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Yom Kippur for Charlie Weis

Gary Caruso | Thursday, September 24, 2009

As Yom Kippur celebrations culminate in synagogues this weekend to mark the start of the Jewish year 5770, most Catholics know little about the symbols and meanings behind activities that began last Friday with Rosh HaShanah. Yet this week-long observation known as the High Holy Days, but translated in Hebrew as the “Days of Awe,” historically has been anything but awesome when evaluating success on the field for Notre Dame head football coach Charles Weis. Going into this, his fifth season at the helm of the Irish, Weis has amassed only a .500 record of 4 wins and 4 losses for games played during the High Holy Days. It pales even in comparison to the year prior to his arrival when ND won both games during the Days of Awe in what otherwise was a mediocre 6-5 season.

Judaism, like Catholicism, is rooted in long-standing ritual that honors multiple events, repentance and acts of faith. Football statistics only blend with either religious calendar as a way of marking athletic milestones, like calculating how well the Notre Dame basketball team has done when playing on St. Patrick’s Day. More importantly, athletic markers mean little in comparison to the solemn dedication of Jewish or Catholic worshippers.

During the 10 High Holy Days, Jewish tradition teaches that God decides who will live and die during the coming year. The verdict is rendered at Rosh HaShanah but sealed on Yom Kippur. As a result, Jews embark upon the serious task of examining their lives for more than a week, repenting for wrongs committed during the previous year, making amends with anyone wronged and planning their improvements for the upcoming year. That tradition is reminiscent of the many times this season when commentators have proclaimed that an Irish loss would negatively seal the fate of Weis’ hold on his job.

Do not mistake, however, our football Charlie for a similarly spelled, but decidedly more Jewish, Charles Weiss, the Voice of America foreign correspondent who also writes for The Jerusalem Post. That Charlie has chronicled Middle Eastern conflicts since the birth of Israel in 1948 – even attended the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann who was considered to be the architect of the Holocaust. Last year Weiss authored the book, “Closing the Books: Jewish Insurance Claims from the Holocaust.” His journalistic success, unlike our Charlie’s lack of college level athletic prowess, seems to nicely augment the tenants of the Jewish religious calendar.

Many may argue that some divine force granted our football Charlie a reprieve last week against Michigan State when a Spartan receiver failed to catch a touchdown pass while alone in the end zone near game’s end. Was it a gratuitous and favorable verdict coincidentally coming on the day of Rosh HaShanah that simply needs to be sealed tomorrow with a win against Purdue? Or might it be a tease to mask the glaring continuation of Weis’ collegiate mediocrity put on full display during the disappointing Irish clock mismanagement within the final minutes of the Michigan game?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Weis is still a head coach work in progress, still learning how to manage a staff and system with students rather than mature professionals. Setting aside the accusations of cheating by the New England Patriots while Weis guided their offense, the strength of that organization rests with its head coach rather than with the quality of the assistants. If anyone should atone and ask for forgiveness this week, it might be Notre Dame’s former athletic director and trustees who eagerly (and many contend blindly) hired Weis twice within two years. Regardless, the Weis contract extends until the Jewish year 5776, or 2015 on the American calendar.

This coming Sunday, the day preceding Yom Kippur, marks the eve of the Day of Atonement and the end of the Days of Awe. Although the week began with the life and death theme of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur is a holiday filled with hope for a New Year. Jews believe in a God so compassionate and just to annually accept their prayers beseeching forgiveness. The beauty of their faith is the belief that even at the last minute, a just and good God forgives their transactions. On Sunday, we and Weis will know the outcome of tomorrow’s football struggle with Purdue. It will be yet another day when 1.) Weis must tap dance through more public atonement or 2.) dodge – at least for another week – his sealed verdict .

In the ranks of college football, only two types of head coaches exist: those who win, and those who atone several times a season. Happy Yom Kippur, Charlie. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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