It was an eerily warm November morning when I arrived in South Bend yesterday with my son, Gary, to attend the Notre Dame-Navy battle. "What a beautiful day for a game!" I exclaimed to my son as we listened unsuspectingly to the band's pre-game rendition of the Notre Dame Victory March. Little did we know that we were not about to witness a football game, but a funeral.
For not only did the Naval Academy's efficient yet stunning 23-21 victory, their second in three years against the Irish after Notre Dame had defeated them 43 years in a row, dash the Irish BCS Bowl hopes, but it awakened the echoes for Weis' departure to a deafening roar. Indeed, this game was a microcosm for what went wrong under Weis; despite the fact Charlie's trio of offensive stars, Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, put up their amazing numbers, when the breaks went against the offense, the defense could not bail them out.
For if (on paper) Clausen's numbers yesterday against the Midshipmen (a Notre Dame record 37 completions on 51 attempts for 452 yds and 2 TDs) were the stuff of Heismans, then the stats of Floyd (10 catches 141 yds) and Tate (9-132) weren't far behind. But because the Irish defense yielded over 350 rushing yards to a far less talented but better prepared Navy team (including 158 yds on a mere 14 carries to a cadet named Nick Murry, a mere mortal whose size and speed was more reminiscent of Rudy than a major college All-American), when the battered and courageous Irish QB uncharacteristically coughed it up in his weekly game of catch-up, Clausen and company's numbers just weren't enough.
Sure, you can't blame Charlie for Clausen's two rare turnovers, or the two missed field goals by Nick Taush, who had just made a school record 14 kicks in a row, but you can blame Weis for shoddy defense. For while Weis (who was of course the offensive coordinator for Super Bowl champ New England before he became the head coach of Notre Dame) has brought (with the exception of 2007) both a fairly consistent and dynamic offense to his alma mater, his defenses have left much to desire. "We played our hearts out, but they out-schemed us," said Irish nose tackle Ian Williams of yesterday's opponent--and if a smaller, less gifted team can often (because of better coaching) defeat the Notre Dame "D," Lord knows that a more gifted foe will continue to beat it like a drum. True, running the defense was never Charlie's specialty, but it is the head coach's responsibility to find someone who can, and five years (and four defensive coordinators) into his tenure, Weis has yet to do so.
If yesterday's loss was Weis' deathblow, as the alumni Board of Directors' ever-increasing murmurings seem to indicate, know that there is much positive in Charlie's eulogy also. Besides his offensive expertise, Charlie is both a Notre Dame graduate and a practicing Catholic, and as such brought both the mystique and spiritual aspect back to Notre Dame football after it had become dormant under Davie and Willingham. Although not as devout as Holtz, Weis nevertheless frequented the grotto, and focused needed attention on all special needs kids by openness in talking about his autistic daughter, Hannah. In addition, Weis started a great new Marian Irish football tradition by having his players sing to "Notre Dame Our Mother" after every home game, which, coming at a time when the very president of Our Lady's University displayed a dubious commitment to Catholicism, was especially poignant. I will always be indebted to Charlie for this open show of faith, but in the end, losing, especially on a consistent basis to teams with lesser or equal ability, is not inspiring, and will eventually tarnish the positive Christian witness you have wrought.
Still, if Weis' New Jersey bravado once struck some alumni as arrogant, the Notre Dame Board of Directors' canning of Tyrone Willingham before they landed Urban Meyer (who instead spurned their overtures and took his services--and the National Championship--to Florida) was even more so. If the Board could hire a proven winner and moral leader along the lines of Jon Gruden or Brian Kelly to become the next head coach of the Irish (and maybe keep Weis on as offensive coordinator), I'd be all for it. But even if consecutive home losses to Navy proved to be Weis' undoing, we still have to secure someone better before we bury him, or we'll wind up with a team that neither plays nor prays, a "Notre Dame" in name only.