Still the Worst Football Coach in the Universe

Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis somehow manages to keep his job.

Charlie Weis

On Wednesday, the University of Notre Dame announced that football coach Charlie Weis will be retained for at least one more year—this despite the fact that Weis’ teams have lost a combined 15 games in the last two seasons, the most ever for the Fighting Irish. Back in 2007, Jonathan Chait asked the following question: “In the entire history of American sports hype, has there ever been any fraud more grossly fraudulent than Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis?” The answer to that question and Chait’s entire piece are reprinted below.

“Charlie Weis has returned Notre Dame to relevancy. Just two years ago, as Notre Dame spiraled toward mediocrity under Ty Willingham, a shot at a national title seemed improbable. But the schemes and the discipline Weis has installed have revived past glories. The only question on the Irish offense comes on the line. But considering the way Weis turned castoff linemen into solid starters with the New England Patriots, that should not be a huge concern.”— New York Times, Aug. 27, 2006

In the entire history of American sports hype, has there ever been any fraud more grossly fraudulent than Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis?

Weis’ Fighting Irish now stand at 1-7. This record is only the faintest indicator of just how awful Notre Dame is. They have lost nine of their last 10 games, by an average of 24 points. None has been close. While Notre Dame has suffered very few injuries, three of its opponents have had to play the Irish without their starting quarterbacks. Two of those teams, USC and Michigan, nonetheless beat Notre Dame by a larger margin than either has beaten any other opponent so far this year. Notre Dame’s lone win came against UCLA, which had been forced to use its third-string quarterback, a walk-on. In that game, Notre Dame compiled just 140 yards of offense, but won with the help of seven Bruin turnovers, five of them hand-delivered courtesy of the hapless walk-on signal-caller.

Just how bad is Notre Dame? Of the 119 teams in Division I-A, ND is 119th in total offense, 119th in rushing offense, 112tin passing offense, and 118th in scoring. If Notre Dame had doubled its scoring output, it would still rank 108th. If it doubled its rushing output (currently 34 yards a game), it would barely eke out Duke for 118th place.

You get the point. I should stop now.

OK, one more. Notre Dame is averaging 1.09 yards per rush this year. The NCAA statistical archive goes back only to 1999. The worst yards per carry recorded in that period belongs to a 2001 University of Arizona squad that gained 1.46 yards per attempt. So, the worst rushing team recorded by the NCAA in the last nine years was still about one-third better than Notre Dame.

This is not merely bad. This is ineptitude on a staggering, world-historical scale. Such a performance would be prima facie evidence for firing the coach even at a doormat program like Indiana. At a school like Notre Dame, well … it’s simply impossible to describe how awful this performance is. It’s true that Notre Dame has suffered a dip in its talent level, attributable to poor recruiting by Weis’ predecessor Tyrone Willingham. But if you go by recruiting rankings, Charlie Weis still has as much or more talent on hand than most of the opponents who have been beating him soundly.

So, Weis is obviously not a great coach—no great coach has ever underperformed so grossly—and he may well be a terrible one. So, why was he ever hailed as a genius in the first place?

The giant edifice of fraud that is Weis’ reputation is actually a series of smaller frauds piled on top of each other. The foundational myth is that he was a brilliant offensive coordinator. Weis came from the New England Patriots, who had just won a Super Bowl. Every player and coach associated with a Super Bowl winner is usually subjected to a certain level of hype, and Weis is no exception. But Weis was actually quite ordinary. During his eight seasons as a coordinator, six of his teams finished in the bottom half of the league in total offense. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has graciously shared credit for his success with Weis, even though the Patriots offense has been dramatically better—seventh in the league, on average—since Weis left.

The myth grew after Weis was appointed at Notre Dame and started proclaiming his own brilliance. He told his players, “Every game you will have a decided schematic advantage.” After struggling to salvage his first recruiting class, he announced to the press, “Now it’s time for the X’s and O’s. Let’s see who has the advantage now.”

Having primed the national media to receive him as a conquering hero, Weis enjoyed a tidal wave of publicity in 2005, his first year at Notre Dame. His crowning achievement was a narrow loss at home to a USC team then thought,  erroneously, to be among the greatest ever. (The 2005 Trojans, who lost to Vince Young and Texas in the national championship game, had great skill position talent but a weak, injury-riddled defense.)

This first season was seen as the start of a new dynasty. In truth, Notre Dame was bound to improve, given the natural maturation of a couple of excellent Willingham recruiting classes. But Weis’ first two teams weren’t really that good. The 2005 and 2006 Notre Dame teams had a total of one win over an opponent that finished in the top 25, and they were administered several beat-down losses.

Coming into this year, Notre Dame was still picked to finish in the top 40. Blue-Gray Sky, a Notre Dame blog,  polled its nine contributors  before the year began, and the average predicted record was slightly better than 9-3. It looks like Weis will fall a wee bit short of that. The difference between that predicted record and Notre Dame’s actual record is a good measure of the difference between Weis’ reputation as a coach and his actual ability.

Being a head coach in college involves very different skills—motivating kids, teaching basic skills—than being a coordinator in the NFL. Even good NFL coordinators, like Cam Cameron and Dave Wannstedt, have struggled as college head coaches. Maybe Weis did sometimes turn castoff linemen into solid starters in the NFL, but at Notre Dame, he can’t turn blue-chip prospects into passable players.

But don’t worry, Notre Dame fans. In a few years, the Irish will return to glory again, when Weis’ recruits get to play for a coach who isn’t horrible.