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Football Commentary: Weis gets it right after early fumbles

Ken Fowler | Friday, November 2, 2007

Charlie Weis has faltered more than a few times this season.

But this week, at least, he’s been a heck of a coach.

On Tuesday, Weis broke the news to Robert Hughes (and other players and reporters, separately) that Hughes’ older brother, Earl, had died. Weis told Hughes to take as much time away from football as he needed.

“Something like that, how can you give him a time frame?” Weis said.

On Wednesday, Hughes was back. Weis said the freshman running back returned because of classes and to have a distraction from the grim reality for a while. Weis again insisted that Hughes could take things at his own pace, that he could try to play against Navy if he wanted to, but there was no rush.

On Thursday night, Weis was scheduled to drive Hughes to his home in Chicago to be with his family. Weis didn’t want the freshman driving 90 miles, alone and facing his brother’s funeral. He also wanted to spend “one-on-one time” with Hughes, something not so common on teams with more than 80 scholarship players, and sit and talk with Hughes’ family.

What’s more, Weis went through the athletic department’s compliance office and the NCAA to arrange for one or two buses to take coaches and players close to Hughes to services for Earl on Friday.

That all might seem natural and nondescript, but that’s precisely the point.

There’s a reason Notre Dame alumni cling so dearly to the tradition of athletes living in normal dorms just like everyone else – because they are just like everyone else. And when football coaches react to human situations in humane manners, that’s a good thing. Too often, sports celebrities try to construct a false wall between the public and themselves; the line is simple, and it’s repeated often – “you just don’t get it.”

But here, there was no sign of that mentality. Weis made an analogy about a father or a mother – what they would do. By driving to Chicago, the coach is missing time he would otherwise spend studying tape, formulating a game plan or recruiting. But it’s the right thing to do.

This week, Weis’ good decisions aren’t just in the off-the-field arena. He gave the first indication that Notre Dame just might be able to fix its performance fortunes sometime soon.

If the first step to overcoming a football problem is recognizing it exists, Weis moved onto Step 2. A reporter with the Navy press corps asked Weis what the biggest problems with the Irish are this year. The question was marvelous.

“For those of us who haven’t followed Notre Dame football as closely as those people who cover it on a regular basis or are fans, could you kind of just quickly summarize what you feel has happened this year?” the reporter asked. “Is it simply a case of being hit hard by graduation and the younger players who have been asked to fill in just haven’t performed or were not ready or the inexperience? In your overall big picture analysis, what’s led to 1-7?”

The answer was better.

“Well, first of all, let’s start with coaching,” Weis said. ” … I, probably, with the transition that we’ve had from last year to this year, have not done the best job of having the team ready to go on a week in and week out basis. And we probably should leave it at that one because if you are looking for me to give you a whole dossier of problems that have happened this year, there would be too many things.”

There was a follow-up, with the reporter hoping to get Weis to say the team’s inexperience has been a “crucial factor” in its failings.

Weis didn’t bite.

“It’s a factor, but that’s what it is,” Weis said. “It’s a factor; it’s not the factor. … I started with what I felt was the No. 1 reason, and I think that if you start with the head coach doing a better job, then you’d probably have a better record.”

He told the truth. The inexperience has hurt, but he has also done a crummy job at times, which has set the team back. But simply by acknowledging that flaw, he’s starting to turn things around.

It’s just a week, but a week in which Weis showed why he still earns trust among fans: He can make good decisions about football and about life. That is the combination Notre Dame sought when it hired him, the combination we saw in 2005 with “Pass Right,” and the combination that was lacking this season.

Not anymore.

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

Contact Ken Fowler at [email protected]