- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006

Charlie Weis is the fox du jour on a college coaching landscape littered with pheasants.

Every few years, a truly special talent emerges from the cliche-spouting, ex-jock masses who define the profession. From Paterno to Bowden, Holtz to Spurrier, Stoops to Carroll, these men quickly distinguish themselves from their peers in more than just the win column.

There’s an undeniable magnetism surrounding the true coaching greats, a complex concoction of intelligence, confidence, competence and passion that instantly confers authority and quietly commands attention.

Notre Dame’s second-year coach has precisely such a presence. And with such a compelling character at play among relative cardboard cutouts, one gets the feeling the Irish won’t need leprechauns much longer.

“Crewcut Charlie” is a coaching anomaly in many ways. He’s one of the nation’s few head men who didn’t play the game in college. He didn’t major in I-formation football; he graduated from Notre Dame in 1978 with a degree in speech and drama.

And once you realize he isn’t an aging offensive lineman, Weis doesn’t much look the part of South Bend’s ultimate squire; unlike predecessors Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, Weis is nobody’s idea of picturesque. Think college football’s Rick Majerus.

His weight was once a concern. While still the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots in the summer of 2002, Weis attempted to improve his profile, both literally and as a potential NFL head coach, undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Complications from the procedure led to two weeks in a coma, giving Weis all the perspective he’ll ever need on the issue of presentation.

In his profession, image definitely isn’t everything success is.

Few men have ever enjoyed such unqualified success at every level. Weis’ work with the Patriots is well documented. The ultimate protege of the $100 Bills (Parcells and Belichick), Weis finished his 15-year career in the NFL by collecting three Super Bowl rings in his final four seasons, turning sixth-round draft choice Tom Brady into a two-time Super Bowl MVP along the way.

But he was a winner long before he reached the Show. He earned his first NFL job when Parcells cold-called him after watching him coach the prep team at Franklin (N.J.) Township to a state title in his first year as a head coach (1989). And going back even further, before his stint as a South Carolina assistant under Bob Morrison (1985-88), there is perhaps the ultimate example of Weis’ extraordinary talent. In 1983, when Weis was an assistant coach at Morristown (N.J.) High, the basketball coach quit just before the season, and the athletic director asked Weis to coach the team on the side. Morristown’s hoops team won the league title that season.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that his debut season at Notre Dame produced similarly dramatic results. Under Weis, an Irish team that ranked 81st in the nation in total offense in 2004 (345.5 yards a game) improved to 10th in 2005 (477.33) — the largest jump in Division I-A football last season. Employing virtually the same mediocre personnel that got Willingham fired the previous season, Weis’ first team in South Bend scored more points (440) than any in the history of the game’s most storied program en route to a 9-3 record that gave the school its first finish in the top 10 of the AP poll (No. 9) since 1993.

With the bulk of that team returning — most notably Heisman favorite quarterback Brady Quinn, tailback Darius Walker and All-American wideout Jeff Samardzija — the Irish open this season tomorrow at Georgia Tech as the nation’s No. 2 team, leaving everyone but Weis entertaining thoughts of a national championship.

“I do not use those two words,” the 50-year-old Weis said earlier this week. “Would I like to win [the title] this year? Yes. Would I like to win it next year? You betcha. Year after? Sign me up. [EnLeader] But the two words I’m using are Georgia and Tech, because it’s the best way to keep your team focused.”

And nobody is more focused than Weis.

Immediately dispelling any self-satisfaction, Irish players reporting for offseason conditioning were greeted by a banner that stated: “9-3 isn’t good enough.”

For his part, Weis attacked the offseason by signing a consensus top-10 recruiting class. One of his first hires at Notre Dame was former Texas recruiting guru Mike Haywood. Weis and Haywood immediately addressed the team’s primary deficiency from the 2005 campaign (speed and athleticism in the secondary) by signing two of the top high school cornerbacks in the nation (Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil) . The Irish already have earned a verbal commitment from this season’s top high school player, California quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

For those wondering if Notre Dame has suddenly dropped its stringent admissions standards, consider the fact that last year’s Irish team was the first in the history of the program to average better than a 3.0 GPA in both the fall and spring semesters. Weis isn’t just committed to winning; he’s committed to excellence.

“He’s an absolute perfectionist, and that’s contagious,” Notre Dame All-American safety Tom Zbikowski said. “It’s impossible to explain his level of preparation.”

Upon learning that Georgia Tech assistant Patrick Nix was taking over play-calling duties for the Yellow Jackets this season, Weis dispatched staff members to Division II Henderson State to find film on the last team Nix directed.

“Yeah, that forced me to go do some research back to Henderson State, 1999 or 2000 when [Nix] was the head coach,” said Weis, who was mesmerizing on Tuesday as he broke down every aspect of Georgia Tech’s two-deep, describing the tendencies and career of every player on the opposing depth chart. “We actually came up with tape. [Henderson State is in] Arkadelphia, Arkansas, by the way.”

Worried about possible humidity and stamina issues for the opener in Atlanta, Weis moved a series of practices indoors over the last several weeks, setting the thermometer in Notre Dame’s indoor facility up to 90 degrees.

“We cranked it up, and it was miserable which was perfect,” Weis said. “They went into the Loftus [Sports Center], and it wasn’t like Club Med.”

But Weis’ ultimate pregame obsession is his own game plan, a weekly opus of matchup isolations and contingency constructions.

“I feel excitement on Monday when we’re gameplanning, because that’s when I play,” said Weis, who former Irish and New York Giants tight end Mark Bavaro admiringly describes as “a football geek.” “The players play on Saturday. I play when I’m developing the game plan.”

But Weis, a Trenton, N.J., native who fell in love with Notre Dame while watching Sunday afternoon Irish highlights as a kid, is more than just a gridiron intellectual or a blackboard general. He has an edgy, dry sense of humor — a Parcellsesque matter-of-factness that the media often finds brusque, but his players respect.

“He likes to break out what he calls his ‘Jersey vernacular’ on us,” Zbikowski said. “If Brady throws a funky pass, Coach might say something like, ‘Nice ball, Heisman.’ It keeps you loose.”

Queried by one reporter who wondered why the Irish had made a player as valuable as Samardzija the team’s holder, Weis responded: “Joe Montana used to hold, and he went to the Hall of Fame. So I’ll risk Samardzija.”

But beyond even his professionalism, tactical prowess or wit, perhaps Weis’ ultimate attraction is his obvious passion for the game. Listening to Weis discuss his team’s upcoming road trip to Georgia Tech, one realizes that football is this man’s religion, making him the perfect fit for a program overseen by Touchdown Jesus.

“The best part of going on the road is when there’s about three minutes left in the game, and the fans are starting to leave. Those guys that were all screaming at you for the first three quarters? They’re all heading for the exits,” Weis said. “There’s no better feeling in the world than that.”

Of course, Weis’ reverie assumes victory, and not out of arrogance. For such a man, anything else is unthinkable.

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