EAST LANSING, Mich. – Each small step brought a grimace of pain – too many blown chances not helping the two blown ligaments in his knee. Charlie Weis had his arm around his son, a limp in his step and defeated eyes staring straight ahead – casting what for many would be a sympathetic image.
In the stands around the Spartan Stadium tunnel, many had a different take. Over the din of the Michigan State band serenading a 23-7 victory, fans screamed venom at Weis. They had let the Irish players go through mostly unmolested, but not the coach. No way for the coach.
And so they shouted at him. One guy flipped him off. Another hung over the rail and rained insults down on him.
Slow and hobbled, one tiny, tormented step at a time, Weis finally made it into the tunnel. He never once looked up to acknowledge the scene above.
Beating Notre Dame might not mean as much as it once did – Michigan State’s done it nine times in 12 meetings, its student section wasn’t full and the postgame celebration was fairly tame.
Beating Charlie Weis, however, well now that remains just as much fun.
Weis is what’s left of the Irish’s hate-inspiring mystique. America watched Notre Dame get to 2-0 and then rallied together to pull for some comeuppance.
The chief reason is Charlie. Whatever polarizing emotions the program once inspired – it’s both the country’s most popular and most hated team – have faded.
Too many losses, too many bowl blowouts, too many legend-crushing moments have deadened the passion on both sides. Notre Dame has been mostly harmless of late. You can only get so excited about them or about beating them.
Other than gobbling up oversized amounts of media attention, for over a decade they’ve been little more than at times decent, often average and occasionally awful (80-57 since 1996).
Weis hasn’t changed the Irish’s on-field fortunes, no matter his once-boasted “schematic advantage.” What he has done is return the black hat to their sideline; causing fans to enjoy watching him lose and lose and lose the way they never could for Bob Davie or Tyrone Willingham.
Once they just needed the jersey to hate. Now they just hate the coach.
He’s the personality. Good or bad, fair or not, he’s the program, the driving force who rallies his players, draws in the recruits and enrages the opposing stadiums.
There’s no sympathy for Weis, few willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as he tries to rebuild his program. He inspires little patience.
He always seems to be in the middle of some flair up, on this day breaking the rules by having a laptop on in the coach’s box. Whether its intent was nefarious or not (Weis says it wasn’t) it was shut down by officials. It’s why no one wants to hear any excuses.
He makes none. He’s straightforward. He answers questions. He is colorful and comical and charismatic, even if you wouldn’t believe it. He’s the guy with the bad wheel, claiming he feels no pain (“although, ask me in two hours,” he joked) running on endless energy as he coaches for his football life.
“I learned a long time ago one characteristic great players have is stamina,” Weis said. He was talking about Michigan State’s tireless Javon Ringer, who ran up the Irish for 201 yards on 39 carries.
He could have been talking about coaches.
Here’s the deal with Weis. His team was abominable last year. If he had been fired then, few would have shed a tear; even fewer would’ve called it unfair.
Much of his job security comes from playing potential NFL offers into a monster contract in his very first season. The rest on signing players who make recruiting lists swoon.
Neither was enough to prevent 3-9 a year ago.
Still, this year his team (2-1) is better. It’s not great. It’s not near great. It might hardly be good. It hasn’t beaten a strong team yet. It can’t run the ball. Its quarterback still makes too many unforced errors.
It’s better though and not just because it can’t be worse. He has some young playmakers, particularly at wide receiver. His defense is resilient. There are times Jimmy Clausen throws a great ball.
It bears almost no resemblance to the disaster of last fall. There’s a bowl game in its future.
“I think (this feel’s different),” sophomore receiver Golden Tate said, of how losing this year compared to last year. “Last year I don’t think we had enough guys all in so losing didn’t hurt as much. Now a lot of guys are all in, even guys who don’t play.”
For the kind of program Notre Dame thinks it still is there are no moral victories. For the truth of what it’s become since Lou Holtz left South Bend, maybe there should be. For the Irish to be what they once were, a nationally prominent force, a profound change was needed.
Whether that comes from Weis or not remains to be seen. He remains completely focused on it though. He won’t be fired this year unless there is an unlikely disaster. He’s coaching both with great urgency and like he has time.
The Irish have no offensive line and as a result can’t run the ball. Youth (one senior) isn’t enough of an excuse. Weis refuses to give up on the run though. He knows he’s going to need it at some point, this season or next. He fully believes he’s winning a national title here one day. A few of them even.
So he’ll have his young guys take lumps and learn.
“I think you have to give your players a chance (to perform),” he said.
It’s the stamina of a coach. It’s the stamina for a coach.
It’s Charlie Weis limping out there as the insults and doubts and scorn pour down on him. This is the rebuilding of Notre Dame football; Big Charlie gimping right through the taunts, one drunk heckler at a time.