Weis gets into fighting form on jobs and surgery


America at Large: Two years ago Charlie Weis nearly died. In a drastic effort to pare weight off his 300-plus pound frame the New England Patriots' offensive co-ordinator checked into a hospital to undergo one of those gastric bypass operations.

They administered the last rites in the recovery room. I've known Charlie for at least 15 years but have never known him well, primarily because he's worked for two head coaches - Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick - who discourage their assistants from having contact with the media.

That practice hadn't exactly enhanced his job prospects. For close to a decade Weis has been recognised as one of the more brilliant offensive innovators in football, but he was kept out of the limelight. Neither did it help that NFL rules prohibit other teams from contacting assistants as long as their teams are active in the post-season. Since the Patriots have as a rule been outlasting the competition, most vacancies have long been filled before guys like Charlie Weis could even be interviewed.

Somewhere along the line, or so the story went, Charlie decided his appearance wasn't helping. He'd never been a player, and he didn't look much like a coach either. The common supposition, which he had never bothered to discourage until this week, was he decided on the surgery because he believed a more photogenic appearance might enhance his prospects for a head coaching job.

Although no NFL teams could contact Weis, there was nothing to prevent a college from making clandestine overtures, and this past Monday in South Bend, Indiana, Charlie was introduced by Fr Edward A "Monk" Malloy as the 28th football coach at Notre Dame University. He returns to his alma mater and promised to return the fight to the Fighting Irish. Charlie promised: "You are going to have a hard-working, intelligent, nasty football team that goes on the field because the attitude of the head coach will be permeated through the players. And I hate to include the nasty, but that is part of being a winning football team."

The position had become available two weeks earlier when Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham. Although Willingham had produced three winning teams, this year's 6-5 record was not up to the standard expected.

Asked if, as a Notre Dame alumnus, he thought Willingham had got a fair shake, Weis replied: "I'll deal with that issue when it's me they're talking about," and invoked the homespun philosophy of his old mentor. "Bill Parcells said years ago that 'You are what you are,' folks, and right now you're a 6-5 football team," said Weis. "And guess what? That's not good enough for you, and it's certainly not going to be good enough for me. So if you think they hired me here to go .500, you've got the wrong guy."

On Sunday afternoon Weis was on the sideline at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, calling the plays for Tom Brady as the Patriots defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 35-28 to run their season record to 12-1. Less than an hour later he was being whisked to South Bend in a private jet.

For the next seven weeks Weis intends to continue his role as New England's offensive mastermind while presiding over the formation of a coaching staff at Notre Dame. Although this scheme allegedly has the blessing of his old and new bosses, Patriots' coach Belichick and Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White, it promises to be a delicate operation. From Notre Dame's perspective, the problem is that open season on this year' s crop of high school recruits expires two days before Super Bowl XXXIX. If Weis is preparing the Patriots for what he hopes will be a third World Championship in four years, how can he adequately address Notre Dame's needs?

A Notre Dame type unaccustomed to the cloak-and-dagger tradition that has characterised the regimes of Weis' mentors Parcells and Belichick wondered about the need for "secrecy." "Because you would be disrespectful to either organisation," replied Weis. "Put yourself where I am: if we go out (Sunday) and lay an egg in the (Bengals) game, what's every fan in Boston going to say? That I'm more concerned with the Notre Dame job than I am about doing due diligence with the Patriots. On the other hand, if I'm to be the involved in recruiting and I'm not involved in forming a staff, then the people here are saying, well, we hired this guy but all's he's doing is worrying about (New England)?"

The planets have lined up to optimise Weis' chances of performing both duties. There is a two-week NCAA moratorium on recruiting over the holidays, one that coincides with the final two weeks of the NFL regular season. Were the Patriots jumping straight into the play-offs it might be a bigger problem, but the Patriots will have the week of January 3rd-10th off, and, if they get that far, will have a two-week break before the Super Bowl. "You have to make sure you spread yourself, and you have to make sure you calculate your hours so you can know how you can best do both jobs while there are two jobs," Weis told his South Bend audience.

Then a reporter asked him about the gastric bypass operation and the "importance of improving his appearance", and Charlie swung into full-blown Parcells mode. "Time out," he ordered. "I didn't say how 'professionally important' the operation was. I never said that . . . but you want to know why you do it? Because for 10 years you're over 300lb and your father died at 56 of a heart attack. You're afraid if you stay at the same level, you're going to drop dead. That's why you do it. It has nothing to with getting jobs."

You could have closed your eyes and imagined it was Parcells upbraiding his interlocutor. When I mentioned that to Charlie he smiled and said: "Must be that Jersey mentality, huh?"