Charlie Weis: Man on the Spot

Author: im Donaldson '73


He’s a Notre Dame man, but he’s a Jersey Guy. That means he often punctuates his sentences with “OK.” OK? That could just generally be a Jersey Guy sort of thing, or it could be something he picked up specifically from another Jersey Guy by the name of Duane Charles “Bill” Parcells, who went to high school in Oradell and eventually made his way to the NFL. As coach of the New York Giants, Parcells hired a pudgy guy out of Middlesex High with a smart mouth and a brilliant mind who had just coached Franklin Township High to a state title.

“Without him, I wouldn’t have been in the NFL,” Charlie Weis ’78 says. “He took a chance on a young guy who was a fairly inexperienced guy.” Inexperienced, yes. But a Jersey Guy, all the same. Like Sinatra. Now there was a Jersey Guy. And Springsteen. The Boss. Of course. Bon Jovi, too. Tony Soprano? Have to think about that.

Not all guys from Jersey are Jersey Guys. Nobody from south of Trenton, for example, qualifies. “Those guys from the 609 area code aren’t Jersey guys,” Weis says, the disdain evident in his tone. “They’re Philly guys.” Which of course means they’re not as smart, not as confident, not as competent as even New York guys, who, for all they boast about being from “The City,” don’t really measure up to Jersey Guys, as any Jersey Guy would be quick to tell you, OK?

On a snowy Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, the day before the New England Patriots are to take on the Steelers in the AFC championship game, Patriots’ offensive coordinator Weis is in his hotel room at the Four Points Sheraton. He’s taking a break from his incredibly hectic, pressure-packed schedule to explain the nuances of being a Jersey Guy, which goes a long way toward explaining who he is and how he got to be head football coach at his alma mater, even though he never played for the Fighting Irish. “Springsteen always writes songs about Jersey, and he’s a diehard Yankee fan, too, OK? Bon Jovi was a diehard Giants fan. I mean diehard. That’s how I got to know him. And proud to be from Jersey.”

Hey, if you’re not proud to be from Jersey, you’re obviously not a Jersey Guy. Just like, if you don’t love Notre Dame, if you don’t bleed blue-and-gold, if you don’t want to see the Fighting Irish respected and feared and loved—and, yes, hated, too— the way they were under Rockne and Leahy, under Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine and Lou Holtz, then you’re not a true Domer. And nobody’d better doubt Charlie Weis’s credentials on any of those counts.

“Grow up in Jersey, and you grow up a little obnoxious, a little sarcastic,” Weis says. "A lot of times, people from Notre Dame are perceived as arrogant and obnoxious. Coincidentally, that’s what they say about people from New Jersey, as well. That’s part of the temperament of the area, part of the Northeastern mentality. We’re tough but sensitive at the same time. We come across a little rough sometimes. That can be misconstrued as not caring, and that’s certainly not the case.

“New Jersey is not really cities; it’s one town after the next. Towns of 15,000 to 30,000 people. When you grow up in Jersey, you grow up with a group of guys, starting out in kindergarten, and you stay friends with them the rest of your life. You go to grammar school with them, play Little League baseball with them, go to junior high with them, go to high school with them. To this day, some of my best friends are guys I grew up with. One Saturday every summer, the bunch of guys I grew up with will go to the races at Monmouth Park and bet the ponies. We’re all married, with kids, but we’ll sit on the same benches we sat on when were 18 years old.”

It was at the age of 18 that Weis decided he’d go to Notre Dame.

“I’m a Catholic,” he says, “but it’s not like I’d grown up my whole life saying: ‘I want to go to Notre Dame.’ I had a liking for Notre Dame, because everyone I knew grew up watching the Sunday morning highlights show on television, listening to Lindsey Nelson. When I started looking at colleges, there were certain criteria I was looking for. I wanted to go to a good university where I’d be a name, not just a number. That’s one of the things I’ve always treasured about Notre Dame. I left there with a group of friends similar to the friends I’d grown up with in New Jersey, a bunch of guys who would do anything for each other.”

Loyalty is important to Weis. It’s why, as much as he wanted to become the head football coach at Notre Dame, he said he wouldn’t be able to assume his duties on a full-time basis until the Patriots had finished their season. Which, if everything worked out as planned, would mean it would be almost two months before Weis would be in South Bend. Two months when recruiting would be at a fever pitch. “It’s not the right thing to be in the middle of a job and leave it unfinished,” he said that afternoon in Pittsburgh. “It’s not the right thing to do.”

A little less than two weeks later, Weis was in Jacksonville for the Super Bowl on National Signing Day—the first day when prized recruits could sign a letter of intent to attend the college of their choice.

“If I would have walked away [from New England],” he says, “it might have saved Notre Dame a couple of players. But the fact that it could have had a detrimental effect to the Patriots— that’s not the right way of doing things. I think I owed it to the Patriots and the people of New England to finish what we started. And I’m very proud to say that here we are at the Super Bowl. It makes you feel good—when everyone was wondering: ‘How the heck is he going to do this?’—that here we are, it’s Signing Day and we’re getting the right kids at Notre Dame, and we’re getting ready for the Super Bowl.”

If you’re wondering just how the heck he did manage to do it —how he managed to play a key role in helping the Patriots win their second straight Super Bowl, and third in the last four years, while at the same time salvaging a recruiting class at Notre Dame —well, he did it by working 18 to 20 hours a day for two months. “Time management,” he said, “is a skill I understand.”

Part of the pleasure of being at the Super Bowl for Weis was that he was getting a lot more sleep. “I’m actually getting seven hours a night,” he said. “This is the most sleep I’ve had in a long time. There’s only so much you can do. We’re pretty far along with the game plan.”

Also as far along, by that time, as he could be with recruiting. Still, the Wednesday before the Super Bowl, which was Signing Day, was a particularly busy one for Weis.

He was up at 5 a.m. and on the phone to his recruiting coordinator, Rob Ianello, by 6. At 6:45, he began a series of meetings prior to taking the bus to practice at 9. In between, he squeezed in a teleconference with reporters in South Bend regarding recruiting. Practice ended at 11, and before he was off the field Weis was on the cell phone to South Bend. Back at the Patriots’ hotel at the World Golf Village, he took a quick shower then had to sit with the national media for an hour at the daily pre-Super Bowl press conference, held in a tent big enough to house a circus —which, in a way, it was doing—across the parking lot from the hotel.

After that were more meetings, more phone calls, and then, that night, a ride up Interstate 95 into Jacksonville for a television hookup with ESPN to talk more about his first recruiting class.

“Of course you want the best athletes,” he said, "but you also want the guys who fit your system. Some guy everyone wants might not be the guy you want.

“I want my type of players. If a guy wants to be a showboat and be a ‘me’ guy, then he’d better go somewhere else, because he and the head coach’s personality are going to have a conflict, and guess who’s going to win on that one? I’m not always the most pleasant person in the whole world. But you have to be able to deal with the personality of the coach, because that’s going to be a reflection of the team. If you think you can fit in, then jump on board. If you don’t, then don’t get on the ship.”

By far the most important relationship in Weis’s life is with Maura, his wife of almost 13 years, and their two children, Charlie, 11, and Hannah, 9. “In this business,” says Weis, “if you don’t have a strong woman at home, who’s independent, you have no chance at having a happy family because you’re not there very much. The most important thing a coach can do is allocate whatever free time he has to his family. But she’s the one who holds the family together.”

Young Charlie was rooting hard for the Patriots to make the Super Bowl, partly because it meant his dad would still be based at the family home in Cumberland, Rhode Island, and not yet gone to South Bend. Now, says Weis, “Charlie’s fired up to be out there. It’s so good to have our plans finalized. We plan on staying here now at least until Charlie’s graduated from Notre Dame.”

It was Maura who picked out, without her husband’s help, the home in South Bend, with schools being the critical factor in the decision—not so much for young Charlie as for Hannah, a special-needs child. “She has Global Development Delays,” says Weis. “All the decisions we make as a family are based on what’s best for Hannah. She’s always going to have some problems, but she’s a happy kid.” Two years ago Charlie and Maura established the Hannah & Friends Foundation, dedicated to children affected by developmental disorders.

There are two well-known lines from the movie Jerry Maguire, in which Tom Cruise plays a sports agent who falls in love with the faithful secretary and devoted single mother, played by Renee Zellweger, who believes in him. The best-known is “Show me the money!” The other is: “You had me at ‘Hello’”—the line spoken by Zellweger when Cruise comes to her home to try to win back her love.

When it comes to winning over skeptical alumni and fans of Notre Dame football, Weis may have had them at "nasty"—the word he used at his introductory press conference in December. “Playing with fire, playing with passion, playing like the game is all-important to you, playing as if you dread failure—that’s nasty,” he said recently. "I believe that if you don’t have a nasty streak in you when you’re a competitor, if you don’t have that fire inside of you—if you’re pinning your chances of being successful solely on ability, without including temperament—then you’re not going to win.

“I believe a team has to have the temperament of the head coach. The New England Patriots are an extension of their head coach. At Notre Dame, I expect the team to be an extension of me. We’re not going to get pushed around.”

Weis said he hadn’t planned on making the “nasty” remark. It just came out. "It wasn’t as if I’d thought a whole lot about what I was going to say. I just figured I’d talk, and they’d listen. What I said came from my personality, to be honest with you.

“Nasty,” said Weis, “is a state of mind. Watch [Patriots linebacker] Tedy Bruschi play. Look how important every play is to him. Tom Brady is the same way. Talk about fire. Contrary to his calm demeanor, he’s got the fire.”

Weis, let there be no doubt, has the fire. He is fired up about being head coach at his alma mater. “If somebody came along 20, 30 years ago and told me: ’You’re going to be the head coach at Notre Dame,’ I’d have told them they were hallucinating.”

It is hard to believe that a kid whose closest contact with Notre Dame football as an undergraduate was sitting in the stands on Saturdays and sharing a suite in Flanner Hall with running back Terry Eurick ’78 would someday be in charge of the most storied program in intercollegiate football.

His resume is well-known now: six years of high-school coaching followed by four years as an assistant at the University of South Carolina. Another year at high school and then, in 1990, the turning point in his career, when Parcells brought him to the Giants. “He set me up to succeed,” said Weis, who picked up the first of his four Super Bowl championship rings that year. “He brought me to New England in ’93, where I was tight ends coach, working with Ben Coates and Marv Cook. He moved me to running backs coach, where I had Curtis Martin, then to wide receivers coach, when Terry Glenn set a rookie record with 90 catches in 1996.”

The Patriots went to the Super Bowl that year, although they lost to the Packers. Weis followed Parcells to the Jets in 1997, where he first became an offensive coordinator. When Bill Belichick left the Jets to take over in New England, he convinced Weis to come along with him as offensive coordinator.

A 5-11 start in 2000 was followed by three championships in four years, the last two back-to-back. “The reason I’ve been able to move on,” Weis says, “is because we were successful. If we weren’t very good, I wouldn’t be coaching at Notre Dame.” And if it weren’t for Weis, it’s unlikely the Patriots would have been as remarkably successful as they have been over the last four seasons.

“Charlie is a very smart person,” Belichick said during the week before the Super Bowl. "He really understands what defenses are doing and how to attack them. He’s an outstanding play-caller and has a great sense of timing of when to call certain plays. It’s one thing to put together a game plan, and it’s another to call the plays at the right time, when they match up the way you want to match up. It’s not an easy thing to do.

“He’s very good at making adjustments during a game. He sees when some of the things that we thought were good now don’t look that good and we need to shift to something else. He is decisive and smart. He can pull the trigger. He’s not afraid to make tough decisions or to make calls in critical situations. He knows what he wants to do and he does it with a lot of confidence, and I think that gets conveyed to the people who are executing it.”

The person primarily responsible for the execution of Weis’s creative, innovative and, best of all, highly productive offensive schemes was quarterback Tom Brady. Although undrafted until late in the sixth round out of Michigan in 2000, Brady has developed, under Weis’s tutelage, into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. With three championships in his four years as a starter and two Super Bowl MVP awards, he already is being compared to the legendary Joe Montana ’79 of Notre Dame and San Francisco 49ers fame, as one of the all-time greats of the game.

The week before this year’s Super Bowl, Brady was asked what he remembered from the week before his first Super Bowl, when the Patriots upset the heavily favored Rams in New Orleans in January 2002. He talked about a verbal confrontation he had with Weis on the practice field, when Charlie was highly critical of a mistake he’d made, and Brady fired back at him, at which point Weis really cut loose. “Tommy thought he had an opinion,” Weis says now with a chuckle. “He didn’t realize at that time his opinion didn’t count.”

Three Super Bowl victories later, Brady’s opinion of Weis counts a great deal. “Charlie is a great coach,” Brady says. “He’s very cerebral and is a great motivator. He really enjoys coaching and is fun to be around.”

If he’s winning, that is. Weis is no fun at all if he’s losing. Especially if he’s losing because players aren’t trying hard enough, or if they’re making stupid mistakes. He prepares thoroughly and painstakingly and expects his players to do likewise. When they fail to focus, he has ways of quickly getting their attention. But the Patriots have learned that, if they follow Weis’s game plan, they will be successful.

Weis is not a charismatic man. But he is brilliant when it comes to strategy. As Belichick pointed out, one of Weis’s strengths is his willingness, and ability, to make split-second adjustments to a game plan that took hours and hours to prepare. Nor is Weis a handsome man. He’s overweight and walks with a hesitation in his step as a result of complications following gastric bypass surgery.

What Notre Dame_ is_ getting in Weis is a man who understands offense—and, of necessity, defense—as well as anyone in the NFL, a proud man with the utmost confidence in his own ability, a fierce competitor with a burning desire to win, and, not insignificantly, a deep love for Notre Dame—the first coach in 41 years to have graduated from Notre Dame. “I have a passion for Notre Dame,” Weis says. “Recruiting is selling. Having gone to Notre Dame, it’s an easier sell for me than it would be for somebody who hasn’t been to Notre Dame.”

He flatly refuses to use Notre Dame’s stringent academic requirements as an excuse for not attracting the caliber of athletes who can return the Irish to what for so many seasons was an almost-automatic ranking among the nation’s Top Ten.

“Too many people make excuses for the failures of the program,” he says. "I’m looking for good kids who can read, write and play a little football. If you’re not a good kid, or can’t read and write, or can’t play, then there’s not going to be a place for you at Notre Dame. There are plenty of kids who fit that mold. We’re just going to have to do a better job finding them.

“Now, as Parcells likes to say, I don’t expect everybody to be a ‘tin soldier.’ There are going to be some bumps in the road. But I’m looking for a high-character kid who’ll grow into a fine young man who’ll be successful off the field as well as on it.

“I’m also looking to win football games with a bunch of tough guys. I don’t mind pushing to admit a kid who’s an academic risk, as long as his background indicates he’ll have a chance to be successful. If I fight for somebody who’s an academic risk, I expect that kid to do everything he can to graduate.

“I enjoy recruiting. I’ve been around coaches who just can’t stand it. I enjoy it. I enjoy going up against other schools. If you enjoy something, you’ll be good at it.”

What Weis is not good at is telling people—including recruits —what they want to hear. “It doesn’t take long to figure out who’s real and who’s faking,” he said. “I’d rather not have a kid come here than say a bunch of things he wants to hear. I don’t care if he’s the best player in the country. That’s not me.”

If there were any questions that Weis might be insecure—not that anyone who’d spent more than, say, 30 seconds with him might think that—they were answered when he assembled his staff. He has hired three former head coaches in David Cutcliffe (Mississippi), Rick Minter (Cincinnati) and Bill Lewis (Wyoming, Georgia Tech and East Carolina). He also has brought in three coaches who have been recruiting coordinators—Ianello, who’ll handle that job at Notre Dame, former Irish wide receiver Michael Haywood ’86, and Brian Polian, the son of Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian.

“I think, a lot of times, the reason why coaches don’t have guys who have been head coaches on their staff is because they’re intimidated by them. That’s certainly not one of the things going through my mind. I like to have people around me who can challenge me intellectually. That’s the type of relationship I’ve had with Bill in New England,” says Weis.

“What I like about offense,” he says, "is that you get the chance to decide what you’re going to do, and the defense has to react to it. That’s what I like. I like to be aggressive. I like to be the guy forcing the issue. In the past, I think that a lot of offensive coaches have taken a ‘Well, we can’t do that because they’re going to do this’ approach. Whereas here, we’re just the opposite. We say: ’We’re going to do this, and let’s see what they try to do to stop it.‘

"I love to move the football. I’m probably known as more of a ‘passing guy’ because that’s what we’ve done to move the football. So, a lot of times, people say:‘`Well, they want to throw it.’ Well, I want to throw it because it works. If it’s not working, I don’t want to be throwing it. A lot of it has to do with what players you have and what you can do against who you’re playing against."

That said, coaching is where Weis firmly believes Notre Dame will have an edge over some opponents next season. Instead of worrying about learning how the college game is played, he says opposing teams need to worry about what the Irish are going to play.

“They’re going to have to learn about us, OK? Let them try to stop a pro-style offense, which has multiple personnel groups and multiple formations. Let’s see how they are going to do. They’ve had their advantage because I’ve come into recruiting late. Well, now it’s Xs and Os time. Let’s see who has the advantage now.”

Weis leaves no doubt about who he feels has that advantage. “In terms of Xs and Os, this coaching staff should be able to put Notre Dame in a competitive situation where, when the game is close, we know how to win.”

Weis certainly knows how to win. He’s also certain that, at Notre Dame, he’s going to win. “Any truly competitive coach has a passion to win. Until you start winning, you’re going to be miserable. I don’t like being miserable.” Nothing, no one, is more miserable than a miserable Jersey Guy. “I love New Jersey and always will,” Weis says. “I talk about ‘my type’ of guy. Well, the easiest place for me to find guys who are messed up like me is to go to New Jersey.”

Jim Donaldson is a sports columnist for Rhode Island’s Providence Journal.