A Look Back – Charlie Weis’s First Season

Charlie Weis arrived at Notre Dame with the label of an offensive genius and a record breaking first season did little to dispell that notion. (Photo - Icon SMI)

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.

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  1. Notre Dame should never lose to navy. Not now, not in the past, not in the future. If a team with superior athletes loses to an inferior team, where does the blame fall? I naturally supported Charlie the first couple seasons, and then who knows what really took place? Sure, there wasn’t alot of rotation, the screen pass got old quick. I dunno, the players always seemed gassed and confused on defense. Charlies tenure at ND can best be described as having alot in common with the month of march.

  2. Holtz referred to it as the “Spirit of ND”. Others, like yourself, call it the “Luck of the Irish” I my self like to go with “Divine Intervention”

    Whether it is a refs call, the fortunet bounce of the ball, a “Hail Mary”,
    last second heroics, a clutch field goal or goalline stand, or an ordinary
    player making an extrodinary play, at the most oppertune time, it is a powerful influence that is real, and does exsist at ND.

    The Notre Dame Nation is wide spread, diverse, vast, and powerful. Channel all of that positive energy and as history shows, amazing things happen!

    For anyone who has strolled the campus on game day, Then filed into historic ND stadium, and witnessed a truely classic ND football game unfold before them will attest, The Spirit of Notre Dame lives on.

    1. I agree 100% with shazamrock about the notre dame nation. I grew up in southern Cal and there were only 3 teams people cheered for USC, Notre dame and UCLA.Most UCLA guys cheered for ND to beat USC so you really had two favorite teams. I moved to Wisconsin about 10 years ago and there are still ND fans everywhere.The people who say Notre dame is irrelevant need to open there eyes the ND nation is everywhere.

    2. You bet. And Notre Dame has something, no USC fan, or fan from Miami, the SEC, Michigan, nor even fans our Catholic rival BC have. Notre Dame has the Grotto. Any student or alum, including football players will tell you of a time when going to the Grotto to pray, brought comfort in some way. ND fans aren’t fans just because of football. ND fans are idealists looking for soemthing better and to be better. That’s the Spirit of ND that Holtz spoke of and your referenced. May that Spirit be part of the Dome forever.

      1. C-Dog,
        Let me share a story that I read about new football recruit Matt Hegarty.
        A 4 star OL commit from Aztec New Mexico.
        When the recruiting season opened the kid had absolutly no desire or intrest in the University of ND.
        But his dad convinced him to take a trip anyway, even if he had no interest, so that he had something to use to make comparisions with his more favored choices.
        So he did.
        And you know what?
        Just one look, that’s all it took.
        Love at first sight.
        He said that he couldn’t put his finger on just one thing that changed his attitude.
        He liked the coaches, players, facilities, campus, the history, and the feel of playing football in the mid-west, among others. But that there was some type of aura, or invisiable force at work.
        It was an overwhelming feeling
        and he ended his recruitment on the spot!
        I know what the kid is talking about. And I know you do too.

  3. Let’s remember that Charlie Weis wasn’t the university’s first choice in a head coach. (Or second, or third) He did make sure that his players understood the value of a ND education. He looked out for their best intrest weather it be physically or acedemiclly. They stayed out of trouble. They didn’t embarass their School. And win or lose, they played with class and honor.
    All important things at ND.
    CW just didn’t have the pedigree to compete as a head coach on the major college level.
    It takes a coach who has been around, moved around, and coached around.
    He didn’t have that pool of associates and friends, built up over years in coaching to pull from. He had to hired out his staff based on resume’s and interviews.
    Kelly comes with his own crew. Top to bottom they know each other, know the system, know how to build it and implement it. Everyone is on the same page from day one and they all hit the ground running. This will make a major difference in the program.
    It would’t surprise me to one day see Charlie Weis in another head coaching job. This time surrounded by people he knows and trusts. I suspect by that time, that he will be very successfull.
    As far as this year’s team goes, I know that a lot of fans are taking a wait and see approch. Not wanting to build up exspectations.
    But I have followed these current players through their recruitment. I have no doubt that this roster is one of the most skilled at ND in some time.
    Build up their stamina, improve tecnique and details, and instill some confedence, and anything can happen. Once you get the team playing good, sound, confedent football, all the other variables that make up ND football will come into play, and then you will have something fun, something exciting, something special.

    “When the fourth seal was opened I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say… come and see, I looked, and there before me was a pale horse, it’s rider was named death, and all hell followed close behind him”
    — revelation 6:7-8˄

    1. Excellent post Shazamrock!

      Holtz had a quote that spoke to your second to last paragraph. I cna’t remember the words, but he basically said, that the Luck of the Irish happens after you’ve taken care of everything else.

  4. Weis is a great offensive coordinator and skills player coach. He did develop Quinn, Semardja, Stovall, Carlson, Fasano, Floyd, Clausen, Tate, and even Darius Walker.

    His strengths though did not make up for the imbalance in attention to detail that a head coach needs while still delagating to proven assistants. Weis recruited better that Willingham, but he did not make sure that the offensive and defensive lines were developed.

    2005 was a transition year. Willingham and Davie always had good defenses. Willingham’s last good offensive line were veterans now, being Davie recruits. Weis could scheme since another staff had taken care of the boring line development. Weis’ QB coach also took some load off his planning. 2005 was such a success because Weis had enough there that he could concentrate on what he did best. Later, the head coaching role bore down on him and he wasn’t experienced enough to know what other puzzle pieces to fill in. At a lesser school, he’d have been under the radar and could have taken five to six years to learn.

    But not here. Not after Davie and Willingham. I do hope he’s happy and successful.

    But our time is now. ND is on the rise. The cycle of evil that is bogus academics in college sports and massive cheating is going to get a slap in the face. Notre Dame’s STUDENT athlete football players are coming to play, The IRISH ARE COMING!!

  5. I remember sitting in the stands at the Fiesta Bowl smiling knowing that better days were ahead once personnel caught up with the coaching. Hindsight is 20/20, but the first half of the Fiesta Bowl was the high water mark for Weis.
    The veteran OSU staff established a blue print for success against Weis that would follow him the rest of his career. From an offensive side of things, burn the Irish defense deep and pound the ball up the middle. From a defensive side of things, penetrate the line with stunting DL and blitzing LB’s. CW’s refusal to entertain any sort of power running game left the defense open to expose a consistenly slow OL.
    I also suspect pattern reading of CW’s offense was prominent. The only play that worked consistently for his tenture was the go pattern. He rarely had anyone work the middle of the field, so DB’s didn’t need to honor the deep in or slant routes. This very point was among the items that most frustrated me, because everytime the middle was worked, be it by Tate or Parris, there usually was a quality gain.

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