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Weis era finally begins

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, September 2, 2005

Finally, it’s here.

The day Tom Zbikowski has been waiting for since the end of last season. The day Irish fans have been anxiously anticipating since Dec. 13. Finally, on Saturday, the Charlie Weis era of Notre Dame football begins.

The 1978 Notre Dame grad returns to face former Pitt offensive tackle Dave Wannstedt, who makes his own coaching debut for the Panthers. True, the coaching matchup is a nice side show, but the real story lies in what happens Saturday night on Heinz Field.

“I think a lot of times the fanfare and the attention goes toward the coaches and the coaching staff, but in reality it comes down to which team executes the best,” Weis said.

Although Weis tries to deflect the media attention, he’s already spent almost nine months in the spotlight. Weis is 0-0 as the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame, yet he has already been lauded as the man to turn the program around. Most agree that he is the right man for the job. But the fact remains – his career record, 0-0.

Saturday, that will change, for better or worse.

“I’ve been wearing the same white jersey every single practice since the beginning of spring ball,” Irish center Bob Morton said. “I hate putting it on. I hate putting on the same old raggedy helmet – the gold paint hasn’t been put on in a long time. We’re ready to get off the Cartier Fields and back into the light that we’re here for.”

And despite the fact that the players are itching to play, there are still many unanswered questions about this team. How is third-year quarterback Brady Quinn going to run the new offense? What about the inexperienced secondary, which faces a quarterback in Tyler Palko, who tore them apart last year for 334 passing yards and five touchdowns? What about the rest of the defense that is unproven – can it stop freshman tailback Rashad Jennings and get pressure on Palko? Is special teams going to be as pitiful as last season? What about sophomore tailback Darius Walker – how effective will he be now that he is no longer a surprise to opposing defenses?

The fact of the matter is that no matter how “nasty” Weis is or how many recruits he has gotten to commit, it is yet to be seen what he will do with this Irish team on Saturdays. Optimism abounds, but there are still so many unanswered questions. Once on the field this team will have to prove to the nation that it is not about to have another 6-6 season. And nobody knows that better than Weis himself.

“We’ll see how popular I am Sunday,” the first-year coach said. “You know how that goes. I think that I’ve done a lot of things to bring a positive vibe to the program, but it still really comes down to how you play.”

This game is important, no doubt about it. And it won’t be easy. Playing on the road against a top-25 team is never a walk in the park, especially one coached by a staff filled with NFL experience. It’s time for the Irish to see how they measure up.

“We just need to find out where we are and there’s no better way than going to play the 22nd team in the country,” offensive coordinator Mike Haywood said.

And so Charlie Weis has a chance to make a huge statement with this game – if he wins, he will be showered with even more praise, and he will have set the tone for his tenure as a collegiate coach.

But what if he loses?

Well, it’s not the end of the world, despite what many will say. The season is 11, maybe 12, games long. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Notre Dame football program needs a win. Fans need something to be excited about besides Charlie Weis’s 0-0 career record and four Super Bowl rings. Students and alumni need to see their team win. And Weis says he’s ready to play.

“Honeymoon officially ends Saturday night at 8:07,” he said. “Right now I’m just worried about our team being ready to go, and that’s my job, and I’m hoping that I’m doing a pretty good job and that they are ready to go.”

And so now Weis is left to make the marriage work, and Saturday is when it starts.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Heather Van Hoegarden at hvanhoeg@nd.edu.