Notre Dame put Weis in this uncomfortable spot

As the spectacularly failed reigns of Texas A&M's Dennis Franchione and Nebraska's Bill Callahan reach the buyout phase, Charlie Weis sits in his office at The Gug, Notre Dame's lavish football facility at campus's edge, and tries to salvage a season that even he knows can't be rescued from the ocean floor.

He's heard the boos at Notre Dame Stadium. He's had to. With each week and with each loss they arrive earlier, grow louder, last longer. It isn't any better in the blogosphere or chat rooms, where the anger, frustration and hostility toward Weis and his 10-year contract often reach toxic levels.

The Fighting Irish are 1-9, and are officially the losingest team in the 119-year history of Notre Dame football. That's where Weis is right now, facing the wrong kind of history, as well as a growing number of alums and supporters who want answers. Some of them even want a new coach.

But Notre Dame isn't going to fire Weis. To do so would be almost as unfair and as unjust as firing the man Weis succeeded: Tyrone Willingham.

Still, Notre Dame has only itself to blame for creating an environment in which Weis' future has become an issue only 28 games into his new contract and less than 10 months after he led the Irish to a second consecutive BCS bowl appearance. And it all started the exact moment when Notre Dame president John I. Jenkins and a handful of other influential power brokers decided to dismiss Willingham.

The football sin wasn't simply the act of firing Willingham. It was the act of firing him after just three seasons and with two years remaining on his contract. And now, Weis suffers the consequences.

By canning Willingham, Notre Dame ended an admirable, honorable and often sensible tradition of giving its coach a full five-year window to establish a program. There have been rare exceptions, but in the past 45 years, only Willingham's deal was terminated before the freshmen he recruited became seniors.

The result is obvious. Now that Weis is suffering through a season of historic, almost subterranean football lows, Notre Dame alums and fans feel empowered by the precedent set when Willingham was dismissed. Three years is the new five years.

So all that goodwill Weis created during his first two seasons and 19-6 start has vaporized. Instead, the ND alum (class of 1978) faces an embarrassed constituency. Weis says he's going to be at Notre Dame "for a long time," and he has that long-term contract to prove it. But you wouldn't know it by the boos.

No, Weis isn't going anywhere, not even if the Irish finish with a first-ever 1-11 record (only two Notre Dame teams have lost as many as eight games). They have too much time and money invested in Weis. And even if they didn't, they'd keep him. So would I.

But Weis is going to have to live with the "Fire Charlie" chatter because his employers made the idea possible. And by giving him the extension just seven games into his first head coaching job and now standing by his side during potentially the worst ND season of all time, the school is going to have to live with charges of hypocrisy.

When Willingham finished 6-5 in his third year (by the way, he beat eighth-ranked Michigan, ninth-ranked Tennessee, Michigan State and Navy), Jenkins called for the punt formation. It is that glaring difference in treatment that legitimizes questions asking whether Willingham's firing was racially motivated. If nothing else, it keeps alive the perception that racial undertones were at work.

We can debate Willingham's coaching and recruiting abilities, but you can't debate that Weis went to those two BCS games with such Willingham recruits as Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, and Tom Zbikowski. Nor can you dispute the numbers: Weis is 20-15 after his first 35 games; Willingham was 21-15 when he was fired. They share the same number of victories against USC: zero.

To his credit, athletic director Kevin White argued against Willingham's dismissal. And former Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh made no secret of his disapproval of the decision. In his 1990 autobiography, Rev. Hesburgh wrote that if his football coach graduated players and followed NCAA rules, "he would not have to worry about alumni pressure. If he lost some games, or even had a losing season occasionally, I would take the heat, not he. If hired, he would be assured of a five-year contract."

Now Weis is taking the heat. That 10-year deal offers some protection, but who are we kidding? If enough of those same people who engineered Willingham's settlement want Weis gone, then Weis is gone. Money won't be an issue.
But they don't want him gone. They've proven that repeatedly.

When evidence of the NFL's interest in Weis began to reach critical mass in 2005, that's when Notre Dame offered him the extension. The last thing the school wanted was to fire Willingham and then lose his replacement just a year later. How would that look?

And now, as the criticism mounts over this 2007 collapse, Notre Dame is trusting Weis -- something it wouldn't do with Willingham. It's also trusting those recruiting class rankings. One of the main internal concerns with Willingham was that his recruiting classes were becoming progressively worse.

I think recruiting rankings are a joke. If NFL teams, which spend millions on scouting and evaluation, can screw it up, then just imagine how imprecise high school football player rankings are. And name me one recruit from Weis' second and third classes (you can't count his first class because of his late arrival at Notre Dame) who has distinguished himself on a national scale. Answer: There isn't anybody ... yet.

The self-assured Weis (sometimes too self-assured) will fix this mess. But if he doesn't, then Weis should prepare for the worst. And the worst is if Notre Dame forgets its conscience again and gives Weis the same margin of error it gave Willingham.


Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography, "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.