Three Envelopes: Ty Willingham's Secret Letter To Charlie Weis
When Notre Dame Head Football Coach Charlie Weis showed up for his first day on his new job under the Golden Dome, there was a short letter waiting for him in the middle of his desk. It was from Charlie's predecessor, Ty Willingham. The letter read as follows:
Dear Coach Weis,
Congratulations on being named as Notre Dame's football coach. It is truly an honor and a privilege to represent this University and coach these outstanding young men. You have a wealth of experience that has prepared you for the challenges you will face, but I suspect that you may not understand the truly daunting nature of the task before you.
As Notre Dame football coach you will be famous. Most of the time you will be celebrated and praised. But there will also be dark days when your future at Notre Dame is in serious doubt. To help you through those inevitable times of trouble, I have prepared for you three envelopes. They are in the bottom drawer of this desk. When you and your program are under intense criticism and you need a little help righting the ship, you should open one of the envelopes.
Congratulations once again on your new position, and the best of luck to you and the Fighting Irish.
Yours in Notre Dame,
Coach Weis though it was awfully nice of Coach Willingham to leave him such a nice note, but he wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. He opened the bottom drawer of the desk and, sure enough, there were three sealed envelopes in the drawer, each of them bearing a number, 1 through 3. Charlie shrugged, dropped the note from Ty into the drawer with the envelopes, closed the drawer, and promptly went about salvaging the Notre Dame football program.
In 2005 and 2006, led by quarterback Brady Quinn, the Fighting Irish went 19-4 in regular season games, and appeared in two BCS Bowl games (losing both). By and large the Notre Dame alumni and fans were very happy with Coach Weis and the direction of the football program. Athletic Director Kevin White was looking pretty smart for having lured Coach Weis back to Notre Dame and locking him into a long term contract.
But in the 2007 season things really went sideways for Coach Weis and the Fighting Irish. Without Brady Quinn at quarterback, and having to play a lot of very young, inexperienced players, Notre Dame won only three games, getting blown out in several contests and losing to Navy for the first time since 1963. The alumni and fans were upset. Kevin White was taking heat for having prematurely granted a long contract extension to Charlie. Shortly after the season ended, Coach Weis was preparing for his annual program review meeting with the Athletic Director when he remembered the note from Coach Willingham and the three envelopes.
Mindful of the fact that a three-win campaign was the worst Notre Dame season since Hugh Devore's 1963 squad, Charlie Reached for Envelope #1, and he opened it. Inside was an index card that said only: "Blame the previous head coach."
Charlie went to his meeting with Kevin White, and he explained in great detail how Coach Willingham's failures in recruiting had left Notre Dame with huge holes in the roster, and that it was going to take some time to overcome such a talent deficiency. The Athletic Director saw Charlie's point, and wished him luck in 2008.
The 2008 Fighting Irish squad was much better than the 2007 team. An early whooping of the Michigan Wolverines seemed to bode well for Irish fortunes. But as the season played out the team suffered several embarrassing come-from-ahead losses culminating in a humiliating defeat at the hands of an awful Syracuse squad in Notre Dame Stadium followed by yet another drubbing at the hands of the hated USC Trojans. Notre Dame was Bowl eligible, but just barely. Committed recruits were rumored to be nervous about the future of Coach Weis and the direction of the program, whispers about Charlie's suitability to be a head coach were now replaced by loud calls for his head. As Coach Weis was preparing his team to play their Bowl Game in Hawaii, he too was worried about the recruiting class and his own future. Notre Dame had a new Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, and it wasn't at all clear that Swarbrick wanted to hitch his legacy as A.D. to Charlie's wagon.
Charlie opened the bottom drawer of his desk and took out Envelope #2. The card inside said simply: "Blame your staff."
Coach Weis met with the new A.D. and explained that he was going to fix the team's problems by shuffling his coaching staff. He was going to reclaim play-calling duties from his departing offensive coordinator. He elevated Jon Tenuta to defensive coordinator over Corwin Brown. He brought in new coaches for the offensive line, the defensive line, and the running backs. Jack Swarbrick wasn't completely convinced, but he gave Charlie a public vote of confidence that kept the recruits on board through signing day. The big win in the Hawaii Bowl, breaking the embarrassing bowl losing streak, had everyone feeling better about Notre Dame football.
In 2009 everyone was expecting Notre Dame to have a BIG year. Coach Weis' recruits were now all grown up, and the schedule looked very favorable. The team looked improved, but not dominant. Last second losses to Michigan and USC, combined with last minute wins over Michigan State, Washington, Purdue, and Boston College left Irish fans feeling very uncomfortable. After eight games, at 6-2, the team was within a whisker of being 8-0. But they were also arguably within a whisker of being 2-6. The quarterback and the offense was having a Heisman-caliber year. But the defense appeared all too often to be playing the season on roller skates. Nobody was sure if the team was really getting better, or if the close wins were just a mirage.
Then came the annual game versus Navy, this year played in Notre Dame Stadium. Despite a 450-yard passing day from quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the midst of a furious comeback attempt, Notre Dame lost to Navy 23-21 due to turnovers, poor Red Zone play-calling, and atrocious defense against the triple option. The home crowd in Rock's House was disgusted. Boos rained down from the student section in the northwest corner of the stadium. Parseghian, Devine, Faust, Holtz, Davie, Willingham. None of them had ever lost a single game to Navy. Yet Charlie Weis had managed to lose two home games in a row to the Midshipmen. The Charlie Weis bandwagon had suddenly become a very lonely place. Speculation had begun to swirl about who the next Notre Dame coach would be.
Charlie Weis remained defiant in his post-game press conference. But when he returned to his office, he opened the bottom drawer of his desk, and took out Envelope #3. He hesitated to open it for a moment, but finally tore it open. The card inside fell onto his desk. It said simply: "Prepare three envelopes ..."
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