Notre Dame's recruiting class not suffering aftereffects of subpar year

I could not bring myself to ask, and he wouldn't tell if I did. What was Charlie Weis thinking when Tom Brady was being punished by a crushing New York Giants defense in Super Bowl XLII? Was there a moment when Weis was tempted by simpler days, when he was not responsible for the mind-sets of 18-year-old males? When all he had to do was win Super Bowls?

While the Patriots were compiling a nearly perfect record, Notre Dame was gathering a very solid recruiting class in Weis' most important moment thus far as a head coach. Weis makes no excuses for last year's 3-9 record and is realistic about its implications; a mediocre recruiting class could have been perceived as evidence of further decline.
Supporters of virtually every program in the upper levels of college football watch recruiting results this time of year as closely as they study scores in the fall. Fans of the tradition-laden powers like Notre Dame carry commitment lists on their Treos.

Recruiting matters a great deal. And Weis, recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello and the Fighting Irish staff have put together the seventh-ranked class nationally, according to Scouts Inc.

A recent conversation with Weis reveals he is not distracted by NFL memories or anything else, and that he loves recruiting to his alma mater. It is surprising how few head coaches actually enjoy it. The ones who do -- the Bobby Bowdens, Eddie Robinsons and Joe Paternos -- are the ones with the most wins over the long haul.

When asked about his expectations for Notre Dame after a career in the NFL that produced four Super Bowl rings, Weis proceeded to teach me a math lesson that would have impressed even the NFL's best personnel guys. It dawned on me that Weis' lack of college recruiting experience could be overcome by three important factors: his infectious enthusiasm, a comprehensive grasp of the numerical imperatives of his personnel needs and an experienced, outstanding recruiting coordinator.

Weis has all three. His spirit is palpable and contagious over the phone. He is the people counter, and Ianello is the veteran recruiting coordinator. Having worked with Ianello in the late 1980s at Alabama, I have enjoyed watching as he has built a remarkable record of success as a recruiter at Wisconsin, Arizona, Wisconsin for a second stint and now Notre Dame.

Weis' grasp of the numerical challenge at Notre Dame is compelling. He said when he first arrived in South Bend, he was a one-man gang; the Patriots were still playing games and Notre Dame had no staff, but Bill Belichick was good enough to let him work training camp hours. Weis would stay on the phone with recruits from 8 to 11 p.m., and then work for the Patriots from 11 p.m. 'til 2 a.m. every night.

For skeptics who think this is a stretch, football coaches do indeed work hours like this, often for long periods. Weis did it for two weeks, and the result was a class of 15 signees. Thirteen of them remain in the program.

"By the end of the two weeks, we had the staff assembled, and I told them we didn't want to go sign 10 more leftover guys just for the numbers," Weis said. "We went to work on the next class -- 2007 -- which was 28 strong, since we could bounce three of them back to the previous year. With the 22 commitments we currently have, we have gotten ourselves into the low 70s in total scholarship student-athletes.

"What this means is that we are still working to get a full complement of players [85], with the majority being upperclassmen. Next season we will have only 16 players in their fourth and fifth years combined. The good news is that all 16 are contributors. We will be a better team next year."

This was offered as a simple statement of facts. There were no clever attempts to blame the previous staff or to offer excuses for the Irish's subpar 2007 season.

Weis added, "This class is the best yet in terms of overall talent, and while I cannot talk about individuals, I can tell you the planning is working out well because we have proper position distribution."

According to Scouts Inc., Notre Dame has received verbal commitments from two offensive linemen, two tight ends, a running back, a quarterback, five defensive linemen, four linebackers, three defensive backs and one athlete who could play a variety of positions.

Many times, highly touted recruiting classes don't produce because of a scarcity at one position or another. Generally, defensive linemen and great speed at any position are especially hard to find -- and harder to sign. Classes lacking in either of those will simply not compete well at the highest level.

"Ideally, over time, we will develop to the point that we have roughly 21 players in each of the four classes, with an occasional fifth-year player under the right circumstances," Weis said. "That allows for the really gifted freshmen to play early, and the others time to develop. That way the freshmen can 'supplement' rather than 'supplant.' That is much healthier and more conducive to winning than what we were forced to do last year." In 2007, the Irish played 11 true freshmen.

I agreed, and asked how he was selling his product -- bad mistake if one is talking to Charlie Weis.

"We are not salesmen! We are representatives of Notre Dame -- starting with the head coach," said Weis. "We want to build relationships and let the facts speak to the prospects and parents. Here is Notre Dame, here is what we are: a great university of 8,200 students; a great education -- no Bubblegum 101; great winning tradition; a serious value system and a graduation rate of 100 percent for our football players."

When asked about all of the nightmare stories coaches tell about parents these days, Weis offered this surprise: "Getting the parents to want Notre Dame is easy. They have been wonderful. But this generation of student-athletes has never seen Notre Dame win big. They want to win, and we must show them that we will do that. The kids want to win!"

I was reminded of something Jack Fligg, a long-time coaching associate, stated every year: "Remember men, a verbal commitment means we have a good chance to sign the player."

It's a very true statement, so I asked Weis about the disappointments he's faced on the recruiting trail.

Weis answered, "Oh yeah, we had one or two, but even that has turned to our advantage. We called the committed players to tell them about the defection, and they responded that we should let him go, that they didn't want the guy. So in a sense, they have already bonded.

"The biggest highlight for me, personally, is the great player from a distant place that decided to go to another school. Obviously, I can't say his name. As much as it hurt, I called him and wished him the very best. It turns out the Mom was in our corner, and the next night he called back and asked, 'You still got that scholarship?' When I said 'Yes I do,' he responded, 'Well, I came to my senses. I am coming to Notre Dame.' That was a great feeling that we had handled things the right way."

It is on the subject of winning that Ianello and the publicity department can utilize Weis' football credentials. When I called Ianello at 8 a.m. the morning after the Super Bowl, the staff meeting had already been held and concluded. I asked what the former Patriots offensive coordinator had said in reference to the upset. Ianello laughed.

"He did not mention it once! Charlie doesn't bring up the subject -- he is all Notre Dame," Ianello said. "He just wants to solidify this recruiting class.

"However, we assistants can talk about Charlie's football pedigree and his insistence on honest recruiting and winning habits. It is working on a national basis. Not only do we have good position distribution, but we have good national acceptance. Our coaches have recruited 38 states, and we will sign players from 13 or 14 states. We are blessed to have such a broad spectrum to work on."

By this time, all my memories of recruiting head-to-head against Notre Dame had been revived. When you walk into a recruit's house, you are taking on Mom, the Pope, the academics, the Notre Dame tradition, the fight song and Touchdown Jesus. Add Charlie Weis, his enthusiasm, his staff and his background to the equation, and the thunder may be shaking down sooner rather than later.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.