SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame fans were delighted when Charlie Weis showed up with his brash confidence and Super Bowl rings, certain he was the man to end the national title drought that had stretched into a second decade.
Euphoria has since given way to concern, concern to impatience. Beginning his fifth season, Weis still has to prove he's a worthy successor to Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz — and he has to do it now.
This is a defining year for Weis, who has little room for error after two dismal seasons that infuriated the Fighting Irish faithful and had some calling for him to be fired. All — well, most — will be forgiven if Notre Dame wins 10 or more games and gets back into the mix for a BCS bowl.
Stagger to another mediocre finish, though, or get exposed by Southern California as a BCS pretender, and the Irish will likely be looking for somebody else to restore college football's most storied program to prominence.
"I'm not really worrying about the past. Right now, the only thing I'm worried about is the start of this football season," Weis said. "I could sit there and tell you the lofty goals I have, my expectations. But guess what, it's time for us to back them up. That's what we have to do. The only way to back them up is by backing them up on the field.
"There's no sense in giving a lot of hot air about these lofty expectations without going ahead and backing it up, and that's what we're going to try to do."
He says this without a hint of the Jersey bite that accompanied some of his answers in years past. His lofty confidence — some call it arrogance — seems to have been tempered, as if to make sure he and the Irish are judged by what they do on the field and nothing else.
But if you expected some grand introspection, a public reckoning for sins of seasons past, forget it. Struggle or succeed, he is a disciple of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick to the core. Looking for his players to pull a 2009 version of "win one for the Gipper" is an equal waste of time.
Their concern — their only concern — is the Sept. 5 opener against Nevada.
"Coach and the staff reassured us (last year) that, 'Look, you're here to play football, you're not here to talk about my job.' Which was completely right," linebacker Brian Smith said. "That's my football coach and I'm going to play hard for him. But I'm not going to play every play, 'Oh, this is for Coach Weis, oh, this is for Coach Weis.'
"No, I've got to play for our football team so we can win games."
The reality, though, is that Notre Dame doesn't take losing well. The school's identity is, rightly or wrongly, tied to the football program, and coaches who don't produce don't last long. Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz all stayed for more than a decade. Bob Davie and Gerry Faust got five years each, Tyrone Willingham just three.
"I think this is a make-or-break year," said Jack Wysocki, a fan visiting campus with his son recently. "He has to get at least eight or nine wins. Even if he gets seven wins, I don't think they'll be happy."
That Weis is even in this position is surprising.
He was the offensive mastermind behind the New England Patriots' juggernaut that won three Super Bowls in four years, the man who turned Tom Brady from a sixth-round pick into one of the NFL's great quarterbacks. After inheriting a mediocre Notre Dame team, he led the Irish to a 19-6 record his first two years and back-to-back appearances in BCS games.
Notre Dame officials were so enamored of his early success they gave him a new, 10-year contract — before his first season even ended.
There were, though, hints of trouble. Another two losses to archrival USC. A shellacking at home by Michigan. And, after poor recruiting classes in Willingham's last season and Weis' first, a lack of difference-makers who would be veterans in 2007 and 2008.
"If you were at some other universities around the country, you would have gone out and recruited some junior college players to be a stopgap," said offensive assistant head coach Rob Ianello, who has been with Weis since he came to Notre Dame. "That's not what we do here."
Weis didn't do himself any favors, either, declaring he wouldn't use the word rebuilding when Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija left. The Irish had good, inexperienced talent, including hotshot quarterback Jimmy Clausen, and would be just fine.
Instead, the Irish opened the 2007 season with a record five-straight losses; even Joe Kuharich (who had a losing record) didn't do that. At 29-21, Weis' .580 winning percentage is slightly below that of Davie and Willingham, both of whom were fired. The 15 losses since 2007 are Notre Dame's most in a two-year span.
But it wasn't the losing so much as the way Notre Dame did it.
The Irish lost to Navy in 2007 for the first time in 44 years — at home, no less. Their 38-0 loss to USC that same season was their worst in the 80-year history of the rivalry. Last year, the Irish were upset by a woeful Syracuse team that had already fired its coach. They were so soundly beaten by USC they managed just four first downs, and didn't cross midfield until the fourth quarter.
The Irish hadn't even left Los Angeles when speculation began about who would replace Weis. Things had gotten so bad, it seemed, that not even the seven years left on his contract, or the fact he was a Notre Dame alum, would save him.
"He started out with two very good years. The last couple of years have not been very good by most people's standards, certainly not by Notre Dame's standards," said Tim Kelley, a 1964 graduate who co-authored a letter from alums to the board of trustees when Willingham was coach, expressing concern about the direction of the football program.
"The question is, do the first two years or the last two years represent the future?" asked Kelley, who still has faith in Weis.
Four days after the USC game, athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced the coach would return.
While far more public, Swarbrick said his evaluation of Weis was no different than that of women's soccer coach Randy Waldrum, whose team finished the regular season ranked No. 1. And every other Notre Dame coach, for that matter. There are more than two dozen factors Swarbrick considers, including academic performance, graduation rates, athlete behavior and recruiting.
The results — all of them — guide his decisions.
"I know the fans' initial response is to look at one factor, the won-loss record. It's a critical one, but it's only one of them," Swarbrick said. The Irish, for example, have had a 3.0 or better team GPA for a record six straight semesters.
"It wasn't a decision that had any difficulty or anxiety attached to it," said Swarbrick, hired as Irish AD in July 2008. "It was feeling good that we had a lot of things going in the right direction."
Three weeks after Swarbrick's announcement, the Irish were commanding in their 49-21 win over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.
Granted, Hawaii isn't Florida, Texas or Ohio State, but it was still Notre Dame's first bowl victory in 15 years. More importantly, for the first time since perhaps their upset of Michigan in Weis' first year, the Irish truly looked like a team on the rise. Glassy eyed and beaten down after that Syracuse shocker, the Irish now have a steeliness that befits their proud lineage.
"We made the decision, we don't want to lose anymore," receiver Golden Tate said.
Weis overhauled his staff in the offseason, the most significant change being that he'll call the offensive plays again after having someone else do it last year. Co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will call the defensive plays. Weis also made new offensive line coach Frank Verducci coordinator of the running game, which has been abysmal the last three seasons.
Weis seems to be making an effort to be more "fan friendly," too. He and his wife Maura gave a rare glimpse of their family life and "Hannah & Friends" foundation with a documentary that aired earlier this summer on a Chicago cable station. He congratulated a beat writer on a new baby during his media day session. He talks openly about his recovery from the knee injury that had him in constant pain last year.
He's even on Twitter — though don't expect song of the day recommendations like USC's Pete Carroll gives.
And Weis will never be confused with Dr. Phil on the field: The Irish had been doing drills for all of about five minutes on the first day of practice when he barked at one player, "What do you think, we're not watching? What the hell do you think we're doing out here?"
But the acknowledgment that changes were needed on and off the field — subtle as they may be — have gone a long way toward soothing angry Irish fans.