Weis has Irish fighting again

First-year coach has Notre Dame back on a path to prominence


The debate that raged for most of the eight seasons Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham spent coaching at Notre Dame revolved around whether the Fighting Irish could ever again become a national power, given their status as a football independent and the school's tough academic standards.

There is no longer such chatter, all because of a guy named Charlie.

Though the 6-2 start going into today's game against Navy in South Bend, Ind., doesn't match the eight straight wins Willingham's first team reeled off, what Charlie Weis has done since returning to his alma mater from the NFL's New England Patriots will certainly be added to the lore of this storied program.

"I didn't really set a timetable," Weis said during his weekly teleconference Tuesday. "I just said that there were only a few things that were going to be certain. I said that we were going to be disciplined, that we were going to play physical, that we're going to play for 60 minutes.

"The only promise I made - the only promise I hoped to keep - is that at the end of the year we would be playing better than we were at the beginning of the year. The jury is still out on that one."

The same can't be said for Weis, 49, whose only previous head coaching experience came in one season 16 years ago on the high school level. If anything, Notre Dame realizes how hot a commodity it has, having recently ripped up the original six-year contract Weis signed for a new 10-year deal.

The preseason predictions of doom because of a tough schedule - four of the first five games on the road, three against nationally ranked teams - quickly disappeared after the Irish won at then-No. 23 Pittsburgh and then-No. 3 Michigan, making Weis the first Notre Dame coach since Knute Rockne to start his career 2-0 on the road.

Even the most celebrated loss - the now-classic 34-31 defeat in the final seconds to top-ranked Southern California last month at home - showed how much the Irish had improved from last season, when they had lost to the Trojans by 31 points for the third year in a row.

Barring an unexpected collapse the rest of the way - after this week, No. 7 Notre Dame finishes the regular season with Syracuse and Stanford - the Irish should be 9-2 and on the brink of their first Bowl Championship Series invitation since the 2000 season.

"All I know is this, they're cognizant of the position they're in," Weis said. "The most important thing they have to realize is that when they're playing against Navy, they're playing against a team that put themselves in a position to make some serious noise themselves."

Said Ambrose Wooden, a junior cornerback from Baltimore: "We're not really focused about that [a BCS invitation]. We're taking this one game at a time. We're not really looking ahead to the future. We'll take care of that when that time comes. Right now we're focused on Navy."

Having Mids' number

Just as he used the number 31 as motivation for USC, Weis has mentioned the number 41 quite a bit this week. That represents the number of years in a row that the Irish have beaten the Midshipmen in what is college football's longest continuous rivalry, and among the most one-sided.

Asked if his players are thinking about the possibility of losing to Navy, Weis said, "They'd better think that way, because I think that way."

When he took the job last winter, shuttling back and forth between South Bend and Foxborough, Mass., until after the New England Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years with Weis as their offensive coordinator, he immediately changed the mind-set of a team that had gone 5-7 and 6-6 in Willingham's last two seasons after a 10-3 debut in 2002.

The approach toward his players was simple.

"Try to not to do more than they could handle, I think that's always the most important thing," Weis said. "A lot of times coaches want to over-coach and try to do too many things.

"Once you put stuff in, you have to figure out what your players do the best, and just do that. If you try to make your players do what they're not capable of doing, you're just setting yourself up for a fall."

While Weis is having similar success with Willingham's players that Willingham had with Davie's in his first year, there is a feeling that this is a better fit, one that will have more lasting power and that the Irish won't revert to the struggles they had with their previous two coaches.

"Coach Weis is different than any coach I've ever played for," said Anthony Fasano, a senior tight end. "He just has a great way of teaching his system, a great way of getting you in a right mind-set to go play every Saturday. I think he comes out with a great confidence, and it shows within his teams."

Especially in his quarterbacks. What Tom Brady did in New England in going from a lightly regarded sixth-round draft choice into become a potential Hall of Famer, junior quarterback Brady Quinn is starting to do at Notre Dame.

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