SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In the predawn hours Tuesday, a thick fog descended over the Notre Dame campus, the kind of miserable weather that makes that big gold dome above campus incapable of shine.
Up in a meeting room on the second floor of the school's football building, Charlie Weis is a one-man beam of sunshine ready to burn off every bit of the gloom and doom, be it the weather or his program.
With a cup of coffee in front of him, he is scanning two massive work boards that dominate a wall – one containing the Irish's incoming recruiting prospects, the other their current two-deep roster.
He's eager for Wednesday, national signing day, to come so he can move 23 (or 24, if a last one breaks right) talented recruits over from the one board to the other, the one that needs them so desperately.
Notre Dame, fresh off its worst season since, as Weis once joked, Corinthians was written, will nonetheless sign what rivals.com calls one of the best recruiting classes in America.
"You want to talk about the upset of the year, all the upsets in college football this season?" Weis said. "This is the upset of the year. We're 3-9 and we land the top, or one of the top, recruiting classes in the country?"
It is certainly a staggering juxtaposition for the Notre Dame program – historically bad on the field, historically great on the recruiting trail.
Recruiting classes are anything but sure bets and can't-miss prospects routinely do. But given the choice, every coach in the country would rather line up a slew of highly regarded prospects than not.
The Irish are expected to receive binding letters of intent from at least three five-star prospects and 16 four-star prospects. The list includes blazing skill players, bruising defenders and dominant linemen on both sides of the ball.
"It's not just talent alone but we filled a lot of holes on the depth chart," Weis said.
Lord knows there were plenty of holes to fill and Weis isn't naive enough to think a freshman, no matter how talented, will just come in and start winning games. But after a season where the attention was overwhelmingly negative, the Irish desperately needed a victory like this one.
"I think this was critical to the program after the season we had," Weis said. "For the program, for the buzz. … look, if you're having a hard year in recruiting after a 3-9 season, what light is there at the end of the tunnel?"
No more than amidst that dark fog outside.
Weis, 51, is a proud man, a proud coach, the owner of four Super Bowl rings including three as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. He didn't come to Notre Dame to go not just 3-9, but deal with repeated embarrassing blowout defeats.
But there was more, too. He admits not being prepared for the off-field spotlight that comes with being the coach at Notre Dame – both in people watching his every move (and judging him for it) and the vitriol the program inspires in some.
Then came last year, where not even his family, which includes a developmentally delayed daughter, Hannah, was spared. It just got uglier and uglier, more and more personal.
"Scrutiny for a football coach comes with the territory. Hey, if you call a play and it doesn't work, 80,000 fans know it. (But) people online talking about my wife and kids? My son got one the other day about his retarded sister.
"And forget about the fat jokes. Or the, 'hey, you went 3-9; you're a terrible football coach.'
"If people want to call you fat, hey, that's fair game. But to talk about your family?"
There's nothing he can do, of course. There's nothing left but to keep working, trying to shut them up by turning Notre Dame around as quickly as possible.
He's never been afraid to "talk Jersey," to say and think bold, confident things. Some of it has left him up to mockery – "schematic advantage" anyone? Some has left him chasing self-imposed, sky-high expectations.
But it is also the mentality that has served him as an excellent recruiter, despite a background almost exclusively in the NFL. From the start, he's refused to accept the conventional wisdom that Notre Dame's serious admissions standards prohibit the signing of the kind of athlete needed to win.
"We need good kids who are not hypocritical about academics (and) who can play ball," he said. "We have to hit the trifecta. That doesn't mean they have to be magna cum laude, but not hypocritical about academics.
"That minimizes your list. But I'm not an excuse guy. Everyone said how tough it is, but that's not the case at all."
He just challenged his assistants to find those players. While this is certainly his best recruiting class, it is also his third consecutive strong one.
"To recruit at Notre Dame you have to be willing to go into any state in the country and lose," Weis said. "You have to go into California and beat the California schools. Go into Nebraska and beat the University of Nebraska, go into Ohio and beat Ohio State, go into Michigan and beat Michigan and Michigan State.
"But you've got to go in and fight that fight."
This year, quite amazingly, the Irish kept winning. And it's not like the school can still cash in on its national championship tradition. The Irish haven't won it since 1988; most of these recruits were born in 1990.
"You can't recruit on the Dome alone," he said. "(You can't say,) 'There's the Dome, come to Notre Dame.'"
What he could do, though, was embrace the obvious – the team stinks, playing time is available.
"You can use you’re a 3-9 season to your benefit," Weis said with a smile. "'Look at (the game), you watched, can you play here?'
"What parents want is their kid to go to where there are high character kids and everyone graduates. Every parent wants that for their kid. We're proven there. So two of the three most important factors, we already have.
"For the kid, the kicker is still football. Everyone wants to go where they'll play and were they can get to the NFL. And I coached in the NFL."
Indeed he did, but after last year's debacle, the question isn't whether Weis can win in the pros, but can he win at Notre Dame?
"What I never want to do is make an excuse for how things go," he said. "I don't ever look back because you can't do anything about it."
He never blamed his players; he certainly has never blamed his predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, like so many fans. Willingham never had recruiting classes like this one, which helps explain the Irish's weak senior and junior classes, the mere 71 scholarships players and Weis' reliance on young talent.
Not that Notre Dame should ever win just three games.
Which is one reason, Weis wants no part of that blame game. And there's this, Willingham was fired after three seasons, none of which were as bad as Weis' third. Yet Weis is still here, working on his 2009 recruiting board even.
"He should have been given more than three years, I'll tell you that," Weis said. "It's a general comment because I don’t know all the factors. You don't know and I don’t know all the extenuating factors.
"(But) on the surface, you'd like to see what would happen if (Willingham was) given a five-year segment. All coaches should be able to get that if people show patience. It's difficult though to show patience when one of the objectives is to win."
Weis believes strides were made last season within a couple of late victories and during the final weeks of practice, especially by his young players who gained so much experience. But he knows that means nothing until it delivers victories on fall Saturdays.
Here on a winter Tuesday, it's still dark outside; the fog still deep and dense. Sunrise is coming soon though, to burn all of it away like the promise of a stunning recruiting haul on the heels of a year gone wrong in every imaginable way.
So Charlie Weis' mood is bright. After so many bad days, Wednesday is going to be a good one.
"Bring it on," he said. "Bring it on."
- Charlie Weis