GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Charlie Weis they know is different in many ways from the one sitting inside his new office at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The man says so himself.
The Charlie Weis they know can be loud and boisterous, flashy and bold, a guy with rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s number in his cell phone. That Charlie Weis won four Super Bowl rings and headed the country’s most storied football program for five years at Notre Dame.
That’s the high-profile Weis. There is another Weis, the one who surprised colleagues, fans and media by leaving his job as Kansas Chiefs offensive coordinator after one season to take the same job at Florida.
“Really, they don’t know me,’’ he said. “They just know of me. It’s quite different. They have an image of you, but they really have no idea what you’re like as a person. That’s one of the biggest misnomers when it comes to me personally.’’
To show you what he means, Weis hands you a photo from Super Bowl XXXVI nine years ago.
The photo was taken moments after the underdog New England Patriots knocked off what was then known as “The Greatest Show on Turf,’’ the high-powered Kurt Warner-led St. Louis Rams. In the framed photo, Weis is lifting son Charlie Jr. and wife Maura over a railing to join him on the field after the Patriots’ upset victory, the first of three Super Bowl wins in four years for New England with Weis as offensive coordinator.
Weis calls that moment the one he cherishes most personally from his coaching career. He remembers having to arrive at the Super Dome in New Orleans several hours early for the game due to heightened security with 9/11 still fresh. When Charlie Jr. and Maura finally made it inside the stadium, the first thing Weis did was to go find them.
“We’re a two-touchdown underdog and I come over to my wife and say when we win this game – and I’m standing right next to a security guard – when we win this game, I want you guys to be right here and I’m taking you over the wall.
“So the security guard goes, ‘When you win the game?’ When the game was over, sure enough, I went right over to that wall as everybody ran onto the field. The security guard turned around and didn’t know it was them at first, and started to stop them. I looked at him, and then he let them go over the wall.”
The moment was captured by a photographer and Weis now keeps it on a shelf behind his desk with several other framed photos. Nearly all of them include family, which Weis says is the No. 1 reason he now calls The Swamp home.
As soon as new Gators head coach Will Muschamp received permission from the Chiefs to talk to Weis about joining his inaugural staff, Weis was intrigued immediately after his first big-picture chat with Muschamp.
A first-time head coach and defensive specialist, Muschamp wanted an experienced play-caller. Weis wanted a better fit for his family after a season back in the NFL. They talked multiple times to discuss football and family.
“It was critical for me to go out and find someone that could handle the offense since my background is on the defensive side,’’ Muschamp said. “There is not a better play-caller around in the NFL or in college. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I do know that I’m turning the offense over to the best that there is.’’
But Muschamp also learned something else about Weis during those talks as he contemplated a high-profile hire for a first-year head coach anywhere. Weis was also someone Muschamp did not know personally, only by reputation.
“As good of a coach as Charlie is, he is even a better family man and will be a great example for our players,’’ Muschamp said.
Meanwhile, the more Muschamp talked, the closer the 54-year-old Weis got to changing career paths. He sensed this could be the perfect job at the perfect time.
“There are very few places back in college that would have intrigued me enough to even consider it,’’ Weis said. “The NFL and college are two different worlds. Now, the football is still the same, but the worlds are different. The job description he was writing was like he was writing somebody like me. It was a really good fit.’’
The three most important factors in Weis taking the job are named Maura, Charlie Jr. and Hannah.
Maura approved because Gainesville is near Ocala, the capital of Florida horse country. She rides and trains horses to compete in Dressage, a passion for many years. The family has already picked out a home in the Ocala-area and hope to close by late spring.
Meanwhile, a senior in high school, Charlie Jr. has told his dad he wants to be a coach since he was 7. Weis figured Charlie Jr. would grow out of the phase and move on to fireman or doctor, but he hasn’t thanks in large part to Weis’ former boss, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick grew up a coach’s son like Charlie Jr., learning to break down game film when he was 9 from his father Steve, a former coach at Navy and longtime professional scout. Belichick still talks to Charlie Jr. frequently about goals and coaching.
“The Patriots lose to the Jets in the playoffs, and the next day – I’m talking to Charlie that night – and he goes, ‘Coach Belichick called and talked for a while today’ ’’ Weis said. “He’s driving home from work and he’s talking to Charlie about how everything’s going.
“That’s all he has ever known is pro sports or Notre Dame. He was born into it.’’
With his dad at UF, Charlie Jr. is planning to attend Florida starting in the fall and working as a student with the football program, a dream-come-true scenario for his father.
“He wanted to be involved in the grassroots of a college football program, so by the time he graduated, he would be that much farther ahead of everyone else trying to get into coaching,’’ Weis said. “He is going to learn from the bottom up. You know in that American Express commercial where the last word is ‘priceless.’
“That’s what that is.”
And then there’s daughter Hannah, who has taught Weis more life lessons than perhaps anyone.
During a routine exam prior to Hannah’s birth, she was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease and doctors told the family she could die soon after birth. Hannah underwent successful kidney surgery, but as she got older and close to going to school, other developmental problems surfaced.
Hannah was eventually diagnosed with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, a disorder that affects the parts of the brain that control comprehension and speech. She will need special care her entire life.
As he talks about Hannah, you start to see other side of Weis that he wants people to know better. Maura helped him discover his alter ego as they sat at their former beach home in Myrtle Beach, S.C. in 2003, the year after Weis’ life was in danger following gastric-bypass surgery.
“My wife said to me after I had recovered as fully as I was going to, and she goes, ‘You could have died and we would have never done anything for anyone else other than for our family.’ So we started a charity named after our daughter.’’
The organization is called Hannah & Friends Foundation, a non-profit which provides quality of life grants to families across the country that provide care for children and adults with special needs. (Click here to read more about the organization). Once the idea evolved into reality, the Weis family opened the Hannah and Friends Neighborhood, a 40-acre facility north of South Bend, Ind., that provides much-needed housing and care services for adults with special needs.
One day it will be where Hannah primarily calls home.
“Our goal initially was, man, if we can just raise $100,000 a year we could help out disadvantaged families with people with special needs,’’ Weis said. “Well, that turned into a million-dollar deal. We’ve got some crazy notions on doing a repeat down here, but we’re going to have to wait and see how it goes.
“It’s my daughter’s spirit but it’s my wife’s heart.’’
Weis graduated from Notre Dame in 1978 with aspirations of becoming a sports announcer. He left college with enough debt to call the first audible of his career once he discovered how little money entry level announcers made.
Weis changed courses and got his first coaching job at Boonton (N.J.) High. He left after a year to join former Bucknell standout John Chironna’s staff at Morristown (N.J.) High. Weis taught English and coached football like Chironna, whom he says taught him more about coaching than any other mentor during their five years together.
Chironna passed away in October at 82, but Weis said he wouldn’t be where he is today if not for Chironna’s influence and the lessons he has carried with him for the last 30 years.
“He really taught me how to coach,’’ Weis said. “I came in at about 22 year old. I was your typical arm-chair guy that has all the answers.’’
Weis got his first major break into the big-time when former Giants coach Bill Parcells hired him as an assistant. From there he developed a name as a hard-working, cerebral NFL assistant, eventually landing on Belichick’s staff in New England.
Weis has won big and been praised as an offensive genius. He has lost crucial games and been criticized heavily. At this point in his life and career, Weis has a different perspective. He seems content knowing he won’t be the guy in the headlines or in front of the TV cameras as often.
He points to the pictures in his office and makes sure you know why.
“Put it like this: when I’m not working, I’m either doing something with my family or something for my family,’’ Weis said. “Usually the something for my family is related to Hannah & Friends.”
Weis has been in the game long enough to know that the offensive coordinator is often the most-praised and most-criticized person on the staff. He understands that at a prominent school like Florida, the expectations are high. If the offense struggles against Alabama, he’ll receive much of the blame. If the Gators roll over Auburn, he’ll get much of the credit.
In his first meeting with the local media on Monday, Weis shared some of his thoughts entering the start of spring practice on Wednesday.
He sees senior quarterback John Brantley, much-maligned in his first season as the Gators’ starter in 2010, as a good fit for his offense. Quarterbacks Trey Burton and Jordan Reed fit best elsewhere. Freshmen Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett have a lot of potential and could get a look. He likes redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy on film.
Who plays and how much will be determined as Weis and the new coaches learn more about the Gators’ personnel. What he knows the most about now is his plan.
Weis has a simple philosophy when it comes to calling plays. He has followed his system whether the quarterback was Tom Brady in New England or Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen at Notre Dame.
“Most of play-calling is just preparation. What separates a good play-caller from an excellent play-caller is the willingness and the ability to adapt,’’ Weis said. “You have to be prepared when the situation presents itself to go ahead and make the right call based off preparation. Let’s say what you plan is not working – you’ve got to be ready and willing to adapt.
“Too many coaches wait until it’s too late. They’ll wait until halftime, but the game might be over already. There have been games where I’ve thrown out the game plan nine plays in.’’
Weis said Gator fans can expect some staples from his playbook: a fast-delivery of plays to the huddle, the willingness to call the same play on back-to-back plays despite some coaches refusing to – “I’ve done it at least twice in critical situations in two Super Bowls” – and keeping an open mind.
“One of my pet peeves is coaches who take too long to get a play in,’’ he said. “I call them quick. I like to rapid fire. I was fortunate to be around people who were really good at [play-calling], regardless of the level. I like to sit there and say that it’s all you, but it’s an acquired trait that you either get it or don’t get it, like the timing of a play call.’’
Besides his reputation as one of the game’s best play-callers, Weis also arrives with brand-name recognition, a huge bonus in the world of recruiting for a new staff. Muschamp recognized that fact when targeting Weis for the job.
“His accomplishments – from winning Super Bowls to developing quarterbacks – are well-documented,’’ Muschamp said. “His experience as a head coach and in the NFL will be a tremendous asset to our players and coaches.’’
Leaning back in his chair inside his office, Weis understands the raised eyebrows when news first broke that he was coming to Florida. He has been asked the same questions over and over. His answers always lead back to Maura, Charlie Jr. and Hannah.
The family factor.
“I wanted to come somewhere where my entire family could be for a long time,’’ Weis said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere where it was one-stop shopping. I’ve put my family on their own too many times – two years in a row now my wife has had to run the ship in the offseason.
“I think we have finally found a place we could see spending the rest of our life.’’
THE WORLD OF WEIS
A look at new Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who grew up in New Jersey and started his coaching career as a high school assistant in his home state:
Q: What’s a perfect vacation spot for you these days?
A: It’s still the Jersey Shore. And for me, it will always be the Jersey Shore.
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your coaching career?
A: It’s easy to say [Bill] Parcells and [Bill] Belichick. It’s tough not to say those two guys, but because that’s a given, I’ll probably say John Chironna. You can take those two guys – Parcells and Belichick – and I have to give them both so much credit. But the guy who really taught me how to coach was John Chironna. He taught you that coaching was teaching and the subject was football. From that point on the game became much more cerebral to me. The subject just happened to be football.
Note: Chironna hired Weis in 1980 as an assistant at Morristown (N.J.) High, where Weis spent five seasons on his staff.
Q: Since you’re a Jersey guy, Yankees or Mets?
A: Don’t ask that question. I’m a Yankees guy – a diehard Yankees guy.
Q: Prior to coming to UF, what was your view of the program as an outsider looking in?
A: I really didn’t follow them too much until I was at Notre Dame recruiting. I knew it was tough beating Urban [Meyer] and his staff on a player. I lost a few players to them. It was tough to beat them because they had a lot of success, they were hard-working. One thing as a head coach that I always thought was that I could outwork most head coaches, but Urban was one of those guys who was out there working just as hard as you were. I have a lot of respect for him.
Q: You’ve been a high school, college and NFL coach. Do you have a favorite player you’ve coached over your career?
A: Tommy [Brady] has always been the special one, and the reason is different than most people would think. As players, there are a lot of them that I like the same. I could talk about a whole bunch of guys, but the reason it’s different with Tommy is I had a serious surgery go bad in 2002 where I was in really bad shape. The guy who kind of helped my family and me get through it was Tommy, so it became more personal than it did professional. Because of that off-the-field situation, the relation was different.
Q: Who is your favorite musician or band?
A: It used to be [Bruce] Springsteen. But if I said anything other than [Jon] Bon Jovi, he would be mad at me. There’s only two involved. I grew up in the ‘70s really listening to Bruce. But this guy Jon – not only do I love his music, but I love the person, too. He is one of my favorites. He is a wonderful guy. I like his wife, I like his kids. He has come out to Notre Dame games and stood on the sideline, sat with my wife up in the box, stayed at the team hotel. He’s a really, really good dude. When he’s playing wherever I am, I’m there. When he opened the new arena in New Jersey, I flew there to go watch it. I’m a big fan.
Q: Any chance you can get him to play a halftime show at The Swamp?
A: He can be bought for the right price. And it won’t be cheap.
Q: What’s a perfect meal?
A: My wife loves Italian, and no disrespect to Kansas City barbecue, but for me it’s still a good steak on the grill.
Q: A favorite Super Bowl memory?
A: When we won Super Bowl XXXIX, knowing I was going to Notre Dame and [Romeo Crennel] was going to Cleveland – we have that moment where the three of us [Weis, Crennel and Belichick] embraced. It was a big national picture. We had spent so much time together for so many years. Even though we were both going to go somewhere else to be head coaches, the fact we were able to win that one and not be distracted, that was important to me because so many fans were always worried about what was going to happen. That had a lot of professional significance to me.
As part of GatorZone.com's coverage of spring football, senior writer Scott Carter will profile each member of the Gators' coaching staff leading up to the Orange and Blue Debut on April 9.