Notre Dame has fired its football coach, and this is getting to be kind of a habit in South Bend. The reason for the firing was the usual: The coach didn’t win enough games, not for Notre Dame, certainly, and not even for a mid-level Big Ten or ACC school. Not only did Charlie Weis not win enough games; he won none of the big ones and lost some of the really small ones. Prior to 2007, Notre Dame had defeated Navy in 43 consecutive games, going back to a time before Vietnam when the service academies could still compete with anyone on the college-football scene.
Before Weis took over, Notre Dame fans would look over the schedule ahead of the season and pencil in a neat little “W” next to Navy. Then, two years ago, Navy beat Notre Dame. None of the players on that Navy squad would have been offered a scholarship by Charlie Weis. None, probably, could have made his team as a walk-on. Still, that happened in the worst of Weis’s five seasons — Notre Dame finished 3-9 — and his supporters could be forgiven for thinking of it as an aberration. As soon as Weis had all his own players on the field and his own system in place . . .
Then, this year, it happened again. Another loss to Navy. Other losses quickly followed. To Connecticut. To Pittsburgh. To Stanford. Final record for the season: 6-6. In the five Charlie Weis years, Notre Dame never won a big game, and never even beat a team that finished the season ranked in the Top 20.
The only iconic American institution that has fallen further and still survives is, arguably, General Motors.
Football coaches are fired all the time. There are college coaches whose teams have won national championships who are currently unemployed and waiting for the phone to ring. And former NFL coaches who wear Super Bowl rings and are now doing television. Football is a tough game, and loyalty doesn’t get you any first downs. Duffy Dougherty, who coached at Michigan State put it nicely: “The alumni are with you . . . win or tie.”
Only now, with overtime, there are no ties.
Still, the Weis story is more interesting than the ordinary firing of a coach for the offense of not winning enough games. Weis was anointed almost before he had conducted a single practice as head coach at Notre Dame.
The anointing began at his first press conference, where he announced, magisterially, “You are what you are, folks . . . and right now you’re a 6-5 football team. And guess what? That’s just not good enough. That’s not good enough for you, and it’s certainly not going to be good enough for me.”
He was coming from the pros, where he had been an assistant coach on a team what won Super Bowls. Three of them, in fact. But he had never been a head coach of anything. In his first season, his team almost beat rival Southern Cal, and that was enough to earn Weis a ten-year contract extension. Deliverance, it was assumed around South Bend, was at hand. The long years of wandering in the wilderness, thirsting for national championships, were over.
Weis was the subject of an adoring piece on 60 Minutes. He was profiled by magazines and in books. One was called The New Gold Standard: Charlie Weis and Notre Dame’s Rise to Glory. Then there was his own tome (done with the help of a ghostwriter), which was called, modestly, No Excuses: One Man’s Incredible Rise Through the NFL to Head Coach of Notre Dame. The publisher describes the book as “an extraordinary look inside one of football’s greatest minds who has helped shape today’s game.”
The “great mind” bit was common. This was the key to the success that was assumed as inevitable. Weis, you see, was smarter than all the other guys. He even said so himself when he promised his players that when they stepped onto the field, it would be with a “decided schematic advantage.” In a battle of brains, the other coaches didn’t have a chance.
The ineluctable smartness of Charlie Weis, his palpable sense of superiority, made for great copy, but somehow never delivered success in the brute world of wins and losses. Smartness, it seems, isn’t everything, and may be overrated. Believing that you are always the smartest person in the room — or the smartest coach on the field — might buy you some good coverage in the papers and on the television. But you still have to play the games. Weis talked a good game. But Navy — and a lot of other teams — played a better one.
Could there be a lesson here?
– Geoffrey Norman is the editor of VermontTiger.com.