It is a Sunday morning in New Jersey in the late 1970s, and a fresh-faced kid is searching through the morning newspaper, scanning the classifieds. He sees two job openings: Two high schools need an English teacher who can also coach football. He hasn’t played since high school, but how hard could it be? He picks up a phone and sets up an interview. Two days later, Boonton High School has a new assistant coach.
LAWRENCE It is a Monday morning in Kansas, and Charlie Weis is sitting in his office in the Anderson Family Football Complex. There’s a fridge in the corner, and a small exercise bike in the middle, and a box with a blow-up mattress a few feet away.
But the first thing you notice is the view, wide and clear, hanging beyond Weis’ right shoulder. Memorial Stadium sits empty under blue skies, and the neighborhoods that stretch toward the Kansas River are mostly quiet on this summer day. Weis is the coach of the Kansas Jayhawks — and how strange would those words have sounded five years ago?
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“I’m entrenched in here,” Weis will say, donning his usual attire of grey sweats.
Last December, Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger tapped Weis to be the next coach at KU, to re-energize a lost program at the foot of Mount Oread. And for the last nine months, Weis has begun to lay the foundation. The first steps were simple enough: Bring back discipline, emphasize academics, charm the locals with his candid New Jersey tongue.
But now the season is approaching, the games will begin, and Weis’ real test is looming in the distance. In a few moments, Weis will offer a window into his plan, a glimpse of why this partnership can work. But before you can see the plan, you have to understand the man sitting in the corner chair.
In more than three decades on the sideline, Weis has been a high school coach who split time guiding the fencing club … and a 30-something NFL assistant who collected a Super Bowl ring in his first season. He has been an offensive mastermind, the man who helped make Tom Brady into a future Hall of Famer … and he has been a washout at his alma mater, run out of Notre Dame in 2009 after posting a 35-27 record in five seasons.
He has been called arrogant and honest, stubborn and smart, and also spent the last decade of his life on a family mission to raise money and awareness for children with special needs.
“I’ve gotten in more trouble by telling the truth,” Weis says, “than most people get for not telling the truth.”
Weis, 56, has heard the theory that his KU move was a money grab, a chance to collect a few more millions before retirement. He’s aware of the perception that he must have been desperate to be a head coach again. Who else would try to wade through the rubble left from two years of Turner Gill? Who else would take over a program that’s lost 19 games the last two years and only played in back-to-back bowl games once in school history?
Weis says this is about turning around a program, about giving the fans something to be proud of. But maybe it’s more than that. Three years after collapsing at Notre Dame, maybe this is also a second chance … for him.
“I’m sure that’s probably on his mind,” says Brady Quinn, Weis’ former quarterback at Notre Dame. “But I think he just wants to win because that’s who he is. He’s a competitor.”
When Weis was a young assistant in New York, a pupil of Giants coach Bill Parcells, he would sometimes work until close to 11 p.m. The building would be empty. Hallways quiet. And Weis would begin to pack up his things. Then Parcells would appear, seeing this young assistant with his coat on.
“Another early night, huh?” Weis would hear.
“And then he’d walk out,” Weis says, “knowing that I’d take my coat off, thinking there was something else I could do. He knew what button to push. And he’d press it, and he’d press it, and he’d press it.”
Weis would not stop raving about his skills. He said he was the best, that nobody could do it like him. He just needed an opportunity to prove it. So he begged Todd Ellis’ parents: You have to let me cook you chicken.
It is the mid-1980s, and Weis is a lowly graduate assistant at South Carolina. For the better part of five years, he had worked as a high school assistant in New Jersey. He was an English teacher, and on occasion, he’d moonlight as a fencing coach or spend a year coaching junior varsity basketball. Those early years were about learning, and even though Weis spent his college days critiquing Notre Dame’s play-calls from the stands, he still needed to find his voice as a coach. And then came an opportunity: South Carolina coach Joe Morrison offered him a small role on his staff.
Ellis, South Carolina’s quarterback at the time, remembers Weis during those early days. He was older than most grad assistants; more focused, too. Many weeks, Ellis says, Weis’ only time off would come on Friday nights, when he and another grad assistant would unwind over wings from a place called D’s.
“He was there for serious reasons,” says Ellis, now a lawyer in South Carolina. “You could tell that.”
And then there’s the chicken story. Ellis’ parents lived just down the road from Columbia, so he would often bring teammates over for dinner. Weis told Ellis’ parents that he had to let him cook dinner. Wait until you taste this chicken. Finally, the Ellis parents relented.
“I am telling you,” Ellis says, “he made the most (gosh)-awful mess in a person’s kitchen that you could ever see. But it was damn-good chicken.”
It is Weis’ first year in the NFL, and Parcells is conducting a meeting. Parcells asks a question, and Romeo Crennel, then a Giants defensive assistant, watches as the young assistant opens his mouth. Parcells looks at Weis and matter-of-factly tells him to keep his mouth shut. “He was quickly told,” Crennel says, ‘Hey, what do you know? You’re just a rookie.’ ” Except those weren’t the exact words. No, They were much worse.”
Crennel remembers the young assistant who wanted to adapt. It is 1990, and Parcells’ Giants staff is filled with the league’s future minds: Crennel, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Al Groh … and a 34-year-old from Middlesex, N.J., named Charlie Weis.
The year before, Weis had coached Franklin High to a New Jersey state title. But school administrators had changed some details about his teaching job, and Weis walked out after the season on principle. During his days at Franklin, Weis began a part-time gig breaking down players for the nearby Giants. He was a 30-something who was a marginal football player in high school in Middlesex; a sports junkie who had to settle for rec competition during his college days at Notre Dame. But his football acumen stood out. A short while after he left Franklin, he received a call from Parcells. He’d earned his break.
And the education won’t stop. Ten years under Parcells with the Giants, Patriots and Jets. Five years under Belichick in New England as offensive coordinator.
“Charlie has a good mind,” Crennel says now. “He takes in everything.”
“Charlie’s always been smart,” says Mike Sweatman, a former KU captain who was the special-teams coach on that first staff in New York. “He’s always been confident, self-assured.”
Specifically, Weis says now, he learned two things. From Parcells, he learned how to push buttons, to motivate. From Belichick, he’s learned how to start over — or at least, that’s the hope. In the early ’90s, before their years in New England, Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns and failed.
“Everyone thought he was a horse’s (rear),” Weis says. “And then he goes to New England, where he’s going to the Hall of Fame.”
Weis was there when everything clicked the second time. He says he learned by watching, by asking questions. He believes that experience will help him now.
“Sometimes we coach the way that we were coached growing up,” says Crennel, now coach of the Chiefs, “and sometimes there’s a coach that made an impression on you.”
It is the summer of 2002, and Weis is dying in a hospital bed. He’s undergone gastric bypass surgery — a procedure to help him control his weight and health — but the operation has gone horribly wrong. He’s suffered from internal bleeding, and a Catholic priest will administer his last rites.
Something changed. That’s the way Weis puts it. A few months after nearly dying in that New England hospital, Weis sat down with his wife, Maura.
“You know,” Weis remembers his wife saying, “you could have died and we never would have done any good for anyone other than ourselves.”
Weis looked in the mirror. He didn’t like what he saw. He was a classic one-upper, he says, a story-topper. If you had a story, he had a better one.
“I rode across the Delaware (River) before George Washington,” Weis says. “I was that guy.”
Soon after, Weis says, the family started “Hannah and Friends,” an organization to raise the quality of life for children with special needs. The investment was personal; Weis’ daughter, Hannah, was born with Electrical Status Epilepticus of slow-wave sleep, a rare seizure disorder.
A few years later, in late 2004, Weis became the coach at Notre Dame. South Bend, Ind., would become headquarters for “Hannah and Friends,” and success would come quickly. With Quinn at quarterback, the Irish played in two straight BCS bowl games. In the middle of that first season, Weis signed a new, 10-year deal worth more than $30 million. The fall, however, would be devastating. Notre Dame finished 3-9 in 2007 and 16-21 over Weis’ last three years. By the end of the 2009 season, he was done.
To this day, Weis says the slide was due, in part, to “three really crappy years” of recruiting. Two before he got there; one on his watch. And even Weis couldn’t scheme his way out.
Weis has a question. There are five reporters sitting in front of him, and he’s talking about his long-held reputation as an ego-driven wise guy. He’s aware of the image, maybe even a little self-conscious. And he wants to know: How often to fans assume the worst?
“How many times do you guys get it?” He asks the room. “How much of a (jerk) is he? How many times have you been asked that question? C’mon … Tell me!”
The players who know him say he hasn’t changed. They say he never changes. KU senior quarterback Dayne Crist and senior tight end Mike Ragone met Weis as juniors in high school. They signed on at Notre Dame, hoping to build something special. And then Weis was fired.
Now they’re at KU, one more chance to get things right.
“He’s the most honest individual I’ve ever met in my life,” Crist says.
“He knows how to break you down,” Ragone says, “But he also knows how to build you back up.”
Maybe this is what KU needed. A coach with enough brash confidence to believe he can win at a place like Kansas … and a man with a built-in belief that he needs to. Maybe winning a few games at Kansas will provide a measure of validation for a career that has been built on punishing hours and Jersey attitude. Maybe they’ll say he made football matter again in Lawrence.
Weis is still sitting in his office, still talking. He’s comfortable in Lawrence, he says. His son, Charlie Jr., a sophomore at KU, is relishing the time working on his dad’s staff. And Maura and Hannah are at home in Florida, the place where Hannah feels most comfortable.
An interview that was scheduled for an hour will stretch well past two, and Weis looks as if he has the stamina to keep going. The football field is still empty, but Weis is already imagining what it could look like: Sunny Saturday in Lawrence. Stadium is packed. Band is playing the fight song. And Weis’ boys are on the field, a true college football scene in Lawrence.
“What bigger statement would it be than to come into a team that’s 2-10 and walk out of here a perennial winning football team?” Weis asks. “I mean, what more can you ask for? That’s really what I intend to do.”