With the season quickly approaching and the dawn of a new coaching regime on the horizon, we are going to look back at some recent first seasons from former Notre Dame head coaches. First up we’ll start with the recently dismissed Charlie Weis.
- First Season: 9-3, Lost Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State 35-21
- Previous Season: 6-6, Lost Insight.com Bowl vs. Oregon State 38-21
- Career Record: 35-27 (0.565)
Weis came to Notre Dame with an NFL pedigree groomed by the likes of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Labeled an offensive guru after running highly successful offenses under Parcells with the New York Jets and under Belichick with the New England Patriots, Weis came to Notre Dame with zero head coaching experience and very little college coaching experience. Despite the valid concerns, Weis talked the talked early and walked the walked for most of his first season in South Bend leading many Irish fans to quietly feel a big season was possible.
Notre Dame came storming out of the gates in 2005 with a prime time beat down of a ranked Pitt team. College Gameday was at Heinz Field that day and the hype began after the Irish put up 49 points on the Panthers before calling off the dogs in the third quarter. After watching Notre Dame struggle on offense during most of the Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie eras, Notre Dame fans saw the Brady Quinn-led offense pile up 28 points in a second quarter outburst.
In the ’05 season opener Notre Dame had one of its most balanced attacks of the five year Weis era with 275 yards on the ground and 227 through the air. In fact, the 275 yards on the ground ended up being the most rushing yards any Notre Dame team gained under Weis’s guidance. Kind of crazy to think that after years of struggling to run the ball, the Irish were able to grind out 275 yards in the first game of the Weis era isn’t it?
From there the hype and expectations only grew after the Irish traveled to Ann Arbor and upset #3 Michigan in the Big House despite a less than stellar offensive performance.
Notre Dame suffered a minor hiccup in week three with an overtime loss to Michigan State. Quinn led a furious comeback after being down by as many as 21 points, but the Irish lost in overtime and watched the Spartans plant their flag (or attempt to) in the sod of Notre Dame Stadium. Despite the setback, Notre Dame took a 4-1 record into the yearly showdown with USC and we all know how that turned out.
Following the USC game, almost every Notre Dame fan was sold – Weis was the real deal. After losing to USC by a combined 93 points the previous three seasons under Willingham, Notre Dame had USC on the ropes before a 4th and 12 heave from Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett gave the Trojans new life. The Notre Dame administration was sold too and they rewarded Weis with the ill-fated contract extension that ended up costing the University in the end.
Following the USC loss, Weis and the Irish rebounded nicely and finished the regular season with five straight wins to qualify for the the BCS for the first time in five years. Ohio State ran past the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl and piled up some gaudy yardage totals, but Notre Dame was still within 7 points late in the fourth quarter.
We all know how the Weis era turned out so what happened in 2005 that made the Irish so successful and were there any warning signs that Weis might not be the answer that we overlooked at the time?
First off, Weis inherited a veteran team with some very talented players along the offensive line and at the skill positions on offense. Brady Quinn was entering his junior year after starting for most of his freshman season and all of his sophomore campaign. Along the offensive line, veterans Ryan Harris, Dan Santucci, Dan Stevenson, Mark Levoir, and Bob Morton formed a solid unit. Weis, an experience NFL coordinator, inherited an experienced team that needed to be put in a position to make plays.
One of the biggest knocks on Weis was his player development. With his first team that wasn’t an issue since the ’05 squad returned so many starters. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any development on that team though. A wide receiver by the name of Jeff Samardzija wasn’t known to many before the season – or even early on in the season (I’m looking at you Lee Corso) – but was a household name by the end of the year. Fellow receiver Maurice Stovall had an largely inconsistent career prior to ’05 as well, but finally lived up to his potential as a senior in his lone season playing for Weis.
Still, Weis was able to do what he is best at – scheming his way to victory – that first season because of the veterans he had on the team.
As far as warning signs, there weren’t too many even in retrospect. One thing that stands out when looking back at the ’05 season, is the defense and the points they allowed. The Irish defense gave up a lot of points in 2005, but most felt that it was only a matter of time until the defense caught up to the offense since the talent and depth on the defensive side of the ball trailed the offense handily. Remember how dire the defensive end situation became after Chris Frome went down with his injury against USC?
Aside from the defensive concerns, the one other warning sign that can be seen now is the lack of playing time for the backups. Weis wasn’t very liberal with his substitutions and as a result the underclassmen didn’t receive much playing time. Weis also didn’t take advantage of blowouts to get his underclassmen experience either. When Quinn came off the field once the game was in hand, backup quarterback David Wolke rarely was given an opportunity to pass. The Irish would grind the ball to close out games like they do in the NFL.
Five years later it’s easy to look back and notice some of these signs. At the time though, it was tough to see past the gaudy offensive stats and the record breaking pace Quinn and his receivers were on. The success of the ’05 team and the offensive firepower had most thinking that it was only a matter of time until the Irish were competing for championships as evidenced by Notre Dame’s #2 ranking to start the 2006 season.
If there is one thing to take from the 2005 season, it’s that close losses and immediate results do not guarantee long term success. Hopefully Notre Dame fans remember this in the fall if Brian Kelly gets off to a fast start as Weis did.