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Bowl-time rookie

The Arizona Republic


The Arizona Republic

TEMPE – In nearly three decades as a football coach, Charlie Weis has coached everyone from defensive backs to tight ends.

But he had never prepared a college football team for a bowl game.

That’s why Notre Dame’s rookie head coach arranged a visit with Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban during the Fighting Irish’s regular season-ending trip to Stanford last month. Saban was in the area for a game against Oakland the same weekend.

Weis and Saban are protégés of New England coach Bill Belichick, which means they’re practically brothers, at least in the coaching sense.

“Charlie stopped by and said, ‘How did you get ready for a bowl game? I’ve never had six weeks to get ready for a game. Do you just keep practicing?’ ” Saban said from Miami. “What I told him was, ‘Hey, I made the mistake at Michigan State. We practiced too much and we got killed in every bowl game, because by then the players didn’t want to play.’ ”

Saban changed his approach when he moved to Louisiana State in 2000, treating the bowls as a “one-game season.” It paid off when Saban’s Tigers defeated Oklahoma to win the Sugar Bowl and the 2003 Bowl Championship Series national title.

It’s not surprising that Weis, who is leading No. 5 Notre Dame against fourth-ranked Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, turned to Saban for advice.

Saban has divided his career between college and the pros, flourishing at both levels. Weis spent much of his career in the NFL, following Bill Parcells from the New York Giants to New England to the New York Jets, then joining Belichick’s Patriots staff as offensive coordinator in 2000.

Weis took over at his alma mater in February.

Weis represents the most recent example of a small but interesting trend in major-college football – coaches who have flourished on campus after working in the NFL.

Pete Carroll, a former Patriots and Jets head coach, is one victory away from his third consecutive national title at Southern California.

Kirk Ferentz, another Belichick protégé, has won a share of the Big Ten Conference title at Iowa.

Pat Hill, who also coached under Belichick, has turned Fresno State into a non-BCS power.

“I think there’s a pretty good formula for guys who at some point in time were college coaches, and then they go to the NFL and, in whatever capacity they serve, they develop even further,” Saban said. “When they go back to college, they’re even more prepared, and they succeed there. There’s pretty decent track record on that.”

Not all former NFL coaches had superb years.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt struggled to a 5-6 record in his first season after stepping down as the Dolphins’ head coach.

Oregon State’s Mike Riley also went 5-6, dropping his record at Corvallis to 28-30 since he left the San Diego Chargers.

In college, the coach’s attention is divided by such tedious but important chores as recruiting, schmoozing alums and making sure some 85 scholarship players remain academically eligible. In the NFL, it’s all football, all the time.

“We used to say there’s no bake sales” in the NFL, Ferentz said from Iowa City. “In college, you’re doing a lot of responsibilities.

“I didn’t go into law or medicine, but to me, if you’re going into coaching, coaching in the NFL would probably be like law school or med school. Every waking hour was spent on football. It was total immersion.

“And typically you’re around some of the brightest minds in football. It may cause you to grow a little faster than if you’ve only been in a college environment.”

Weis eased his transition by bringing an NFL mentality to South Bend, Ind., a mecca of the college game.

Borrowing a page from Belichick, Weis curtailed media access to the nation’s most closely followed program.

And Weis’ almost obsessive attention to detail is an NFL trademark.

“A lot of guys might think a week out, two weeks out,” Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said. “He’s way ahead of that. He’s got things so well-scripted.”

Weis’ approach has paid off in a 10-year contract extension worth an estimated $30 million.

Weis had an impressive debut, but his long-term success will be dictated by his ability to recruit.

Acquiring talent is probably the biggest difference between the NFL and college football.

In the NFL, teams draft names off a board.

College coaches beg prospects to sign.

But that’s where Weis’ NFL background comes in handy.

He’s not afraid to flash one of the four Super Bowl rings he earned with the Giants and the Patriots.

“His hands are permanently like this,” Irish tight end Anthony Fasano said splitting his fingers in a sort of Vulcan salute.

Pro backgrounds

A few of the notable college head coaches with NFL coaching experience:

• Charlie Weis, Notre Dame: New York Giants, New England, New York Jets, 1990-2004

• Pete Carroll, Southern California: Buffalo, Minnesota, New York Jets (head coach), San Francisco, New England (head coach), 1984-99

• Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: Cleveland, Baltimore, 1993-98

• Mike Shula, Alabama: Tampa Bay, Miami, Chicago, 1988-2002

• Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State: Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, San Diego, Detroit, Green Bay, 1987-2003

• Karl Dorrell, UCLA: Denver, 2000-02

• Ron Zook, Illinois: Pittsburgh, Kansas City, New Orleans, 1996-2001

Fiesta Bowl

• No. 4 Ohio State (9-2) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (9-2)

• When, where: 3 p.m. Monday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe

• TV/radio: ABC, 1490-AM

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