Wake for Weis

As Notre Dame is appears to be nearing the end of their search for a new head coach, it is time to take a look back on the Weis era.  While it is quite easy to point out the multitude of faults that Weis’ tenure was plagued with, it would be a complete disservice to the man to not point out what he has done for Notre Dame’s football program.  Make no mistake about it, without Weis, the football program could very well be where Kurt Herbstreit is convinced it already is: irrelevant.

Rewind back to 2004.  Ty has just been fired, Meyer snubbed Notre Dame for the Florida job, day by day it seemed another coach told us “thanks, but no thanks”, and ESPN, as well as other national talking heads, were attempting to nail Notre Dame to a cross, calling our firing of Ty unjust and borderline racist.  To say things looked bleak would be a gross understatement.

For me personally, this period of time was my first real chance at working football practices as a manager.  Up to this point, I had only worked one practice (under Ty), and only one football game (vs Pitt).  After Ty’s departure, working bowl practices was not too high on anyone’s list.  Finals were just around the corner, some students decided the manager program wasn’t for them and quit, and some folks in general were just apathetic about working a practice in general.

What I saw in those practices shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.  The team was completely apathetic in general.  Practices were sloppy, players were undisciplined, and interim coach Kent Baer wasn’t exactly Mr. Intensity.

In midst of this darkness, Notre Dame hired Charlie Weis, former Notre Dame alum and offensive coordinator for the Patriots.  Weis took the podium, and, full of bravado, said the words all Notre Dame fans wanted to hear: the now infamous “6-5 is not good enough” speech.  It was a shot of life into a program that seemed to be hanging by a thread.

After a disappointing showing at the Insight Bowl, people were still wondering if Weis would be able to resurrect this program; however, Weis still managed to create a buzz around campus.

He did all of the right things before a single practice ever started.  He visited several dorms to have a personal Q&A session with the students.  He spoke to Notre Dame fans at a women’s basketball game, and soon after spoke directly to the student section at a men’s basketball game.  This was a refreshing change from Ty, whom we would only hear speak at pep rallies.  Weis “got it”.  He was one of us, part of the ND family, and he was determined to let us know things would be different this time around.

Spring practices really weren’t all too intense much to my surprise; however, in hindsight it makes more sense.  Weis was still trying to get to know the team, figure out what he had, and then figure out where to go in the 2005 season.  Still knowing though that he needed to continue to get the fan base excited for next season, Weis decided to bring in a cavalcade of Irish football legends to the Blue/Gold game.  Tim Brown, Joe Montana, and Joe Theismann were just a few of those big names.

Despite some of the worst weather I’ve ever seen for a spring exhibition, I was taken aback by just how many people were in Notre Dame Stadium.  At best, I had only seen a little left than half the lower bowl of the stadium full.  This time around, the lower bowl was packed, and there was a decent showing in the second tier as well.  The buzz had definitely taken hold.

Once Fall Camp came for the team, the tone completely changed.  The intensity shot through the roof.  The mentality of the team completely changed from a team that didn’t care to a team ready to start kicking ass and taking names.

Then the 2005 season started.  ND destroyed Pitt in their opener, upset Michigan at the Big House, were a Bush Push away from beating USC, and landed a Fiesta Bowl bid.  While the BCS game against Ohio State resulted in a loss, it was hard to be disappointed with this turnaround.  We went from near obscurity, to preseason top 5 media darlings in no time flat.

Weis continued his drive for more, placing a sign of “9-3 is not good enough” on the locker room at the Gug.  Fans, as well as the media, were not counting out the chance that ND could very well play for the National Title.  While title dreams were quickly crushed after a Michigan loss at home, the Irish still managed to finish the season 10-3 with a Sugar Bowl loss.  Again, despite the BCS bowl loss, hopes were still high for the team, and recruiting was picking up in supreme fashion as we claimed the prize of the top QB recruit in all the nation away from USC: Jimmy Clausen.

We were back–or so we thought…2007 happened.

3-9 was a shock to the system that no one, not even the biggest ND pessimist, would’ve ever expected.  Knowledgeable fans knew that this would likely be a down year thanks to recruiting holes left by Ty, but the end result of the season was simply sickening.  Despite the God-awful season though, Weis was still able to bring in top recruits once again, most notably Michael Floyd.

2008 didn’t exactly give us anything to write home about either.  6-6, plus some embarrassing losses to the likes of Syracuse put Weis on the hot seat.  However, yet another top recruiting class, that included yanking away Hawaiian stud Mantei Te’o away from USC, and ending ND’s bowl losing streak (in blowout fashion no less), still gave Irish fans some hope.

2009, however, ended all of that.

After a fantastic start, the Irish feel to Navy for the second time in the Weis era and started a free fall that gave us our second straight 6-6 season.  After the Pitt game, everyone, including the players knew Weis’ fate was likely sealed.

The UCONN game started Weis’ funeral procession–literally.  With tears on his face, and walking out arm in arm with the seniors, it was clear Weis knew this was it for him.  As the game progressed, there was no more talk of “can Weis save his job”, but rather “who’s going to replace him?”

As if our season, and now a lame duck coach, wasn’t enough to depress ND fans, all hell broke loose.  Jimmy was punched in the face outside of C.J.’s Pub.  Weis cut off all media access to the team.  Jimmy was dubbed “Darth Vader” in practice as he donned the same dark tinted visors Weis called “too Hollywood” for ND.  And oh yeah, there was a game to prepare for against Stanford.  However, the Stanford game ended in what was a perfect picture of the entire season: powerful offense, coupled with a piss-poor defensive effort.

The Weis era then ended in the exact opposite fashion as it started.  Weis’ initial bravado was replaced by radio silence as he declined to meet with the media.  Nothing more was heard from Weis still, even after Jack Swarbrick officially announced his firing the following Monday.

Weis finally broke his silence this past Saturday in a small sit down interview with five members of the media.  I highly suggest you read the entire thing as it does show that Weis is now, and forever will be a Notre Dame man.

You can say whatever you want to about Weis and his shortcomings on Saturdays, but there is no doubt that he has handled the whole situation with class and did the best he could to try to minimize the circus atmosphere that erupted around the team.  He could’ve easily run off and burn every last bridge connecting himself to ND, but he didn’t.  Instead, Weis spoke to the team at the football banquet, contacted recruits and encouraged them to stay committed to ND, and even sat in support for Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate as they announced their departure to the NFL.

While his win-loss recorded lacked something to be desired, Weis left the program in better shape than he found it.  He destroyed the notion that Notre Dame simply couldn’t recruit with the big boys in college football anymore with several top-flight recruiting classes.  He proved that Notre Dame could indeed stay competitive in the BCS picture.  He ignited a fire and buzz into Notre Dame Nation that had been sorely missing.  And, most importantly, he was able to do all of this while not compromising the academic and moral integrity of the University.

The keys to success are in the ignition and now Notre Dame just needs to find the proper driver.

Coach Weis, I want to personally thank you for all of your hard work.  You gave me not only amazing memories and stories from the 2005 in which I was able to work for you and the team, but you’ve also restored my faith that this program can succeed and will do so once again.  Thanks for adding legendary stories like “Pass Right” that will forever stay in ND lore.  Thank you for laying down the foundation and framework that, without a doubt in my mind, saved our football program.