No head-coaching job is more important to college football than the one at Notre Dame. Other schools have had more famous (and better) coaches, but the regional nature of the game has tended to limit the appeal of these men. Can you imagine Bear Bryant's houndstooth fedora being treated as a holy relic in Ann Arbor? Or Joe Paterno's black-rimmed glasses on display in an Austin museum?
In a sport of provincial tradition, though, the man who leads the Fighting Irish holds national office. South Bend is the home of the College Football Hall of Fame, and for nearly a century, Notre Dame has remained both the most widely popular and the most widely reviled football team in the country. It has accomplished this feat for one simple reason: it has won with spectacular consistency. And when the Irish are winning, everyone is happy, even the people who hate them.
For returning Notre Dame football to its customary position among the elite programs in America, first-year head coach Charlie Weis gets my pick for Sportsman of the Year. When he took over in South Bend 11 months ago, he found himself in charge of a faded dynasty in need of relevance and repair, a program that had won just 56 games in the previous eight years and had not won a bowl game in over a decade.
He began by promising his players that in every game they would have a decided schematic advantage, and in that respect he has succeeded beyond everybody's wildest expectations. He out-strategized such coaching luminaries as Michigan's Lloyd Carr, USC's Pete Carroll and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer. His immaculate game plans have been a big reason he's been able to go 9-2 with a team made up mostly of players who went 6-6 a year ago.
The man has also lived up to the responsibilities of his office, and not just by delivering great football to his congregation. Weis seems to understand that more is expected of him because of the job he holds. His visit to a terminally ill child the week before the Sept. 24 victory over Washington was a gesture of pure class. His promise to call the boy's play-a pass to the right-on the first snap of the game was a touching gift. His decision to go ahead with the play, even though quarterback Brady Quinn would be throwing from his own end zone, was a move worthy of Knute Rockne himself. Wake up the echoes, indeed.
We live in a world of rapid change, of instant information and short attention spans. The realm of sports is no exception: hockey has done away with the red line; pro football has abolished pass defense every few years; basketball has morphed into a half-court shoving match; and baseball, our national pastime, has tainted its record books with performance enhancing substances.
College football has changed, too, as the spread offense has replaced the wishbone, and the quarterback has replaced the running back as the focal point of the offense. But more than any other sport, college football remains bound by its traditions-some local and some not-and one of those traditions is Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, love them or hate them, are part of the story of the game. Charlie Weis has done more than get Notre Dame winning again. He has returned the Irish to the center of the college football universe. Where they should be.