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CHARLIE WEIS: Family and football

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, April 22, 2005

Charlie Weis is constantly surrounded by reminders of his accomplishments.

Behind his desk is a framed photo of Weis with his son and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after the Super Bowl this year. He sometimes flashes a gaudy Super Bowl ring, one of four he has won.

Weis entered a New England franchise under a defensive-minded coach and made sure that the offense wasn’t forgotten about.

Everyone knows Charlie Weis is a winner on the football field.

But Charlie Weis isn’t just about football.

Weis, a father of two, one with special needs, founded Hannah & Friends with his wife to help children with autism and global delays.

“He’s really family-oriented,” wife Maura Weis said. “He’s not the kind of coach that’s out golfing or with his buddies when he has time off, so his hobby is his family. He’s working, or he’s with us, one or the other.”

Charlie Weis is about football and family.

That’s why the 1978 graduate was hired in December to lead Notre Dame’s football program.

“That would in my mind represent a wonderful Notre Dame fit,” athletic director Kevin White said of Weis.

From New England to Notre Dame

Weis was in the middle of the season as the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots when he was contacted the “right way” by Notre Dame, which was looking for a new football coach after the Nov. 30 firing of Tyrone Willingham.

Weis first talked to Notre Dame on a Sunday evening after a road game, and again the next day. White then asked if he could fly out to visit with Weis, who he had never personally met, but whose career he had followed throughout the years.

“That Tuesday, they asked if they could come visit me in person, and I said yeah, but it will have to be after 11:30 at night because that’s what time I work until,” Weis said. “So they came.”

Weis and Notre Dame officials, including White, met for about two-and-a-half to three hours at a hotel in Rhode Island.

White said he wasn’t surprised with the person he saw.

“We had followed Charlie for so long, I can’t say that anything about Charlie surprised me at that point,” White said. “I had read so much about Charlie, and I had talked to so many people about Charlie, there were no surprises.”

But Notre Dame wasn’t ready for Weis – at least not yet.

“They turned around and flew back – they weren’t making a rash decision,” Weis said. “They were dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s.”

Just an “ordinary guy”

When Jim Benenati met his roommate in Flanner Hall freshman year, he was a little worried.

“I thought it could be a long year,” he said.

His roommate? New Jersey native Charlie Weis.

“When I first met him, I’d say he was a very outspoken, opinionated guy who liked to go out and have a lot of fun,” Benenati said.

But Benenati soon realized that he and his new roommate had something in common – sports.

“Fortunately, I was a pretty big sports fan, but not as fanatic as him,” Benenati said. “He followed all the Notre Dame sports. He was at every football game, he was at every basketball game, hockey games, baseball games.”

Despite his love of sports, Weis wasn’t the most athletic guy on campus. Still, he played most intramural sports, including Bookstore Basketball and interhall softball, where he won the campus championship, which he said he doesn’t remember.

“He was okay [at sports],” Benenati said of his four-year roommate who was a groomsman in his wedding. “He’s a little more humble then he’ll let you know. I don’t know if he was a standout, but he was okay. Otherwise a pretty ordinary guy – very outspoken, very opinionated, very friendly.”

Benenati used to get mad at Weis during the football season because he wanted to be in his seat before the players started warming up, and Benenati didn’t want to get to the games that early.

“He was always into sports, always analyzing games, always watching every play,” Benenati said.

Ironically, it was Notre Dame football that attracted Weis to South Bend in the first place. When he lived in New Jersey, Weis used to watch “Notre Dame Highlights” on Sunday mornings, which was the replay of the best parts of that Saturday’s game.

“I grew up Catholic in New Jersey, so you could say, ‘well, was that it?'” Weis said. “No. It was more ‘Notre Dame Highlights’ on Sunday that got me interested in Notre Dame.”

But once he got to Notre Dame, Weis wasn’t just about sports. The speech and drama major knew most people around campus, as well, something he remembers fondly.

“I do remember, more than anything else, having a whole bunch of friends all over campus,” Weis said.

The start of something great

Charlie Weis was teaching English at Morristown High School in New Jersey when he learned of an opening as a freshman football coach.

“He heard about me and asked if he could be interviewed for the job,” said John Chironna, Morristown head football coach at the time. “I interviewed him and I was very much impressed with him. He came to work and worked diligently, and as a result, you can hook the two with what you see.”

Weis worked with Chironna from 1980-84, the first of many coaches who would show him the way.

“He was the first guy who really taught me about coaching,” Weis said.

And Chironna knew Weis had a lot to learn.

“Charlie was very intelligent, opinionated,” Chironna said. “I used to call him a Notre Dame snot because he would get me angry. We would be breaking down film and he would make a statement and the thing that would anger me is that he didn’t think it out 100 percent. But, that was his one weakness he had, was that he was so smart.”

But Weis knew how to win.

When Chironna became the athletic director, he was left without a basketball coach one season. So he asked Weis to do him a favor.

“I said you’ve got to coach our basketball team,” Chironna said. “So he coached the basketball team to a championship.”

Weis also coached the fencing team to a winning season, and all along Chironna knew he had a special talent on his hands.

“Charlie is a very, very intelligent guy,” Chironna said. “And I’ll tell you, he’s going to make it big, I always said that.”

The road to success

After five seasons at Morristown, Weis left to coach for the University of South Carolina’s Joe Morrison. It was in Columbia, S.C. that Weis earned a master’s degree in education while working as a graduate assistant position coach and assistant recruiting coordinator.

“[Morrison] took me from the high school thought process to the college thought process,” Weis said.

But in 1989, Morrison passed away, and Weis found himself without a job. He eventually found a head coaching position at Franklin Township High School, where he led the team to the New Jersey state championship while working in the New York Giants pro-personnel department.

One year later, he was working with the Giants full-time after head coach Bill Parcells offered him a position as the assistant special teams and defensive assistant coach in 1990. Giants tight end Mark Bavaro, a 1985 Notre Dame graduate, helped the Giants win the Super Bowl that year. He remembers Weis as a guy he could relate to because of their Irish ties.

“We’re more friends than a coach-player,” Bavaro said. “He was new and I was somebody who was on my last leg, so we didn’t really have a working relationship, we were just good friends. We were both Notre Dame guys, we would sit and talk about Notre Dame.”

Bavaro said Weis knowledge of the game is one of the things that makes the coach special.

“He’s a football geek,” Bavaro said. “The guy loves football, much more than I do, and you really have to study the game. And a guy who loves football, that’s what he thrives on, especially a guy like Charlie, for some reason, he has an affection for it. Most guys don’t put that effort into it; they just try to get away with the bare minimum. He keeps delving deeper and deeper looking for different ways – he’s never satisfied, that’s for sure, he’s always coming up with something.”

This desire for more led Weis to New England, where he coached tight ends, running backs and wide receivers from 1993-96 before going to the New York Jets, where Parcells was the head coach and Bill Belichick was the assistant head coach.

Weis said each step along the way he learned more and more about the game of football, one that he had coached for 20 years at that point.

“I didn’t always know more football than [Bavaro],” Weis said. “When I first started coaching high school I thought I knew everything about football, and I was humbled by how much Chironna knew. Then I went to South Carolina, I had been coaching high school for a while, thought I knew a lot and was humbled by what Morrison knew. Then when I went to the Giants, I was doubly humbled by Parcells.

“You keep on getting humbled. So even though you’re growing, you realize the guys you’re working for know a lot more about the game than you do, and I think they were all good teachers. They would teach me and bring me along, and finally get you to a stage where you can stand on your own two feet.”

Weis reached that stage as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator from 2000 to 2004.

“I think he is an absolute brilliant game planner,” former Patriots fullback and 1997 Notre Dame graduate Marc Edwards said. “It changed from week to week what we did, what we did well, but he always had an answer for what the defense would do.”

Weis won three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, engineering an innovative and unpredictable offense, while earning the respect of his players and players all around the NFL.

“He’s very confident in what he’s doing, and he knows he’s good,” Edwards said. “And that definitely shows in what he does.”

Developing a talent

Outside of his offensive schemes, Weis was known for something else – the development of Tom Brady from a sixth round draft pick out of Michigan to a two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.

“I think that Charlie has had a significant role in Tom’s development and overall strategy and some fundamentals and techniques and just game management,” Belichick said in a press conference before the Super Bowl.

Under the tutelage of Weis, Brady was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and won numerous player of the year awards. He is the first quarterback to start and win three Super Bowls before the age of 28.

“He sets the tone for every meeting, every practice, and he has since the day I got here,” Brady said before the Super Bowl.

But with Brady and Weis it wasn’t always just about football.

A close call

In 2002, Weis weighed more than 300 pounds – a weight he knew was a problem, especially since his father died at 56 due to a second heart attack. So that June, Weis decided to have gastric bypass surgery to help him control his weight and his life.

“I was on a yo-yo diet for about 15 years, where I would yo-yo over 300 pounds, under 300 pounds, over 300 pounds,” Weis said. “At the time I had the gastric bypass, I was well over 300 pounds, and I felt that I was headed toward a heart attack.”

Weis said he owed it to his family to stay alive as long as he could, and he thought the surgery was the only way to do so, even though his family was vehemently opposed.

“To all my little victories in life and my circle of successes in life, I had reached a frustration point where I just didn’t think the yo-yo diet was the way continue to live a long life,” Weis said.

However, complications from the surgery arose, and what was supposed to be an overnight stay in the hospital turned into much worse, as Weis suffered internal bleeding from the surgery and was in a coma for two weeks.

That’s when Tom Brady came into Weis’ family, and became what Weis called him last week – his “second son.”

“He was coming Saturday morning just so he didn’t have to listen to me get on him for not coming to see me,” Weis said. “But when he got there I was in intensive care in bad shape. So what he did, he actually for the next 48 hours hung out with my wife, because it was touch-and-go the whole time, until reinforcements could get in to help out because the last thing we expected was something bad happening.”

For Charlie’s wife, Maura, it was tough to see her husband suffer.

“It was a really hard period,” she said. “Especially because he’s such a strong individual – he’s one of the strongest people I know, physically and mentally really tough. We talk all the time. So it was really weird not to hear his voice for over two weeks. And I knew that if anyone could get through it, it would be my husband, and he did.”

The importance of family

When Kevin White sat down with Charlie Weis in December, he saw that family was a priority. In fact, it was one of the things that made White think Weis would be a good fit at Notre Dame.

“Charlie is very family-oriented, as much so as anyone I’ve met in all my years around college athletics within the coaching profession,” White said. “And I found that very appealing for a place like Notre Dame.”

So Weis was contacted once again by Notre Dame, and he talked to several committees who interviewed him. After that, Notre Dame called him back to offer him the job.

“His track record of success is second to nobody’s,” White said. “Everywhere he’s been, Charlie Weis has been highly successful.”

And so now Weis, 49, brings his family – wife Maura, a son Charlie who will be entering the seventh grade, and a special needs daughter, Hannah – to the Notre Dame family.

“It’s a really exciting time for us, and it’s great,” Maura Weis said. “It’s everything we ever thought it would be.”

And Weis is happy because his family is happy.

“Probably one of the reasons Notre Dame was such a good fit for me,” he said, “is because I love my family so much.”

Back where he started

It’s been 27 years since Charlie Weis sat in the student section waiting for warm-ups to start. Now he is the one running the show.

“I think it’s somewhat inspiring to go back to the place where you went to school and you lived and have the opportunity to get Notre Dame back to the top,” Weis said. “Now whether that matriculates or not, there’s never any guarantee, but that’s what the intent is.”

Despite only having been the full-time Irish coach for a few months, Weis has his players excited about the future of Notre Dame football.

“He’s real intense,” safety Tom Zbikowski said. “I love the way he coaches – just making sure you’re doing things right, and perfecting everything. He’s a perfectionist, and that’s the way you gotta play football.”

Irish players and assistant coaches have already seen what he can do this spring, and are learning exactly why he has the reputation he does.

“To go against him and some of the things he likes to do, you can see where he’s got that label [of an offensive genius],” defensive line coach Jappy Oliver said. “He keeps you on your toes. It’s hard to get a beat on Coach Weis, which is great on our side because we feel after going against him that he’s going to be hard to stop.”

And if Weis has it the way he wants, he won’t be stopped anytime soon.

“I would really like to be here at least 10 years,” Weis said. “And sometime after Charlie graduates [from Notre Dame], I’ll be ready to ride into the sunset. But I’m hoping that by the time I leave, the Notre Dame fans, the alum, anyone who has a positive light on Notre Dame will be able to look at me and say we’re glad we hired that guy.”