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Weis Wants to Finish Strong

January 01, 2006|From the Associated Press

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Charlie Weis walked through the group of players stretching on the practice field at Scottsdale Community College, searching for one to needle.

Left tackle Ryan Harris was a big -- and easy -- target.

"You look like a dancing bear," Weis told Harris.

Notre Dame's rookie coach was looking for laughs, and he got them. A loose football team is usually a good one, and so far on this sunny day in the desert the Irish were enjoying their preparations for the Fiesta Bowl.

It wouldn't last long. Stretching was over, and kickoff drills were beginning. Weis was all over the field, pouncing on mistakes.

The coach was in charge.

"Explode through the hole. Don't be timid," he yelled at a kickoff returner. "If you're going to make a mistake, make it at full speed."

Full speed, as the Irish have found out, means something different under Weis than it may have under his predecessors. He has time to have some fun, but there's even more time to be serious.

And this is a very serious time of year for a coach leading a storied football program back to respectability.

So far it's been a magical season for the Irish, who are making their first appearance in a BCS bowl since being blown out by Oregon State in this same bowl five years ago.

But Weis didn't need 15 years as an assistant coach in the NFL to figure out the nine wins and a near-miss against USC won't be nearly as special if Notre Dame can't finish things out against Ohio State.

"Realistically you're only remembered by how the season ends," Weis said. "Everyone will say what a great year, you went 10-2, beat Ohio State, and got that win after a decade of winning no bowl games; 9-3 would be pretty good, but pretty good isn't good enough."

Notre Dame would have gladly settled for pretty good when it hired Weis from the New England Patriots last December to replace Ty Willingham. After all, the Irish were going with a relative unknown, a Notre Dame graduate who had four Super Bowl rings as an NFL assistant but no head coaching experience past the high school level.

What they got in their surprise package was a coach who turned quarterback Brady Quinn into a Heisman candidate and revamped a plodding Irish offense into a juggernaut.

But, wait, there's more. Turns out the coach with a tough exterior has a soft spot, too.

Weis wasn't looking for publicity when he went to visit a 10-year-old boy with an inoperable brain tumor who lived outside of South Bend, Ind. To him, it was just the right thing to do.

Montana Mazurkiewicz died before Notre Dame's game against Washington, but Weis called his mother the night before the game and said he would stick by his promise to call a "pass right" on the first play of the game for the youth.

Weis didn't waver the next day even though Notre Dame was backed up on its 1-yard-line and every football instinct screamed at him for a run. He had Quinn throw and he hooked up with tight end Anthony Fasano for a 13-yard gain.

No wonder the school didn't even wait until the end of the season to give Weis a contract extension that ties him to Notre Dame for 10 years at a reported minimum of $2 million a year. Weis, on the other hand, didn't wait long to pay back that salary, putting the Irish in a bowl that will earn Notre Dame some $14.5 million.

More importantly, he has the entire Notre Dame franchise believing in itself once again.

"Everyone questioned his lack of head coaching experience and working in the pros for so long and not be really being equipped for the college life and the college coaching," Fasano said. "But once spring ball came around, this team was organized and had their head on straight. I think I knew we were going to be in the right direction."

Even before spring practice began, Weis signaled it would be a new era at Notre Dame. Some 200 students turned out at 6 a.m. one February morning to learn what he expected from them as fans, and he wasn't shy about telling college administrators he needed to be able to enroll some recruits in January to get top players in the country.

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