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Back to the future

Pat Leonard | Friday, September 2, 2005

It isn’t about just them.

In fact, both Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt would argue Saturday’s game is not about them at all.

“I think Dave [Wannstedt] would say the same thing that I would say, is that this game is between players, not between coaches,” Weis said.

Sure, the players will decide the final score come Saturday at Heinz Field. But on that day, any fan with a ticket or a television set will have the unique opportunity to watch two men, each coaching at his alma mater, in their first attempt to lead their respective programs back to becoming national powerhouses.

Weis has three Super Bowl rings. Wannstedt has won one Super Bowl and two national championships – one as a player and one as an assistant coach. On Saturday, the two men will be only a football field – a college football field, that is – apart.

“Everything that’s happening around the city and around the nation – it’s an exciting time,” Wannstedt said, “and you can just start to sense that a little bit.”

Returning home

Wannstedt played left tackle for Pitt in the early 1970s, blocking for Tony Dorsett and helping the 1973 squad his senior year to a 6-4-1 record and a Fiesta Bowl berth. He graduated in 1974 but built a program that went on to win a national championship three seasons later.

His history has caused every Panthers fan to circle Sept. 3 on the calendar.

“I always reference everything back to our fans and our players,” he said. “I tell them, ‘This is why you come to the University of Pittsburgh.'”

The same goes for Weis at Notre Dame. Though he did not play a varsity sport in college, the new Irish captain had love and knowledge for sports that sent him as high as the NFL ranks after he graduated in 1978. In NFL, Weis coached beneath the likes of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.

But he also felt he had the ability and the attitude to coach a team on which, unlike the NFL, players also had to attend class. These would be student-athletes without million dollar contracts.

“I think that college has been more enticing to guys in the NFL because if you have the personality to coach in college – it doesn’t fit for everyone – but certain people kind of enjoy it,” he said. “I do, and I haven’t talked to Dave recently [but] I think he enjoys it, too.”

Numerous coaches have made the NFL-to-college move recently, and many also have done so with great success. Nick Saban, the current Miami Dolphins head coach, was once an assistant with the Houston Oilers (1988-89) and Cleveland Browns (1991-94) before coaching college for 11 seasons at Michigan State (1995-99) and Louisiana State. Al Groh (New York Jets to the University of Virginia) and Pete Carroll (New England Patriots to Southern Cal) each gave up their pro football jobs to run their own programs. And especially in Carroll’s case, things seem to be working out just fine.

As Weis attempts to assemble a Notre Dame powerhouse reminiscent of the 1977 national championship team under coach Dan Devine – while Weis was a student – he understands there are certain aspects of the game that will immediately reflect on his ability to coach in college.

“It basically comes down to whether our players actually were mentally prepared and that shows up on the field,” he said.

Harnessing experience

One of the biggest adjustments to the college game for both coaches has been the time element. Oddly enough, each coach has a different take.

For the playmaker Weis, having spring and fall camps with two-a-day practices has given him more than enough time to install a thick playbook, at least what will prepare the team for Pittsburgh Saturday. Weis is almost best known anyway for his ability to adapt his game plan within a game, like he did in the Patriots’ recent Super Bowl win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

“From a preparation standpoint, this is as good as it gets because you have so much time,” Weis said. “We’ve had a lot of practices, we’ve had plenty of practices to get ready to go for Pittsburgh and get the season started. I think that right now the No. 1 thing is to make sure we’re just peaking on Saturday night.”

Wannstedt, on the other hand, has more experience in the college game but indicates he would like more time to prepare his team.

“My experience has been that there’s never enough time,” he said. “I don’t care if you were in training camp for six months. You’re leading into that last week, and you say, ‘Boy if I had just one more week,’ or ‘If I could just get one more practice, then we’d be OK.’

“But then you really get to the point, and we’re almost there now, where you’re ready to play.”

What to expect

The most interesting aspect of Saturday’s game, in terms of game play, will be Weis’ familiarity with Wannstedt’s defensive style, and vice versa concerning Weis’ offense.

“I know Dave [and] Dave knows me,” Weis said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to end up happening, but now you have to throw [in] the other factors that are involved.”

Both coaches have seen each other in action have and prepared for the game accordingly.

A former defensive coordinator, Wannstedt had head coaching stints in the NFL in Chicago and Miami. He coached with Notre Dame’s current tight end coach Bernie Parmalee, as well, making his possible understanding of the Irish strategy more comprehensive.

“With Charlie Weis running the offense, we’re going to see the majority of the Patriot stuff,” Wannstedt said. “[Charlie and I] are friends and we get along, but we probably know each other from an Xs and Os standpoint a lot better than we know each other personally.

“We are preparing for some New England [schemes]. We are preparing for a couple of other assistants that are on that staff.”

Weis has gone as far as anticipating Wannstedt’s use of Pitt’s players.

“I expect Dave to look at [linebacker H.B.] Blades like he’s a sacker,” Weis said.

Both coaches indicate in their comments that they know football, they know each other, and they know what is expected of them. But on Saturday their careers begin on a different level from before, in different tenures, within a different atmosphere – with ESPN Gameday in attendance.

At least for each coach, Weis and Wannstedt, it will still be the same school.