THE PLANK DECEMBER 1, 2009
The coaching rein of Charlie Weis, with its endless gifts to satirists and Notre Dame-haters, has sadly come to its inevitable conclusion as he was relieved of his coaching duties yesterday. Weis began his career riding an epic wave of hype, exceeding even that of his predecessor, Tyrone Willingham. When I wrote an article for Slate two years ago puncturing that hype, I was somewhat out on a counterintuitive limb. Today, almost nobody defends Weis, and most recognize that his early success was a mirage.
But not everybody! Matt Hinton argues:
It would be a minor shame, though, if [Weis's] legacy in South Bend was remembered exclusively as one of total failure, or even of persistent incompetence, if only because his first two seasons were remarkably good: Working with Tyrone Willingham's maligned, underachieved recruits, Weis' first team tore out of the gate with an upset at No. 3 Michigan, a near-upset over the top-ranked USC juggernaut and a deserving Fiesta Bowl bid to cap one of the most improved efforts in the country. His second team opened the season ranked No. 2, landed in the Sugar Bowl with 10 wins and produced a Hesiman finalist despite an air of disappointment that came with such high expectations.
At that point -- sitting at 19-6 with a pair of BCS bids and top-15 finishes and recruiting classes ranked among the national elite for the first time in years at Notre Dame -- Weis really did seem like one of the better coaches in the country. This is easily forgotten now, and maybe for good as the Weis' era becomes permanently associated with mediocrity.
This is just wrong. First of all, there was never any reason to believe that Weis would be a good college head coach. His only head coaching experience came in a short high school stint, and his only college coaching experience came during a brief tenure as a position coach. As an NFL coordinator, his offenses finished on average in the bottom half of the league in total offense despite several of those teams having a future Hall of Fame quarterback (who has become dramatically more effective since Weis left.)
Second of all, nothing Weis did at Notre Dame suggested any great coaching skill. It's very common for a new coach to experience elevated success in his first season or two, benefiting from whatever skills and discipline were left over by the previous coach. In any case, Weis did not particularly elevate Notre Dame's play. He inherited a roster with a couple of terrific recruiting classes maturing into upperclass status. And he enjoyed a schedule that got dramatically worse. Those two factors entirely account for the better record Weis produced in 2005 and 2006.
Lets go through the list of Weis accomplishments cited by Hinton. First, the "upset at No. 3 Michigan." That Michigan team was badly overrated (as Michigan fans like me knew full well at the time) and finished 7-5 and unranked. (And, by the way, Weis was phenomenally lucky to win that game, being outgained by 100 yards, getting a freak tipped pass touchdown, and a bizarre sequence where Michigan's quarterback appeared to score on a quarterback sneak, did not get an official review of his apparent touchdown, and lost a fumble on the next play.) Second, the "near-upset over the top-ranked USC juggernaut" -- a team that was massively overrated and decimated by injuries. Third, "a deserving Fiesta Bowl bid" in which Notre Dame was, in fact, exposed as totally undeserving of its bid by Ohio State. Fourth, "His second team opened the season ranked No. 2, landed in the Sugar Bowl with 10 wins and produced a Heisman finalist despite an air of disappointment that came with such high expectations." The opening ranking was another triumph of undeserved hype, as was the Heisman finalist standing for Quinn.
The ten wins came over an extremely soft schedule. Indeed, it should be noted that over Weis's five year tenure, Notre Dame had zero wins over any opponent that finished ranked in the top 20. Over time, the cumulative effects of his abysmal coaching overwhelmed the considerable talent advantage he had over most opponents. As Weis's imprint was felt more deeply on the roster, his teams underachieved more and more. His final squad, consisting entirely of Weis-recruited players, finished an astonishing 6-6 despite being loaded from top to bottom with talent and experience. It is one of the most disastrous coaching failures in memory.
God, I'll miss him.