How to define Charlie Weis

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      Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine

      He has also written for Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Reader’s Digest, Southern Living, Garden Gun, Our State magazine and many other publications.

      He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary.

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

ON OUR FIRST phone call:

I’m going to be one of the most surprising and upbeat people. I’ve got nothing bad to say about anyone. … I’d be willing to bet a million dollars that I’m happier than you think I am.


AT THE JERSEY SHORE — “I’m tired of people who don’t know who you are and they think you’re an asshole,” Charlie Weis says.

His friend Ed Edwards gives him the side-eye and says: “I know for a fact he’s an asshole.”

Weis has to laugh. This is classic New Jersey ball-busting from a guy who has been his buddy for 37 years. We’re having lunch in late July at an Irish tavern called Rod’s in a town called Sea Girt, on the Jersey shore. Weis and Edwards used to hang out at the bar here back in the ’80s; these days, Edwards manages the place. Ball-busting is their normal mode of conversation. But Weis has done it enough to know there’s truth behind most every joke. He talks all the time about how other people think he’s terrible. You start to wonder if he wonders if it might be true.

He knows what his buddies say about him: loyal friend, devoted husband and parent, kind-hearted, a good guy to drink a beer with. He also knows what the top half of his résumé looks like: 15 years as an NFL assistant (Giants, Jets, Patriots) and four Super Bowl rings, the last three as New England’s offensive coordinator. He helped design the Ferrari of an offense that Tom Brady still drives. For years, he was thought of as one of the best minds in football.

But in the recent past, all that success has faded into a distant dot, like one of those big cargo ships at the edge of the horizon. Now a lot of the public has reduced him to two words. Asshole is one. The other — an even worse profanity in sports — is loser.

His old boss with the Giants, Bill Parcells, famously said that you are what your record says you are. Weis was 41-49 as head coach at Notre Dame and Kansas. But the numbers that generate fresh news stories and blog posts every year are the ones with dollar signs. Both schools fired Weis in the middle of multiyear contracts they still had to pay off; together, the dead money they owed Weis came to more than $24 million. Sitting at home, Weis made $2.5 million from Kansas and $2.1 million from Notre Dame last year, which made him in effect the eighth-highest-paid coach in college football. He points out, correctly, that active coaches get extra money from shoe deals and TV shows and such. But last year, in salary alone, he made more not coaching Kansas than the current coach at Kansas, and more not coaching Notre Dame than the current coach at Notre Dame.

This is the thing about making a living under the heat lamp of sports, especially as a coach. You are not just what your record says you are. You are what your actions say you are. You are what your paycheck says you are. You are what your quotes say you are. And all those things add up to what people believe you are.

At 60, almost two years out of the game, Weis wants to coach again. The last few years left him with a bad taste that maybe only football can rinse out. He has quietly put out the word to friends in the NFL: If they need a coordinator after this season, maybe a quarterbacks coach, he’ll listen.

He wants to prove that he’s still a good coach. He also wants to show that he’s a good man.

Weis knows the labels that are stuck to him. He didn’t approach me for this story — I approached him — but he talked, despite his agent’s advice to stop. He described himself a dozen different ways. He kept trying to help me find the right words to understand who he is.

After a while, I started to think that he might be searching, too.


LET’S START with bored.

How bored is Charlie Weis? Not only did he join the board of his homeowners association but he serves on a committee of the board of his homeowners association.

We’re down in Florida now, at a bagel shop near his home in Wellington, in Palm Beach County. When Weis got fired by Kansas in 2014, just four games into his third season, he told his wife, Maura, to pick where they’d move next because they had always lived wherever coaching took him. She competes in dressage, where a rider puts a horse through precision movements, and down here there’s a horse show every weekend. They live in a gated community designed for equestrian living. They share their spread with six horses, four dogs, a cat and a type of parrot called a sun conure, which dive-bombs people when they walk through the house. Weis loves his wife. He tolerates the horses and the dogs and the cat. He’s not a fan of the bird.

He and Maura have been married 24 years. He worked such long hours during most of those years that he promised Maura he would stick close by when he was out of football. But because he worked such long hours, he never developed hobbies. He doesn’t golf or fish or play cards. “If I’m going to do retired,” he says, “I’m going to have to learn how to handle retirement better.”

He gets up before dawn, an old coach’s habit he can’t break. Three times a week or so, while Maura sleeps, he drives down to the bagel place. The morning we’re there, sitting at a corner table, a guy from Queens walks over. His name is Tom Pickford.

“Excuse me,” Pickford says, “aren’t you Notre Dame?”

“Yeah,” Weis says.

“Didn’t you have the Jets, too?”

“Yep.”

“It was gonna drive me crazy. Charlie?”

“Yep.”

“Charlie — what’s your last name?”

Weis waits a beat, looks at the guy.

“What’s my last name?”

“Yeah.”

“Weis.”

“That’s it. Weis. Big offensive coordinator.”

On Pickford’s way out, he stops by again.

“You still involved with football?” he says.

“Well, a little bit,” Weis says. “Pros, a little bit. Yep, a little bit. We’re trying to decide whether or not to make it more than a little bit or not.”

Here’s what “a little bit” means: An NFL team he won’t name sends an iPad to him every so often, loaded with film of players it wants him to evaluate. He has been doing this since February or March, just before the draft. It’s a consulting gig, part time, no guarantees. But he stays up late, grinding through the film. He watches every play with a jeweler’s eye.

“Gimme a quarterback in the draft,” he says.

Jared Goff, I say. (He was the No. 1 overall pick by the Rams.)

“OK, now let me tell you my concerns about Jared Goff. He was running for his life every time I watched him play. Now, people can blame the offensive line all they want, say the offensive line was terrible, OK, but when a guy’s ducking for cover, I’d be afraid of him being gun-shy. You watch on tape, he’s getting hit so many times. Now I don’t know if he’s gun-shy or not. I know he was gun-shy. So for somebody being picked that high in the draft, that would definitely be a concern. Because if you are [gun-shy], I don’t know what you do about it.”

I mention Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick by the Eagles out of North Dakota State.

“I thought he was the smartest guy in the draft.”

Why?

“Because of what they do at the line of scrimmage. I mean, he looks like Tommy [Brady] at the line of scrimmage. Now, I have a problem with a guy playing that level of football that completes 60 percent of his passes. Should be 70 percent of his passes. I would have a concern.”

The QB he liked best was Paxton Lynch, the Broncos’ pick at No. 26. Weis recruited him during the year he was offensive coordinator at Florida, but the recruitment fell through when Weis left.

“He was athletic enough to get out of trouble,” Weis says. “He’s 6-7, but he doesn’t play like he’s 6-7.”

Weis spent a lot of Saturdays last fall in Tuscaloosa. His son, Charlie Jr., turned out to love coaching as much as he did. Last year, right after Charlie Jr. graduated from Kansas, Nick Saban hired him as an offensive analyst at Alabama. Weis watched games from the stands for the first time in more than 40 years. He couldn’t completely detach and just be a fan. He kept watching for patterns, wondering why the coaches called the plays they did. But mostly he rooted for his son.

“You talk about what gets you through?” Weis says. “He got me through this last year because, on football weekends, I had Alabama football. I lived vicariously through him.”


DIG DOWN a little: nostalgic. Weis says he doesn’t like to live in the past. But if you ask him to visit the good days, he lingers.

If you hang around him long enough, you’ll hear the chicken sandwich story at least once, maybe twice. One night in 1991, at a beachside bar called Leggett’s, Weis, who was working with the Giants then, was hanging out with his buddy Mike Murphy, the Giants’ chief of security. Murphy, fueled by hops and barley, wandered over to a table of strangers. He reached down, opened a to-go box that belonged to a blonde, and devoured the half-eaten chicken sandwich she was saving for her dog. There was a ruckus at the table. Weis came over to make peace. He introduced himself to everyone, especially the blonde. It was Maura. They got married 15 months later.

He misses his days with the Patriots. He swears New England coach Bill Belichick is funny, although science has yet to confirm.

(Belichick tends to treat news conferences as a test of how little he can say in the allotted time. But he agreed to answer a few questions about Weis via email. “There are so many gameplans that Charlie was responsible for, decisions he made and plays he called, that it would be a very long list,” Belichick wrote. “Charlie was good at disciplining the players and holding them accountable for their jobs, but also kept things loose in a good way. He always had a great feel for how to strike that balance.”)

Weis holds on to his old friends. He and Brady text back and forth, checking on each other’s families. Every year, Weis gets together with the same group of eight to play the horses at the Monmouth Park track. He’s still close with Ed Edwards from those days at Rod’s, still tips a beer or two (or more) with Murphy. He and Maura spend most of their time in Florida, and a little at the house they kept in South Bend, but they spend chunks of every summer at their condo in Jersey. He needs the sand and the sarcasm.

He’s also still friends with Jon Bon Jovi. They’ve known each other since Weis worked for the Giants in the early ’90s. A little more than a month ago, when Charlie Jr. got married, Bon Jovi attended the wedding. The cover band that played at the reception kicked into “Livin’ on a Prayer” and started coaxing Bon Jovi up to sing. A video of the moment went viral for a day or two, mainly for the expression on his face: Am I seriously gonna have to do this? But he stood up and sang anyway, sort of a karaoke selfie. Weis says they talked about it later. Everything’s cool.

Weis says Bon Jovi sent him a text years ago when he was struggling at Notre Dame. He sends the same text back to Bon Jovi from time to time:

You better stand tall when they’re calling you out.

Don’t bend, don’t break, baby don’t back down.

You might recognize that as the bridge from Bon Jovi’s 2000 hit, “It’s My Life.” This probably makes Weis the only person in the world who texts Bon Jovi lyrics to Bon Jovi — and gets Bon Jovi lyrics back from Bon Jovi.


DEEPER NOW: bothered.

I suggest bitter. But he says that’s not the right word for how he feels about the way things ended at Notre Dame. Angry isn’t either. He says he has let the anger go. But a few things still bother him. A lot.

They were so glad he came. They hired him in the midst of his 2004 season with New England; he stayed with the Pats through the end of the season, when they won their third Super Bowl in four years. Weis was a Notre Dame alumnus (Class of ’78). It felt like a perfect fit. Seven games into his first season, with the Irish at 5-2 — one of the losses was to No. 1 USC, in the famous Bush Push game — Notre Dame tore up his six-year contract and signed him to a new 10-year deal. There was no buyout clause. It was the moment in the movie when everyone is happiest, just before the fall.

Now, combing back through the stories, Weis’ five seasons at Notre Dame sound like the Titanic multiplied by the Hindenburg. “The Worst Football Coach in the Universe” headlined Jonathan Chait’s take in Slate: “In the entire history of American sports hype, has there ever been any fraud more grossly fraudulent than Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis?”

That came out in the middle of Weis’ third season, 2007, when the Irish went 3-9, the most losses in the school’s history. That year they lost to Georgia Tech, Michigan and USC by scores of 33-3, 38-0 and 38-0. They lost to Navy for the first time in 44 games. That season erased all memory of Weis’ first two years, when the Irish went to BCS bowls. And it gave Weis no cushion when his teams went 7-6 and 6-6 the two years after that.

By the end, fans were grumbling to Maura at the drugstore. Kids were taunting Charlie Jr. at school. The neighbors stopped inviting them to the neighborhood Christmas party. Before his final season, in ’09, a billboard appeared in South Bend, paid for mostly by Tom Reynolds, a former Notre Dame reserve linebacker: BEST WISHES TO CHARLIE WEIS IN THE 5TH YEAR OF HIS COLLEGE COACHING INTERNSHIP. After what turned out to be the final home game Weis coached, a 33-30 double-overtime loss to Connecticut, the family came home to 14 for-sale signs in their yard.

“He took all the hits that anyone could ever take,” Maura says, “and he took it with class, and he never said anything bad.”

What bothers Weis more, he says, is how Notre Dame treated him after he was fired. You won’t hear the Notre Dame side of this story; school officials, including athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Rev. John Jenkins, declined to comment. (Kevin White, the former athletic director, now in the same job at Duke, also declined.)

This is the way Weis tells it:

Charlie Jr. was on track to enroll at Notre Dame. Weis says Jenkins himself had promised that he would be accepted, as long as his grades and test scores qualified, which they did. But after Weis was fired, Notre Dame sent a letter deferring Charlie Jr.’s acceptance. Not long after that, Weis says, he got a call from someone in Notre Dame’s development office making him an offer: If he’d donate some of the money Notre Dame owed him back to the school — “seven figures,” Weis says — Charlie Jr. could get in.

Weis said no. Charlie Jr. ended up enrolling at Florida when Weis was offensive coordinator there for a year. Then he followed his father to Kansas.

Later, Weis says, a fundraiser for the school told him that Notre Dame used the contract in pitches to donors, saying they needed to give more because the school still owed Weis so much.

Because Weis took them to the cleaners on the contract, scammed them on the contract,” Weis says. “But I did nothing. First of all, I wasn’t even involved with the contract. Second of all, there wasn’t any scamming going on there, as far as that goes. And then what they were trying to do is trying to get — to save face, use my kid to get some of the money back. Because they were making it look like you could look good, we wouldn’t look as bad. There wasn’t a chance in hell that my kid was going there. And my wife will never step foot on that campus [again] ever, ever.”

Weis says he asked Swarbrick for a favor when he was fired. He didn’t think Notre Dame’s previous two coaches, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, had been treated well after they left. He recalls the conversation: “This is my alma mater. I put my blood, sweat and tears into fixing this place. I go, I really don’t want to be treated like s—. He goes, You will always be family.”

Weis pauses.

“The guy’s never said another word to me.”

It’s the kind of thing that happens a thousand times a day: A boss fires an employee, and they don’t speak again. It has happened to Weis more than once. But this one sticks with him.

Kansas is still paying him through the end of this year, $208,333 a month, but that’s not a big event in the Weis house. The money from South Bend was a big event. It always arrived right before Christmas. Charlie and Maura always held a little ceremony. Last year, when the final payment of $2.1 million came in, they did it one last time. Maura got a glass of wine. Charlie got a Coors Light. And they raised a toast to old Notre Dame.


ONE MORE LAYER down: obnoxious.

His word, not mine: “Despite the fact that I grew up in New Jersey, I swear more than some other people do, and [I’m] borderline rude and obnoxious and sarcastic, and those things like that, I always felt like I was a good person.”

The obnoxious part gets him in trouble. He thinks of something that feels smart or clever or honest, and he lets it out. Often to his regret.

Not long after he got the Notre Dame job, he said his presence would give the Irish a “decided schematic advantage.” We should stop right here and admire the beauty of it: three three-syllable words, the accent on the second beat of each, a tiny poem to his ego. The phrase clings to Weis like a barnacle — he’ll never coach again without hearing it. He wishes he’d never said it, even though to this day he believes it’s true.

In his second season at Notre Dame, he made the mistake of allowing “60 Minutes” to put a mic on him during a game. The footage that opened the segment was a master class in foul language. At one point, he turned to assistant coach Brian Polian and shouted, “Get the f— off the field!” This did not play well at the nation’s leading Catholic university.

In his first year at Kansas, he kicked 29 players off the team for academic or behavior issues. The Jayhawks went 1-11. Afterward, he said he was selling recruits on the school by comparing them to the players he had: “Have you seen that pile of crap out there? If you don’t think you can play here, where do you think you can play?”

He has tried to shut off the spigot. He used to be compelled to top whatever story somebody else was telling. “It got to be so bad where I used to say that, you know, I rode across the Delaware in the boat right before George Washington.” He says he has that under control now. But he talks as a way to think things out. He talks because he likes to argue. And he talks because he loves to hear his voice. When he was growing up, he didn’t want to be a coach. He wanted to be Marv Albert.


HURT. We’re closing in now.

When he stands up at the bagel shop, he uses his left hand to push his left hip into place. In 2008, against Michigan, a Notre Dame player was knocked out of bounds on a punt return. Weis was turned sideways, looking downfield. The falling player caught Weis square on the left knee, tearing his ACL and MCL. The hit and the fall also injured his other knee and the hip. Over the next three years, he had all three joints replaced. From the waist down, he’s about half titanium.

But that’s only his second-worst medical story. Not long after the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Weis watched a DVD of the game and couldn’t stand how fat he looked. He had been big since he was a child — he couldn’t play Pop Warner football because he was over the weight limit — but he had eaten his way to somewhere around 350 pounds. So he decided to have gastric-bypass surgery. He scheduled the surgery for June 2002. The only two people Weis told about it were Maura and Brady. (He told Belichick he was having a “stomach procedure.”) The surgery went bad. Doctors couldn’t stop his internal bleeding, and he got an infection and fell into a coma. A priest gave him last rites. Even after recovering, he had nerve damage that led to partial loss of feeling in both feet, another reason he clomps when he walks.

He sued his surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The first trial ended in a mistrial when the surgeons rushed to help a juror who collapsed. In the second trial, the jury found in favor of the surgeons. Their lawyers had argued that Weis pushed them to shorten the pre-op prep work so he could get the surgery done faster.

Weis doesn’t approach 350 anymore, but he’s still a solid heavyweight. At 60, with scars inside and out, it’s hard for him to get in shape. He does a few laps in the pool. He rides a recumbent bike in the bedroom while he watches “24” or “House of Cards.” He lays off the cream cheese on his bagel. One day, when we’re talking politics, he says he wishes Chris Christie had lasted in the presidential race. “A fat guy from Jersey?” he says. “Of course that’s my guy.”

The spring after the surgery nightmare, the Weis family took a vacation on the South Carolina coast. Charlie and Maura started talking about what they could do with the time they had left. They decided they hadn’t done enough for other people. That’s when they drew up the plan for Hannah and Friends.

Hannah is their daughter. She was born with kidney problems — Weis says one doctor advised them to abort — and when she was 2 years old, she started pulling away from the world emotionally. After years of tests, doctors diagnosed her with global developmental delay, a catch-all term for a wide range of issues in mental and physical development. The main source of the problems was a rare disorder that gave Hannah hundreds of small seizures every night while she slept, which led to irreparable brain damage. On her good days, she laughs and sings and gets absorbed in “Sesame Street.” But she doesn’t know her dad won Super Bowl rings. She doesn’t know he got fired from Notre Dame and Kansas. “Insignificant in her life,” he says. “Totally insignificant.” Weis found that the insignificance brought him some peace. He could come home after losses and live in Hannah’s world and the game would fade away.

In August 2007, just before that terrible third season, they broke ground on the Hannah and Friends property, a 40-acre spread just north of South Bend. In September 2009, the same month that anti-Weis billboard went up, the first residents moved into the first group home. Now 14 special-needs residents live there in four houses: two for males, two for females. One house is named after the band Chicago. The band’s manager, a big Notre Dame fan, arranged for a cut of their concert tickets to go to Hannah and Friends. Another house is named for Bon Jovi, who performed at a fundraiser a few years ago and donated $60,000 to have Weis and Belichick sing backup on “Wanted Dead or Alive.” There’s a YouTube video, if you dare.

Even as Charlie and Maura built Hannah and Friends, they kept Hannah at home. They worried she couldn’t handle life anywhere else. But they decided to try; they built her a room there just like her room at home, with two ways to play her videos (one DVD, one VHS) and walls painted purple like Barney. When she turned 18, in 2013, they moved her in. She’s doing fine. Next year, they plan to live in South Bend from May through October so they can spend more time with her.

That is, unless somebody offers Weis a job.


NOW WE’RE DOWN close to the bone. This is where Weis would insert the word content. He uses it over and over again. As long as his wife and kids are happy, he’s fine. If he never coaches again, that’s OK. He’ll find something to do. Last summer, he cut the grass at Hannah and Friends.

But dig just a little deeper, down where it stings, and you run into incomplete.

The search for the right words is also the quest to fill a hole. It’s not about success or money. He has had lots of the first and still has plenty of the second. It’s about finishing. Kansas fired him on a Sunday morning, four games into a season. He can’t believe that’s how his football life was meant to end.

“I’d like to go somewhere and go on a little run,” he says. “Let’s not think three out of four Super Bowls. But go on a little run, win and leave the league with a good taste in your mouth. Yes. You’re asking would I like to do that, the answer to that is unequivocally yes.”

He tells two stories that help explain why.

The first happened early in 2015. He says he got a call from a friend at an NFL team he won’t name. The friend was interested in him as offensive coordinator. He spent the next day interviewing. Weis says his friend told him he had the job. The next night, he and his family went out to celebrate. During dinner, he glanced at a TV on the wall at the restaurant. The ESPN BottomLine said the team had hired an offensive coordinator. A name scrolled across the screen. It wasn’t his.

When they got home, he says, he had five messages from his friend. Weis texted back that there was nothing to talk about. They haven’t spoken since. He says now that, of all the things that have happened in his football life, that day troubles him the most.

“It eats at me,” he says. “It eats at me. Because he was a friend.”

The second story goes back to the first day after he was hired at Notre Dame. They had set aside a temporary office for him until the main one was ready. He and Charlie Jr. walked in and saw a poster on the wall with photos of the school’s coaching legends: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, Lou Holtz. Charlie Jr. asked his dad: What’s it going to take for you to be happy here?

“I said, ‘I want them to look at me like those guys and say, “Thank God we hired that guy.”‘ As long as the people do that, I’ll consider what I did successful.”

He stops. There’s not a bit of Jersey shtick in his voice.

“So because that didn’t happen, it was unsuccessful.”

This is the problem when who you are is bound so tightly to what you do. People take your work and judge your life by it. Maybe, if you do it long enough, you start to do the same. It can be satisfying to finally finish that race. The hard part is knowing where it ends.

After two visits, a phone call, and dozens of emails and texts, Charlie Weis is talked out. We leave Rod’s and ride in his convertible back to where my car is parked, at a hotel in the town of Spring Lake. On the shore, Spring Lake is known as the Irish Riviera. Sure enough, as we drive through, it seems as if every other house has a Notre Dame flag.

I start to ask him about it, but he’s staring straight ahead, lost in thought. I let it pass. We’re out of words.

Tommy Tomlinson can be reached at tomlinsonwrites@gmail.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson.



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