Last year for the Irish was painful, especially for a Head Coach who erected a banner in the training facilities after his first year that said “9 and 3 is Not Good Enough”. Yet to many Notre Dame fans, players, recruits and their parents, Notre Dame is becoming great again in college football. Could ESPN be getting this wrong?
While hearing rumors of a premature Irish demise, Notre Dame instead is expectant this year—rather like Charlie Weis’s first year. The same, but different.
Remember 2005? An “offensive genius” from the New England Patriots and his hand-picked coaching staff with considerable experience in college and the NFL brought the Irish back from oblivion. Oblivion is:
- when the students and alumni were becoming disconnected about ND football
- when high school coaches and recruits, especially in traditional ND recruiting grounds such as Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the East Coast are going elsewhere
- when the offense is predictable and the defense is mistake-prone and the players
hang their heads
- when, in recruiting, ND could not attract a top 25 team for three years
- when the head coach, after losses, repeatedly says “We had a good game plan
but the players did not execute it.”
Weis, a Notre Dame graduate, came to his “dream job” with a hand-picked coaching staff who had considerable college and NFL experience. Talking heads wondered if he could jump from coordinator to head coach or how his NFL game would translate to the college level.
Weis exhibits all the attributes of a good CEO. He is insightful, identifying problems impacting the football program. He worked immediately to repair the disconnect with students in weekly meetings at dorms, with players in meetings and workouts, with high school coaches and recruits by crisscrossing the country during the spring, something only assistant coaches usually did. During recruiting, Internet boards would post "Where is Charlie Weis?" so the ND plane could be tracked. His work ethic became legendary, working late into the night only to come back at 4-5 AM for 11 months of the year.
Weis develops goals and plans of action with backup plans. He uses his talent of player evaluation from the NFL and coordinates his staff and team towards his goals. He makes adaptations quickly. He is not afraid to make hard choices or to seek out the insight of others. He is a teacher, a disciplinarian and a straight-talker. Most of all, he takes full responsibility in losses and in wins usually praises others.
Much of Weis reminds you of Rockne. Weis demands much of himself and of his coaches and his players - both on the field and in the classroom. His offseason strength and conditioning brings back Rockne’s famous quote: “You are going to sweat all the way down to your fingernails”. Another Rockne saying: “Show me a good and gracious loser and I’ll show you a failure.” With his high expectations, Weis is a results-oriented Jersey guy. “We lost. There is no moral victory.” His book is entitled “No Excuses”. Patience may not be his strong suit. “9-3 is Not Good Enough”. All this has resonated with Notre Dame fans, who demand success, and has earned respect from his players, recruits, and his opponents.
Who has done better in the last three years? In the last three years, only Jim Tressel (OSU) and Pete Carroll (USC) have taken their teams to more BCS bowls - three. Weis’s two BCS bowls is tied with only Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Les Miles (LSU) and Rich Rodriguez (West Virginia-now Michigan). Weis did it while rebuilding a program in disrepair. As far as player development, Brady Quinn went from being a second day draft pick to going in Round 1 due to Weis’s tutelage and Quinn’s hard work. Many other players have improved their draft status. The NFL knows how Charlie develops players and can receive a frank appraisal of how a player would do.
Weis decided after the 2006 season that the defense needed a new direction and replaced Rick Minter with Corwin Brown of the Jets, who instituted a 3-4 defense. This year he has added John Tenuta, lately defensive coordinator of Georgia Tech, which was known for his attacking, blitzing defenses. He has also delegated play-calling to Mike Haywood, his offensive coordinator, who is also a Notre Dame graduate and was in a similar position at Texas. Notre Dame may be the only D-1 team where both coordinators are African-American. Corwin Brown is a Michigan alum who played in the NFL, a terrific recruiter and a young, talented defensive mind.
Notre Dame has recruited three top 10 recruiting classes as Weis and his coaches have worked tirelessly to add speed, size, strength and talent. The only other football programs that have similar top 10 recruiting results over three years are Florida, USC, and Georgia. His staff has three former heads of recruiting at different schools. Notre Dame is completing rebuilding with this next class and is restocked and reloaded. Recently, the top rated running back in the nation chose Notre Dame over USC and UCLA. Weis is reconstructing Irish football team year by year to build a program to the level of LSU, USC, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma. Rockne: “I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.”
Weis is as likely to discuss teaching intangibles as fundamentals and techniques. At his spring press conference, one of his goals was to teach “swagger” and “coaching confidence”. He wanted his players to be instilled with a “very, very great sense of urgency similar to the first year I got here”. Rockne: “Football is a game played with arms, legs and shoulders but mostly from the neck up.”
What happened last year? Charlie will readily take all the heat for 2007. But last year’s Notre Dame team had youth and an inexperienced offense. Sophomores made more starts than seniors. Eleven freshmen played. Notre Dame played ten teams that went to bowls. Weis’s game planning is about ball control, keeping the defense guessing and creating imbalances with his personnel groupings. The offensive line did not control the line of scrimmage and Weis’s running game could not get established. Too many times Notre Dame was left in 3rd and long, predictably passing situations. But last year, as an indication, Time of Possession dropped from 32 minutes to 29 minutes. Too many mistakes were made. Special teams play limited the Irish in field goal attempts, kickoffs, and returns. Weis will work with special teams this year. Rockne: “Build up your weaknesses until they become your strengths”.
When Weis arrived at Notre Dame, he had less than 70 players on scholarship, historically worse than any program who received the NCAA’s “death penalty” except Miami and Oklahoma. Willingham had recruited only four offensive linemen in three years, including two in 2005 - the year he left. Weis replenished with six offensive linemen his first year, four his second year, and four with the incoming class. Charlie and his staff have added depth and competition for positions. His philosophy is that the best player will start, which appeals to talented recruits. But 2007 was when the chickens came home to roost in the worst season in Notre Dame football history. Talented but inexperienced players were outmatched too many times. Too many times Notre Dame was down early, and forced to try to pass to catch up.
The hard knocks from 2007 and an offseason of conditioning brings experience to the 2008 team. To give you an idea of last year’s youth, here’s 2008s’ returning players and the minutes played in 2007 by position:
QB – returnees played 90% of time in 2007
RB – 83%
OL – 80% (John Sullivan left for the NFL)
WR – 99%
TE – 28% (John Carlson left for the NFL)
DL (3) – 50% (Trevor Laws left for the NFL)
LB (4) – 72%
S – 53% (Tom Zbikowski left for the NFL)
CB – 77%
Expect some more talented freshmen to vie for playing time this year even with all the talent returning.
Most of all, parents and recruits are impressed with Notre Dame’s graduation record, including black football players’ grad rates. Weis recently was pleased to accept the American Football Coaches Association trophy for his team’s graduation rate, sharing top honors with Northwestern. He is proud of his team’s academic accomplishments. Weis makes sure he does everything he can so his players graduate, to be successful in life as well as optimizing their opportunities to be successful in football at Notre Dame and in the NFL.
Looking back on three years.
Students are excited about football. Alumni ticket requests are at their highest. Traditional recruiting pipelines have been reestablished and top prospects are coming to Notre Dame from all over the country. The coaching clinics have record attendances. ND football camps are attracting high numbers of prospects. The Golden Dome is shining whether Sports Networks recognize it yet or not.
Rockne: “We count on winning. If we lose, don’t beef. The best way to prevent beefing—don’t lose.”