November 30, 2009
My perception from the beginning is that people just generally disliked Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, for promising a "decided schematic advantage" before ever taking the field, for the sour Belichickian exterior and, yes, for the weight and appearance, on top of his role at the head of a program so many people love to despise in the first place. After the last three, disappointing seasons, his reputation as a developer of talent and program builder on the college level is pretty much shot for the rest of his career, barring the overtures of some desperate program and a dramatic change of heart by Weis at some point down the road. He never shed the persona of an aloof NFL guy trying to fit in on an energetic campus and seems to have accepted that he's a better fit in the pros.
It would be a minor shame, though, if his legacy in South Bend was remembered exclusively as one of total failure, or even of persistent incompetence, if only because his first two seasons were remarkably good: Working with Tyrone Willingham's maligned, underachieved recruits, Weis' first team tore out of the gate with an upset at No. 3 Michigan, a near-upset over the top-ranked USC juggernaut and a deserving Fiesta Bowl bid to cap one of the most improved efforts in the country. His second team opened the season ranked No. 2, landed in the Sugar Bowl with 10 wins and produced a Hesiman finalist despite an air of disappointment that came with such high expectations.
At that point -- sitting at 19-6 with a pair of BCS bids and top-15 finishes and recruiting classes ranked among the national elite for the first time in years at Notre Dame -- Weis really did seem like one of the better coaches in the country. This is easily forgotten now, and maybe for good as the Weis' era becomes permanently associated with mediocrity.
On that note, the great mystery of his tenure and eventual demise will always be the complete and utter collapse of the woebegone 2007 team, a band of misfits that looked perpetually unprepared, overmatched and generally like an outfit from the bottom half of the MAC trying to keep things from getting too out of hand so they could collect their guarantee and take it to the house. Some of that stemmed from an ominously green lineup, especially on offense -- the quarterback and almost everyone else who touched the ball on a regular basis was a freshman, working under the most hazardous possible conditions behind an equally wet-behind-the ears offensive line -- but the 3-9 record was nowhere near the shock of the lopsided, nightmarish reality of actually the pups get blown out week after week, with six losses by at least 17 points and the humiliation of back-to-back loss to Navy (ending the longest ongoing losing streak in any series in NCAA history) and Air Force. If you're writing a book on Weis' stay in South Bend, the behind-the-scenes insight into the offseason preceding the 2007 catastrophe is the chapter that makes the story.
Neither Weis nor his team ever recovered from that tumble into the abyss, even this year, when his veteran, star-studded offense surpassed the heights of the successful 2005-06 teams, yet still found itself scrambling to come from behind in the fourth quarter of half the Irish's wins and scored 30 points of more in half of their losses, all of which came down the final two minutes, if not the final play. Weis was never able to translate the success of the offense to the other side of the ball, which will be his epitaph: "Charlie Weis: It always looked better on paper."
Whatever they write about Weis in the long annals of Notre Dame coaching history, let it at least be said that he didn't leave the place in any worse shape than he found it:
The line on Weis seems to be that he blew a perfect situation this year and all the pieces -- talent, facilities, exposure -- will be in place for his successor. But those elements have bee largely in place for a long time, and when you consider the annual roller coaster of the last decade and the overall stagnation as a result, it's not out of line to begin to wonder if Notre Dame's issues go beyond Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie, to the core of a culture that's produced a consistently second-tier product since the early nineties. Maybe there's something to the old "higher academic standards" excuse, in spite of the recruiting rankings; I don't know, but at some point it's going to get very old blaming the malaise on coach after coach.
We're probably not at that point yet -- no one can honestly say Weis had a 6-6 team on his hands this year -- and there's not much doubt the Irish are still in position to land a home run hire to fill Weis' shoes and do the whole "Wake up the Echoes" routine with the Sports Illustrated cover, etc.; if Weis, Willingham and Davie are any indication, he'll have at least one season of that variety. But if the new guy ultimately strikes out, too, at some point the expectations have to chance to give the next man in the box a bigger ball to hit if it doesn't want .