With Kansas, Weis on familiar ground

Wednesday, rumors started surfacing that Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had become a candidate - possibly the frontrunner - for the head coaching vacancy at Kansas. Twenty-four hours later, it was a done deal. Phog.net takes a closer look at the man, not just the coach, who could be just what Kansas needs.

Right now, Kansas fans are still trying to process all of this.

It's understandable, because everything happened so quickly. Wednesday marked the 10th day of the Kansas athletic department's search for its next head football coach, after Turner Gill was released Nov. 28.

It also marked the unexpected emergence of Charlie Weis as a serious candidate for the job. And 24 hours later, the word became official. Kansas had offered, he had accepted, and just like that the Jayhawks had the 37th head coach in program history.

It's a lot to take in. So complete was the control Kansas athletics director Sheahon Zenger maintained over the flow of information leaving the Anderson Family Football Complex that even now, with the task complete, the media still isn't completely sure of which names adorned his list of candidates.

The deafening silence left reporters scrambling for new avenues of information, and turned the social media world into a breeding ground for rumor. At one point or another, it's a safe bet that half the coaches in the United States were linked to the position by someone with a Twitter account, in 140 characters or less.

But now, the speculation has ended. Weis is the guy, and thus far, the response to his hiring has been unsurprisingly varied.

On one hand, it's Charlie Weis. Key architect of three Super Bowl victories as the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. Mentor to Tom Brady. The man who took Notre Dame to two BCS bowls in his first two seasons at the helm of his alma mater, and single-handedly revitalized a Kansas City Chiefs offense in 2010 that struggled to find signs of life the year before. He turned Matt Cassel into a Pro Bowl quarterback and Jamaal Charles into the best running back in the NFL.

On the other, it's Charlie Weis. The man who was fired by Notre Dame after five seasons, the latter three of which could only be described as disappointing. The man who left Kansas City after a single season as offensive coordinator to take the same position at the University of Florida. In 2011, under his guidance the Gators finished the regular season ranked an abysmal 102nd nationally in total offense - four spots ahead of the Jayhawks.

The perception of Kansas football, that it is possessed of an uncaring fan base, isn't entirely accurate. Kansas fans want to care so badly. They want their football program to be good. They've proven they'll show up and invest in it during the highs, it's just they haven't had much experience with them. And the die-hards, those who have stuck with the Jayhawks on the gridiron through thick and thin, are as plugged in emotionally as any fans in the country.

They desperately want to believe Weis is the one capable of righting the ship, but have been burned too many times to accept it as true on faith alone.

To get an idea of how the players are feeling at the moment, take the jumble of emotions the fans are experiencing and multiply it at least tenfold.

When Weis meets with his new team for the first time, he's going to be addressing a crowd full of pensive faces. Because as invested as the fans may be, at the end of the day they're not the ones enduring conditioning sessions in the 100-degree summer heat, sweating it out in the weight room or grinding through practices day after day.

They're not the ones who had their world turned upside down by the loss of a coach who, by most accounts, was immensely popular inside the locker room.

To Charlie Weis, this whole thing probably feels more than a little familiar, and it should. The similarities between 2011 Kansas and 2004 Notre Dame are borderline creepy.

In 2004, the Fighting Irish fired Tyrone Willingham for posting a 6-5 record in his third season, on the heels of a losing record in 2003. Ask any dyed-in-the-wool Irish fan and they'll tell you, it wasn't just that Willingham lost. It was how he lost - often by margins they deemed embarrassing.

Sound familiar? Like Gill, Willingham was a "player's coach" - a guy whose greatest asset was his ability to relate to his players on a personal level. And like Gill, he was by and large loved and respected by those athletes.

It might sound presumptuous to make declarations like that about a Notre Dame team almost a decade in the past, but in a funny twist of fate I've got an impeccable source for that information.

My brother, A.J., is a Notre Dame graduate who made plans to attend walk-on tryouts with the football team almost before he finished his application. He made the team, and from the spring of 2004 to the spring of 2005 he caught passes from Brady Quinn and worked against defensive backs ranked as four and five-star prospects out of high school.

He even saw the field once, in the fourth quarter of a 38-3 beat-down of the Washington Huskies. My dad was in the stands at Notre Dame stadium - along with my uncle and grandparents - and I'm pretty sure he crossed a big item off his bucket list in that moment.

How is all of this relevant to the current situation at Kansas? I'm glad you asked.

The timing of his participation put my brother squarely in the middle of a period of transition for the Irish. After Willingham was fired, he experienced the emotions of the team first hand. He was in the room with the rest of the squad when they were introduced to Weis.

He's one of the few people around who knows exactly what the players are going through right now, and what they can expect from their newly-minted head coach.

I spent a few minutes with him on the phone tonight, picking his brain about the topic. What was it like? What was he like? Did they enter that first team meeting with a collectively open mind, or did some lingering resentment over the way Willingham was ousted still exist?

Prior to his firing, the student body had conducted small rallies on campus, calling for his removal under the auspices of the players deserving "something better." For obvious reasons, that didn't really sit well with them.

Essentially, all they knew of Weis they had pieced together by scouring the Internet for every scrap information they could find. So they knew he went to Notre Dame and as a student roomed with Joe Montana. They learned of his reputation as one of the truly brilliant offensive minds in the sport, and a demanding, intense coach.

On the whole, they weren't sure what to expect, but his reputation bought Weis instant credibility with the team. They were willing to listen, and get a feel for his personality before making any judgments.

What they found was an open and honest man. He wasn't delicate in his assessment of their play, dubbing it "soft" and making it clear that attitude was about to change in a big, big way.

Nor did he revel in tearing them down. He drove home how much potential he saw in them, how much better he believed they could be, and outlined his plan for helping them reach that potential.

When Weis told them they were going to win, my brother explained, they believed him. His reputation may have gained him respect initially, but it was the way he spoke to and treated them as men that eventually earned him their loyalty.

Hearing his recollection of those first few weeks after Weis was hired dispelled some of the questions rattling around in my head as to why Zenger ultimately saw him as the right fit for the job.

Those players at Notre Dame may have respected and appreciated Tyrone Willingham for his attitude and methodology but, as my brother said, at their core they wanted to win. They wanted to be pushed and challenged and once again taste success.

There are many brilliant moments in the 1988 classic work of cinema, "Bull Durham," but perhaps none so poignant as when Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh waxes eloquent on the merits of winning.

"I love winning, man," he said. "I love winning. It's like...better than losing."

These Kansas players aren't so different from that 2004 Notre Dame squad. They want to win, to improve as individuals and as a team and make the climb back to respectability.

Weis is going to push them. Hard. Probably harder than they want to deal with at times, and he's going to step on some toes in the process. But he wouldn't have accepted the Kansas job if he was afraid of a challenge or didn't believe he could succeed here. And that belief counts for something.

The past seven seasons on the job have likely taught Weis a lot about himself, both as a coach and a person. If he's accepted those lessons and grown along with them - just as he will demand his players do - without compromising the self-confidence and core values that got him to this point, then well...

Maybe he can be exactly what this program needs.

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