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Football Recruiting: Like Weis now, Willingham once signed blue-chippers

Mike Gilloon | Thursday, February 2, 2006

It’s official – Charlie Weis is no longer the head football coach on this campus.

Instead, after inking a much-hyped recruiting class Wednesday, students and alumni will now refer to him as King Charlie. Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But looking at this week’s ratings from nationwide recruiting services, there is a lot of truth to claims that Weis has given the Dome another regilding.

He hauled in the nation’s No. 1 tight end, No. 1 offensive lineman, one of the top running backs, a pair of smothering cornerbacks and a quarterback tandem every coach would love to have on his sideline.

ESPN has it as the fifth-best class in America, Scout.com says it’s No. 3 — and everyone thinks it’s one of the better Irish crops since the Tyrone Willingham era.

Wait.

Tyrone Willingham? Mr. 21-and-15? The fired coach who left South Bend after only three seasons amidst controversy and confusion?

The current head coach of the 2-9 Washington Huskies?

That’s right. Weis’ class – both in makeup and circumstance – is incredibly similar to Willingham’s class of 2007.

Both came after the coaches’ first full seasons in South Bend – seasons in which they turned losing teams into successes – and both sold players on the promise that everything would stay sunny in the shadow of the Dome.

Willingham’s group of 21 players – highlighted by quarterback Brady Quinn, defensive back Tom Zbikowski and defensive end Victor Abiamiri – was ranked No. 5 in the country by Scout.com on Signing Day 2003.

One theory commonly tossed around after Willingham’s firing was that he couldn’t recruit. But wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, center John Sullivan, defensive tackle Trevor Laws, tackle Ryan Harris and free safety Chinedum Ndukwe – all members of Willingham’s class of 2007 – turned out pretty well, as anyone who watched the Irish on Saturdays this past autumn could see.

The point is not that Weis attracted these blue chippers with a flimsy, used-car salesman’s pitch. There’s no doubt he’s a prepared, meticulous and charismatic recruiter.

But Notre Dame’s BCS run and classic near-upset of Pete Carroll’s Trojans did more to earn Tom Lemming’s top-five rating than any living room-couch sales pitch.

What Weis has to do now is win and keep winning, in a bigger and more dominating style than he did this season. There is no room for a loss to Air Force or a massacre at the hands of USC.

That was Willingham’s problem. He lost. Granted, from the way Weis’ offense looked this season he has the Irish playing better than Willingham’s squad performed in his inaugural campaign.

But the root of Willingham’s recruiting problem was not a lack of enthusiasm or a weak handshake – it was the results on the field.

When the coach stopped winning he started losing credibility with recruits. They no longer saw him as a man who could draw a map to the NFL, but as a mediocre coach with little chance at winning much more than the Navy game.

Weis is being praised as one of the nation’s best recruiters … right now. He’s been able to sell the point that he is going to turn Notre Dame around, which he appears to be doing so far. But just a few losses next season, especially a blowout defeat against Michigan or Penn State, could make top players like offensive lineman Sam Young – who signed with the Irish yesterday – look elsewhere.

College football is fragile – it doesn’t take much for a coach to go from near-sainthood to selling his house.

Weis understands this, and after more than a decade spent in the NFL he should know something about job (in)security.

Expect Weis to keep on winning – the Irish haven’t shown many signs of slowing down yet.

But if they do slip up, like Willingham did in his final two seasons, look for the Irish to keep fighting with a southern California school for recruits.

No, not USC – it’ll more likely be the feared Aztecs of San Diego State.

The opinions in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Mike Gilloon at mgilloon@nd.edu