Late in a game on a football Saturday, it is often strangely quiet in Notre Dame stadium this season—so quiet that you could hear a neighbor snap open his Chicago Tribune to read a story about the Fighting Irish headlined FUTILITY IS NO LONGER SHOCKING. What is shocking is that less than four years ago, Notre Dame's trustees received a letter signed by 412 alumni denouncing "the pronounced and persistent deterioration of the Notre Dame football program." Citing "unprecedented and humiliating defeats" under coach Tyrone Willingham, whose record had slipped from 10--3 in 2002, his debut season, to 5--7, the authors proclaimed, "Absent significant progress ... a coaching change will become necessary." They got their wish 10 months later when Willingham, after a 6--5 season, was fired and later replaced by a man who had never coached or played in college but was a Notre Dame grad with four Super Bowl rings.
Welcome to the Charlie Weis era or, if you prefer, error. At 1--9, the 2007 Irish have the worst record in the program's 119 years, and Weis, who led ND to BCS bowl appearances in his first two seasons, has eclipsed Willingham in "humiliating defeats." The Irish have 11 losses by at least two TDs in Weis's three seasons. (Willingham had eight in three years.) In the last two weeks Notre Dame lost to Navy (ending an NCAA-record 43-game winning streak) and Air Force, the first time since 1944 it has lost to two service academies. On Saturday, Notre Dame hosts 1--9 Duke to determine which BCS-affiliated team is the worst in the country.
At first most Notre Dame fans blamed the long departed Willingham, whose supposed shortcomings as a recruiter left Weis up a creek. That explanation became less plausible as the season progressed and Weis's handpicked freshmen and sophomores showed little improvement. Now some of the venom Willingham felt is being directed at Weis. As the school band played The 1812 Overture—the traditional postgame salute to Notre Dame's coach—following the Navy loss, boos rained from the crowd.
The situation is even worse than it at first seems. School officials not only fired Willingham with two years left on his contract, they also rewarded Weis, just seven games into his deal, with a 10-year extension worth more than $30 million. Claiming to be staving off NFL suitors, the school based the move largely on Weis's near upset of top-ranked USC in 2005. Asked about the difference last month before a far less imposing Trojans squad beat the Irish 38--0, Weis replied, "Like every program, there's been significant transition. The problem is the transition has been mainly to younger guys."
The Irish may be young (they have 22 first- or second-year players on their two deep), but they're plenty talented. "Notre Dame has a lot of players who could have gone wherever they wanted," says SuperPrep recruiting analyst Allen Wallace. "Their talent doesn't justify this kind of performance."
Unlike those of defending national champion Florida (7--3), which has started 20 first- or second-year players, Notre Dame's top prospects have not lived up to their billing. Freshman QB Jimmy Clausen, playing behind an offensive line that's allowed an NCAA-high 49 sacks, has been ineffective. Sophomore James Aldridge, Rivals.com's No. 3 running back in the class of 2006, is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. The Irish are also mistake-prone. Twice in the first quarter against Air Force, Notre Dame's blockers failed to pick up a blindside blitz that Weis said he'd prepared them for. The second miscue resulted in a sack of Clausen on fourth down—and another chorus of boos for Weis.
For all his supposed mastery of X's and O's, Weis has not distinguished himself as a teacher. ("Something's not clicking," tight end John Carlson told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I don't know what it is.") Weis has also been slow to adapt; for example, he put his players through light preseason practices, a common tactic used to keep NFL players fresh. But when he noted their lack of physicality in a 38--0 loss to Michigan, Weis began running full-contact drills even during game weeks. "He has a lot to learn about the college game," said Wallace.
So far Weis's struggles have not affected his recruiting. Notre Dame has the nation's top class of committed players for 2008, a primary reason the Irish faithful remain mostly supportive of Weis. "This is like a marriage," said athletics director Kevin White. That much is indisputable. With around $25 million left on his contract, Weis and the Irish are partners in this chapter of their lives.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND