IT IS A temperate Saturday morning in August, a week into Notre Dame's football camp. A familiar, ursine figure with an iconic flattop is making his flat-footed way from the linebackers' station, where recently transplanted running back Travis Thomas has just wrapped up a ballcarrier and driven him 15 feet into the backfield, to the grunt-filled area where offensive linemen are coming together in titanic collisions audible on the far side of campus.
Walking between the drills, Charlie Weis makes eye contact with a reporter, who is taken aback when the coach returns his polite nod with ... a grin!
Where is the ogre, the taskmaster? Where is the ass-chewing prot�g� of Bill Parcells? That guy stayed home today. While Weis dispenses his share of pointed, constructive criticisms, they are outnumbered this morning by uplifting words, whether it is Weis shouting, "I keep noticing you, Leitko!" (when defensive end Travis Leitko sheds a blocker and jolts a running back in a drill called Irish Eyes); or celebrating freshman Toryan Smith's spectacular tackle of a kickoff returner ("That's what I'm talking about!"); or bumping knuckles with cornerback Mike Richardson, who'd just picked off quarterback Brady Quinn ("Give me some of that!").
Asked afterward if he was smiling more in his second season or if he'd gone all Norman Vincent Peale on us just because, for this one practice, he'd allowed reporters inside the ropes, Weis smiles like a capo on The Sopranos.
"I wasn't doing that because the press was there," he says. "I was doing that because I wasn't very nice yesterday." He elaborates: "My not nice was a quiet not nice. Where they expected me to kill 'em [verbally], I did it in a quiet, go-for-the-throat kind of way."
FOR EVERYTHING, in both Ecclesiastes and the World According to Weis, there is a season. A time to build up, a time to tear down. The same applies to Notre Dame football, which finds itself on a rapid climb from the trough of mediocrity in which it wallowed during DavieHam, as wiseguy undergrads refer to the conflated reins of Bob Davie (1997-2001) and Tyrone Willingham ('02-04). The Fighting Irish went 56-40 during DavieHam, for a winning percentage of .583, which comes in about .400 shy of the number most Golden Domers regard as their birthright.
In the waxing and waning of the nation's most celebrated football program, Notre Dame is once again ascendant. Overseeing the renaissance has been Weis, who may look and sound like a guy you'd find on an auto plant assembly line ( Weis's actual job for six months after graduating from Notre Dame in 1978) but whose work ethic and turbocharged intellect ticketed him for a destiny more grand.
And remunerative. The Weis hire was working out so well that last October, midway through his first season, director of athletics Kevin White was concerned that various NFL teams might try to swoop in and poach him. By presenting Weis with a 10-year extension worth a reported $30 million to $40 million, White robbed opposing schools of at least one negative recruiting tool: Why go there? Weis will head back to the NFL pretty soon--the money's too good.
On the team charter to Stanford the following month, White sat next to Weis. Halfway through the flight, the coach asked his boss, "Hey, have you got a few minutes?" He wanted to clear up some things on his schedule. Basically, Weis ticked off two dozen appointments he had over the next six months. "And this was all without so much as a piece of paper," White marvels. "It was all in his head. It was uncanny."
In addition to Weis's fierce intelligence, White cites his "passion" for coaching and his "attention to detail and nuance." Those attributes, "coupled with Charlie's deep love of Notre Dame--even though it's not his style, he is a flag-waving alum--made him a unique institutional fit."