Veteran coach Bill Lewis has had a lengthy and impressive coaching career that spans 40-plus years. Lewis has been a head coach, has coached in the NFL, and has been a coordinator in big-time college football. But it was Lewis' 32 years experience in coaching defensive backs that attracted new Irish head coach Charlie Weis to Lewis.
Coach Weis even hinted at an earlier press conference that one of the reasons he hired Lewis was how much trouble Lewis' defensive backs gave Weis as a coordinator for the Patriots.
"I think he's always trying to flatter the people he competes against to get them off guard," said a laughing Bill Lewis of Weis' comments.
"I appreciate Charlie saying that. When you have a rival, you get to really respect those teams because the competition is so good. The years the Dolphins and the Patriots and Charlie played each other, those rivalries were very intense. I think we developed a great respect for each other. We had some great battles on the field."
And Lewis' respect for Weis was one of the main reasons he decided to come with him to coach defensive backs at Notre Dame.
"I think the first thing was being able to work with coach Weis," Lewis said when asked why he decided to get back into college coaching. "I've come to respect him so much as a person and really admired his coaching work.
"I also think the 32 years I spent in college coaching was another reason. If you're a football coach you have to respect Notre Dame. You can't possibly be in the game and not respect Notre Dame. It's just one of the few schools that have represented what this whole thing is all about, and that's the true student-athlete.
"When Charlie called and talked to me about his opportunity and asked if I'd be interested, it didn't take me long to say yes."
Weis knew he would inherit a young and fragile secondary when taking over, and who better to teach them than the veteran Lewis? Lewis says Weis was also interested in Lewis' coverage schemes in the backfield for Notre Dame.
"I think (Charlie) was interested in incorporating some of the things we did (with the Dolphins) in what we're going to do here defensively," said Lewis. "I think that now that coach Minter and I have been together, that's going to be very easy for those things to be incorporated. I think we very much think alike."
But what does that mean? Will the Irish use press man coverage? The type of coverage that defensive backs love to play and is a sign of an aggressive defense?
"I think you have to have flexibility in your total coverage package that will allow you to take advantage of what your personnel does best," Lewis said of his plans for the secondary. "What we'll be doing during spring and the months following is to determine what this group of defensive players can do. What you do is you have the flexibility in your system to put your players in a situation where they can be most successful.
"If they can press, I love to press. We played a lot of press coverage with the Dolphins because we had two outstanding corners in Pat Surtain and Sam Madison--that allowed us to do that. If we see that we have those kind of corners then we'll press because I think the rest of the defensive coaches, and coach Weis, I think we all would like to press. But that's going to depend on the players we have."
So far Lewis says he's not quite certain exactly what type of players he has to work in the secondary.
"We've not had any real opportunity to evaluate the talent," Lewis said. "That will come when we watch them every day in the off-season program. We will be evaluating them. We just started that process. The real evaluations are when you get out on the field with them.
"We've got a combination. We've certainly got some young guys, and we've got some guys that have spent some time of the football field. I think we have to start with a clean slate, and that's what we're doing," said Lewis on how he'll help build confidence with his young and sometimes exposed secondary.
"We had our first real good off-season workout the other day as far as all the stations involving speed, quickness and agility. That's the first time I started to come away say ‘hey, this guy can do this, this guy can do that.'
"The slate is clean so it's up to them to make that impression on us that they want to make. The second thing that is important is that we're all starting with the new system. It's our job to teach the new system and their job to learn the new system. I don't see any reason we can't develop anything but a very positive attitude with this group. I'll be very disappointed if we develop anything but that."
Lewis did say that he's learned a few things over his vast coaching career. Two things ring true to him no matter where he coaches in football.
"Teams win when they're sound fundamentally. Teams that win the most games usually win because they are the most sound fundamentally. That's never changed. Coaches have to teach that every year," Lewis said.
"The other thing that is important is the team that is the soundest mentally, or the team that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins. If you can get those two down, you've given yourself a great chance to win a lot of games."
Another important factor Lewis believes is attitude. He thinks you'll see a different attitude amongst Irish players starting this spring.
"This being our first spring makes it even more important," said Lewis of instilling a different attitude amongst the team. "There's going to be a tremendous amount of new things that are going to be introduced to them. There is a lot of different terminology that we all have to learn, but there are only so many things you can do with 11 men on the field.
"The whole attitude of how we approach the game will be very important. What are our expectations? What do we expect from the players? Setting the overall attitude of the team will be very important, and this will be a very important spring for us to do that."
Lewis has worked with a number of coaching staffs over the years, but the veteran coach says he's very excited to work with this coaching staff and believes a strong bond has already been formed amongst the new Irish coaches.
"I'm really excited about working with this group of guys," he said. "I think the chemistry has been absolutely outstanding. I really feel privileged to be a part of it. I think everybody feels that way. I think everyone is excited about what we can do here."
Many Irish players tell Irish Eyes that one of their best memories at Notre Dame was running out of the tunnel for the first time. We asked Lewis if that was something that he's excited about doing for the first time as an Irish coach.
"To realize it's Notre Dame, and to run into the stadium that has such a tradition for excellence, I think we all are excited about doing that for the first time," he said. "I guess our first opportunity will be in Pittsburgh to coach for Notre Dame, but I think we're all excited about coaching in Notre Dame Stadium."