High Expectations For Irish
By Paul Smith
Chesterton, Ind. -- A chippy young Fort Wayne, Ind., reporter "breaks" a story citing three prominent Notre Dame football players' promoting a South Bend T.V. station's talk show.
Had to be a potential N.C.A.A. rules-breaker, didn't it?
Nope. Not even close.
The South Bend Tribune ran a four-part series on the recruiting of marquee name high school bluechip recruit, All-American quarterback Jimmy Clausen from Lakewood Village, Calif.
He was portrayed at least somewhat as a classic camera-seeking Southern Californian, a sort of latter-day Cade McNown or Todd Marinovich, two immensely talented Pacific 10 players from the 1990s whose careers were surrounded by constant controversy.
And you think second-year Irish Coach Charlie Weis, whose team was seconds removed from an 11-0 regular season and a shot at the national title, had a hardball attitude toward the media before?
It had come down to this: Jeff Carroll, who teamed with South Bend Tribune cohort Bob Weineke to cobble together the Clausen series, all but crawled on his belly toward Weis after a recent Fighting Irish weekday practice.
"Will you take a question from me, Charlie?" Chicago Tribune media critic Teddy Greenstein reports Carroll asked.
Insert your favorite cut-the-tension-with-a-dull-knife cliche here. But this was the hometown news organ, and the impact of Weis's iron-handed rule, if still open for interpretation, had closed suddenly.
The coach also responded to Weineke in the same session. Just a couple of days previously, the two reporters had been informed their communication lines to Weis and all players had been cut "Until further notice," according to Greenstein.
Al Hamnik, a journeyman reporter for The Times of Northwest Indiana, could have spoken for any number of incensed media regulars when he said to Greenstein, "It's Charlie's way or the closest you will get to Irish football is the car radio."
The ground rules had been established long before. When Weis, a weather-beaten veteran pro football assistant who was the key point man on Bill Belichick's three N.F.L. championship teams at New England, before which he assisted Bill Parcells with the New York Giants.
Two grouchy mentors, to be sure. But Weis, whose tight-lipped demeanor immediately recalled images of the celebrated Ara Parseghian era, during which Notre Dame won two national championships, was dealing with a different breed of journalist.
And Notre Dame football, with its own T.V. outlet and massive visibility apparatus, labors under a spotlight that eclipses even those of Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, U.S.C. or Penn State.
A massively-successful first full recruiting year followed the Irish's surprising 9-3 finish last fall, and even with a 34-20 pounding by Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, the mood in South Bend hasn't been this upbeat since the early Lou Holtz years.
And so what if the chubby curmudgeon in the crewcut with the Prussian prow face on the sideline threw a moat between his program and the media?
The Irish were back.
And so they are. Rated as highly as No. 2 (The Associated Press), No. 3 by the USA Today Coaches' Poll and No. 4 by the Gallup Fan Poll, Weis is proven right when he says, "Expectations will be higher this year."
Indeed. With one of the great quarterbacks in an Irish history that includes, oh, Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, John Huarte, Johnny Lujack and several more who guided N.F.L. teams to some of their most glorious moments, that is high praise indeed.
But one of Quinn's more engaging qualities is his ability to deal with any and all outside distractions. It took Weis's ability to recognize his talent, then cut him down to realistic size, that turned him from an underachiever under previous coach Ty Willingham into one of the most feared offensive forces in recent college football annals.
To him who much is given, it is written in St. Luke's Gospel, much is expected.
Brady Quinn, those who know him will tell you, is simply too good to be true. He's not really the anti-Weis, because Notre Dame's coach can be as disarming as Lou Holtz, but also as steely as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy or Parseghian before him.
Quinn's personality is All-American-Boy prototypical. Growing up in the upper-middle class Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio, son of an Irish-Catholic father and Methodist mother, his personality has been extracted by Weis's ability to bring out his on-field assertiveness.
"I guess the best way to answer (how he deals with the endless hype and on-campus worship) is just because I have a good group of people around me, my family, my friends, who have always kind of stayed grounded around me.
"I think Coach Weis more then anyone else is the best at doing that."
Weis smiles often when Quinn's name comes up. But his ability to keep even his most visible players on their toes comes when one experiences a low point during the game. "I'll tell him (after an interception), 'There's my Heisman Trophy guy,'" Weis joked with the media at Notre Dame's media day.
"Same with (Jeff) Samardzija (a successful pitcher who was drafted by the Cubs) after he drops a big pass," Weis continued. "I'll tell him 'Work on that fastball.'"
Weis's quirkish, demanding personality can be a challenge, but Quinn's seen pretty much the good, bad and ugly of college football as he enters his senior year.
"(Weis) never seems to let down on some of his little comments," Quinn told the press day media horde. "And he has a quick wit about things whether things are going good or bad for us.
"He seems to have a pretty good hold on keeping the whole team grounded, not just myself."
There is a delicate balance about such an approach, of course, but Weis's experience and knowledge of how to press psychological buttons at exactly the right time should be a key to his ability to steer the Irish through a demanding 2006 schedule.
Quinn threw for a dizzying 3,919 yards and 32 touchdowns in-season, along with just seven interceptions. At 6-feet, 4-inches, he is built like a barely out-of-season bodybuilder (230 pounds of granite-hard muscle). His steel-trap memory and high I.Q. do the rest.
With Samardzija, who caught 15 touchdown passes and accounted for 1,249 receiving yards, and Rhema McKnight back in 2004 form after missing 10 games last fall, and 1,196-yard/nine touchdown scoring junior running back Darius Walker working behind a huge, mobile offensive line, the Irish will stretch any defense.
The defense features part-time "Rocky" aspirant/power-hitting 208-pound strong safety Tom Zbikowski, an exceptional pass-rusher/pursuit man Victor Abiamiri, a defensive end with linebacker speed, and free safety Chinedum Ndukwe, three players with spectacular talent and pro potential.
The support cast is a little less glitzy.
But in the end, knowing the Irish will score points in bunches in most games, it is how the defense rounds into form that determines whether the Irish achieve a possible chance to go up against their January 2006 Fiesta Bowl tormentor, Ohio State for a second straight year.
In the Fiesta Bowl.
For a national championshp.
Ohio State has its own obstacles -- @ Texas, Penn State, @ Iowa, Michigan, to name a few. But the Irish will have to get past a demanding opener at Georgia Tech, coached by pro-wizened Chan Gailey, Penn State, Michigan, @ Michigan State and Purdue, all with various reasons for wanting to put Notre Dame squarely in their sights and take their best shots.
Formidable challenge? Hey, this is Notre Dame, remember, where every practice, every media session, every game film watch presents its own unique challenge.
But the Irish are what they are this year. A fun watch. And a legitimate threat to make that run to Tempe -- if the defense shapes up and Quinn can retain his 2005 form.