, we've got two recruits (five-star studs J.R. Ferguson, a defensive tackle, and Kyle Prater, a wide receiver) in on official visits and I'll meet with them.
"Then, it's another staff meeting. At 11:45, I'll meet with Brian (Hardin, the sports information director) and Kevin (Green, his personal assistant; Green's wife, Sharon, is the director of Weis's "Hannah & Friends" foundation for the developmentally disabled) to get ready for the afternoon press conference ..."
On and on it goes. All top-tier coaches are workaholics, but Weis, having no football hero pedigree upon which to fall, has always punched in a little earlier and punched out a little later. That is how he learned his vocation, as an assistant coach at Morristown (N.J.) High School, and how he later came to impress the Bills, Parcells and Belichick.
At Morristown High, the twenty-something English teacher would arrive between 5 AM and 6 AM, toting the coffee and bagels, and pepper head coach John Chironna with questions. "John Chironna taught me the game of football," Weis says. "Parcells and Belichick taught me how to navigate at this level, but Chironna, he taught me the game."
And so Weis works and works ... and works. He arrives at least two hours before the sun does. The light in his second-floor office on the south end of the Gug rarely goes out before 10 PM. He flies nine hours to Hawaii for a recruiting visit and returns the same day.
Are there other ingredients to success besides man-hours? Of course. Otherwise he would not be in the situation he is in.
The Line of Fire
Weis' future first-round receiving trio of Floyd, Golden Tate and tight end Kyle Rudolph have only started and finished one game together this season. That was the opener versus Nevada, a 35-0 victory. Fate has a sense of humor, as Charlie Jr. broke his finger catching a pass outside the Gug on Friday.
"He's going to have surgery tomorrow," Weis says, providing his first injury update of the season of a football injury that occurred on campus not involving a scholarship athlete.
The injuries to Floyd and Rudolph are hardly the reason the Irish are 6-5, indeed, with all three players in the lineup for the first half against Navy, the Irish were held scoreless. Sure, Notre Dame has yet to lose a game by more than seven points, but it has also lost five games. Weis understands that such a record may be a mandate for change.
"Lou (Holtz) texted me last week, 'You guys are so close'," Weis recalls. Then came the loss to Pitt, a defeat that might have been averted (granted, it would have set up a fourth-and-16) had a replay official not overturned a called incompletion. Weis has heard that an official may get fired over that game and he shoots his visitor a sarcastic glance as if to say, "Yeah, him and me both."
Weis met with athletic director Jack Swarbrick last Tuesday. Nothing is finalized. You can make the argument that if Weis is fired, then surely quarterback Jimmy Clausen, whom Weis believes may be the greatest player in Notre Dame history ("and, remember, I was a student when Joe Montana was here"), will turn pro. And if Clausen goes, Golden Tate likely does, also.
On the other hand, Clausen, who posed for a photo with his family on the field just moments after Connecticut's Andre Dixon scored the game-winning touchdown -- untouched Saturday, by the way -- from four yards out, may be gone, anyway. And while there is short-term comfort in imagining an offense that includes Clausen, Tate, Floyd, Rudolph and Armando Allen in 2010, with Weis pulling the strings, that still does not address the team's principal shortcoming: defense.
One way or the other, Weis will probably know his fate within two or three days after next Saturday's Stanford game. If it ends in Palo Alto, Weis' agent, Bob Lamont, will probably field a half-dozen offers within the first week from the NFL for vacant offensive coordinator positions.
"I'm more respected there," Weis says. "I'm more well-liked there."
Weis can be crude and unrefined, but he is honest. Blunt. And a good sport. Immediately after the UConn loss he approached Huskies quarterback Zach Frazer, the same player he had placed fourth on the depth chart at the end of spring practice in 2007.
"Zach and I weren't exactly boys when he was here," Weis says, "but I wanted to congratulate him. Especially after all UConn has been through this season."
No one will likely be congratulating Weis if his tenure comes to an end in the next ten days. A thank you would be warranted, though. He has graduated 96 percent of his players, tied for tops in the FBS, and returned Notre Dame to the front lines of the five-star recruiting battles. He has produced great quarterbacks, such as Brady Quinn and Clausen, as well as players of great character, such as current seniors Kyle McCarthy and Eric Olsen. Almost all of whom, it seems, have his back.
Charlie Weis is 35-26 at Notre Dame. He may not have gotten the job done, but no one could have put in more hours on that job.
And somewhere next season he will be coaching. "I need to work," he says. "For me."