Just about everybody except the higher-ups at Notre Dame has already figured it out: Charlie Weis isn’t going to return the Fighting Irish to the top of college football anytime soon.
A loss to Navy for the second time in three years — and at home again, no less — should be proof enough. One of the cardinal sins of coaching is losing to a team with lesser talent, which Weis has committed more than once. What’s worse about this latest loss is that afterward he stubbornly insisted he wouldn’t change his approach.
Yet that’s precisely what sunk Notre Dame against Navy. Whether it was complacency or their success against the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense a year ago, the Irish began the game using the same defensive schemes and didn’t adjust until it was too late.
“I really hope this doesn’t come across wrong,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after Saturday’s 23-21 win, “but I think the thing that helped us this year was last year, because we knew they’d line up the same way.”
Notre Dame nose guard Ian Williams said much the same thing, which still had Weis fuming a day later. At his news conference Sunday, he pointed out that safety Kyle McCarthy said Navy’s success wasn’t the result of the Irish scheme. Then Weis added, “There’s a reason why one guy’s a captain and one guy’s not.”
Never mind that ripping one of your own players for stating the obvious is a low blow, or even that McCarthy, too, conceded the Irish “just tried to do the same stuff as we did last year.”
Turns out Weis was just getting warmed up.
“The whole theme this week is going to be about accountability and dependability,” he said, looking ahead to next Saturday’s game at No. 8 Pitt. “I can authoritatively get in front of these guys and say, ’OK, we want to talk about what happened,’ and just go through the game.
“Without being just totally condescending and demeaning, let them know that — ’You want to know why you lose? Here’s why you lose,’ and go right down the list. It’s always easy,” he added, “because I always start with me.”
Weis is gracious about sharing credit, but after five years, there’s more blame to go around and most of it belongs on his shoulders. Looking at game tapes and “authoritatively” pointing fingers isn’t the point of coaching; it’s putting players in a position to succeed before the fact. Everything about Weis’ tenure suggests the opposite.
He’s got a miserable record against winning teams, losing seven straight to top 10 opponents. The closest thing he owns to a “signature” win in five seasons is a close loss to Southern California in 2005, and the Trojans have beaten the Irish four times since. USC, in fact, might be the only alumni chapter lobbying for Weis to hang onto his job.
He’s on his third defensive coordinator without producing even one topflight defense. Weis has had a chance to bring in his own recruiting classes — including a few that were consensus top 10s — yet fared worse with them than he did with the holdovers inherited from fired predecessor Ty Willingham. A loss at Pitt would leave him with the same winning percentage (.583) that got Willingham fired five years ago and the same record that got Bob Davie fired in 2001 — but Weis has a contract that runs through 2015.
Kevin White, the athletic director who signed Weis to a six-year, $12-million deal at the end of 2004, is gone. But not before he tore up that contract just seven games into Weis’ rookie season and nearly doubled the terms. Right about now, Notre Dame would be lucky to find anyone willing to take him off their hands at any price.
It’s easy to see what Notre Dame liked about Weis early on: his Irish pedigree and Notre Dame diploma, three Super Bowl rings and a handful of seasons running the offense for Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. And arriving when he did, just after Urban Meyer rebuffed the Golden Domers and took the Florida job instead, Weis was greeted with hosannas instead of tough questions.
Notre Dame has three games remaining — UConn and Stanford are on tap following Pitt — and while a BCS bowl is out of reach, something on the order of the Gator Bowl might not be. And if the Irish are ready to settle for consolation prizes, they’ve probably got the right man for the job.
But this much is painfully clear: The boasts that so thrilled the faithful soon after Weis arrived on the scene — “Now it’s time for the X’s and O’s. Let’s see who has the advantage now,” he said upon unveiling his first recruiting class — have awakened all the wrong kind of echoes.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org