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Approaching the moment to ‘ice’ Weis

Gary Caruso | Thursday, April 10, 2008

When the inter-squad game kicks off next weekend, Notre Dame alumni and fans will start the clock ticking on the fate of football coach Charlie Weis. Nobody can dispute that Weis was a dismal failure last year. In fact, going into his fourth season, Weis is still learning his way as a head coach of a major university football program. He claims that he will try a new role this year and abandon solely running the offense to divide his time with the defense.

That change leaves little solace for fans since Weis is coming off arguably the worst performance in Notre Dame’s storied football history – the most losses ever (nine) in a single season that included two of the program’s 10 worst losses of all time (a pair of 38-0 losses to Michigan and USC), first ever six-game home losing streak, losses to Navy and Air Force that marked the first time Notre Dame has lost to two military academies in the same season since the height of World War II, when most players were on active duty, and the first time in the preciously revered Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era that Notre Dame has gone winless against mid-majors. Such a performance everyone soon wants to forget.

The question for next season is whether Weis can overcome the challenge of molding a team replete of young and somewhat inexperienced players into a cohesive or successful squad. His players tend to transfer when they are demoted, but his schedule is easier than in 2007. Yet, his critics doubt that despite another outstanding recruiting class, any kumbaya experience alone will not dramatically reverse the team’s fortunes. It has become painfully clear that Charlie Weis cannot walk on water, despite Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White’s assertion when he stuck the university with a decade-long contract midway through Weis’ first season. One would think that White could count on an alumnus to value loyalty to his alma matter by negotiating incentive clauses rather than contract length.

In fairness to Weis, he should not be solely criticized for slowly adjusting to the quirks of the college ranks when his experience was with more mature professionals in the NFL ranks whom he never recruited. His problem though, is one that derives from a relatively closed system or society that exists among athletic administrators. Academicians placed into athletic roles throughout higher education in general, and specifically at Notre Dame along with an occasional meddling trustee, operate in an isolated, backslapping, self-absorbing “ole jock” power culture that at times is better suited for an episode of the Twilight Zone. No, Weis is a victim of White’s dubious tenure at Notre Dame.

White personally embraces a shameless self-promotion both on the web site and in publications that make one think the athletic department was his alone to magnanimously share with the public. For example, White is overly featured in athletic publications, most recently for two, long pages in the men’s hockey program as opposed to the university president and the chair of the trustees each with a mere three paragraphs while packed on a single page with several other officials. Moreover, despite an exhaustive search of other major university athletic web site directories, White is so enamored with his role that he is the only athletic director found who categorizes his office under “senior” administration.

At best, White’s business acumen is dubious (other than his biographical litany of graduation rate figures and competitive accomplishments resulting more from the athletic department’s coaches and staff). He oversaw the hiring of football coach George O’Leary who was fired a week later after falsifying his resume. White extended two football coaching contracts during his tenure, both preceded the school’s only 0-3 starts. He then presided over the dismissals of Bob Davie (whose contract was extended after his 41-9 bowl loss) and Tyrone Willingham, who if held to the Weis standard would have been given a 10-year contract in 2002 after beating 7th ranked Michigan and 11th ranked Florida State. Conversely, if White was consistent, Weis would be elsewhere now if held to the Willingham standard.

In an effort to overcompensate for missteps of the past, White ignored lessons learned. On-the-job training is necessary for NFL, high school, and even in-house assistant coaches to become successful head coaches within a major university football program. Coaches like Parseghian, Devine, Holtz and, yes, even Willingham who was not given the courtesy of a full contract, prove that point. So while the fan’s clock ticks against Weis, White’s deeds will keep the football coach on campus for another generation of students. White has set the stage so that only Weis can decide when to leave – and on his own terms.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs

director in President Clinton’s

administration. His column usually appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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

necessarily those of The Observer.