Here it comes. Get ready. This won't be pleasant. On the first day of practice at Notre Dame, Charlie Weis looks ornery. He's got some serious venom holstered—built it up all summer—and he's stumping all over the field like a mule itching to kick. An Irish supporter dares to ask him how he's doing. "Oh, I'm just chipper," Weis growls and walks away. He spies his freshmen. They are too nervous to crush—today. So he caroms around the field as if he were in a blindfold, looking for somewhere to vent. He comes upon a blocking drill. Perfect.
"What is this, powder-puff football?!" he barks. "Do I have to get within five feet to hear a player hit a sled?"
But Weis has saved his nastiest stuff for senior quarterback Brady Quinn. And Quinn—the pristine matinee idol with the Heisman stats and the draft-ready arm—knows what's coming. It's going to be blunt. Harsh. Unprintable.
And by now, routine.
They don't seem anything alike, the thoroughbred and the mule. One is self-contained and quiet and from the heartland, the other is arrogant and loud and from Jersey. One is "too good to be true." Just ask his gorgeous high school sweetheart. The other is too mean to be named Charlie. Just ask the latest object of his invective. One is nothing but questions—when Weis first arrived in South Bend, Quinn couldn't wait to quiz him on all the Pats film he had decided to watch. That's okay, because the other one has all the answers—and he's the first to remind you of that fact. But it works. With kick after kick, the mule has pounded his thoroughbred into the best passer in Notre Dame history.
Impact is made in all sorts of ways. There's the slam of pads and the shift of the pile. There's the swell of adrenaline when the dull roar in the tunnel explodes into the thunder of the open stadium. But sometimes impact can be much more subtle. Even when a screaming coach collides with a meteoric talent, it can come not with a bang but in a whisper.
WITH HEISMAN hype and Leinart looks, Brady Quinn is no cookie-cutter quarterback. And that's because Robin Quinn is no cookie-baking mom. When Robin met Charlie Weis two winters ago, the coach asked her if she had any questions. She didn't reply with a docile "No, Coach." She leaned in, looked Weis straight in the eye and asked, "What are you going to do with my son?"
To understand Brady is to know his straight-talking mom. Robin Quinn once threatened to boycott Brady's baseball games in Dublin, Ohio, if he didn't start to pitch better. She admits people think she's "intense," but she continues to insist on order and perfection in all situations at all times. She and husband Ty used to put their three children in matching outfits. "I don't care how 'Johnny' dresses," she says now. "This is how we dress."
Robin Quinn was tougher than any coach Brady has ever had. She has more than a little bit of Weis in her. (In fact, both Robin and Brady were initially struck by how much Weis looks like Robin's late father, Scott. They call the resemblance "eerie.") "My parents are really, really hard on me and my brother," says Brady's kid sister, Kelly. "It was like, 'Oh crap, here it comes.' The whole drive home from a game, it would be, 'You know what you did wrong?'"
Brady has always taken tough love well. When Brady was a grade-schooler, a teacher once made fun of him one day for a hesitant stammer while he read. Robin wanted to march into the speared the guy who picked him off. "He jammed his helmet in the kid's chest," says longtime friend Jake Drongowski. "He laid the kid out."
Fierceness runs in the family. Brady didn't have a brother, so he chucked footballs at Kelly. When she started to cry, he threw harder. "He did it in a mean way," she says. Kelly was 6. Eventually, Robin wants things done right, and Brady does too. Both hold themselves to the highest standards. "I like to be prepared," Quinn says. "I always get somewhere early, so I can be ready for a curveball." Brady is both a devout Methodist and devoutly methodical. He furiously takes notes during film sessions, even though he admits to schoolhouse to subject the teacher to hours of nails-on-blackboard torture, but Brady just got in the car the next morning and said, "Mom, listen to me read." Soon the halting stutter was gone. "I was humiliated," Brady says. "But the best way to stop something from happening again is to fix it."
Just like Mom—and Weis—Brady has some kick of his own. When he threw an interception that nearly ended his team's perfect season in eighth grade, he bolted down the field and though, she began to catch more balls than she dropped. Today, she's a sophomore at Virginia who starts on the soccer team. (Older sister Laura, you may have heard, has married Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk.) In high school, Kelly and Brady took an etymology class together. She asked the difference between "dawn" and "dusk," and the teacher basically laughed at the freshman. After class, Brady confronted the schoolmarm, saying, "If you talk to my sister like that again, we're going to have a problem."
Robin wants things done right, and Brady does too. Both hold themselves to the highest standards. "I like to be prepared," Quinn says. "I always get somewhere early, so I can be ready for a curve-ball." Brady is both a devout Methodist and devoutly methodical. He furiously takes notes during film sessions, even though he admits to knowing the offense completely, and he fills out his day planner with every tiny detail of his schedule, down to "Breakfast," "Lunch" and "Dinner." He has missed meals, he explains, and he doesn't want that to happen again.
"Brady never liked chaos," says his uncle, David Slates. "He wanted to control and organize his universe at a very young age."
But guarding against problems is different from preparing for opportunities. He needed Weis to teach him that. The first time the coach kicked Quinn was early during camp last year, when the quarterback ignored a check-down receiver and chucked the ball into quadruple coverage. Weis stopped practice and blared that Quinn would always be a "50-50 passer." See, Weis is devoutly methodical too. He knew what Phil Simms had told him—that the difference between a decent QB and a Hall of Famer is the willingness to find the check-down guy. Weis says that's how 50% becomes 65% and 3,000 yards becomes 4,000. Sometimes a thoroughbred needs to be a mule.
Weis also knew from his time with the Patriots that some players, like Deion Branch, wilt under his harsh criticism, while others, like David Givens, thrive. Quinn, he saw, was like Givens. So Weis often ripped him in public. But he also sat him down in private to teach him how to use inflections in his voice to send different messages to teammates. Weis even suggested Quinn use specific words to coax specific reactions. He demonstrates. "When was he going to start acting like a quarterback?" Weis says, then raises his voice an octave to say, "When was he going to start acting like a leader?" The words aren't as important as the tone. Sometimes a thoroughbred needs the whip. Sometimes he needs a whisper.
And Weis knew some quarterbacks read coverages and some read progressions, but only great quarterbacks—like Tom Brady—do both. "There are ways to tell what's going to happen a few plays ahead," says Irish center John Sullivan. "It's an art form." He says he can hear Weis' voice in his head and now can visualize a defense even when there is none lined up across from him. He calls it "shadowboxing."
Before the first game of the Weis Era, Quinn had his concerns. Was he ready? Was the team? "We came in with a big question mark." Which only got bigger when Pitt scored first. "New coach," thought wideout Jeff Samardzija, "same deal." But on Notre Dame's first drive, Quinn dumped a screen to tailback Darius Walker near midfield, then watched as defenders were blocked off the play one by one, like dominoes. Some blockers got to the end zone before the ball did. The next week, against Michigan, in the near-90° heat of the Big House, Notre Dame marched downfield in the first quarter with an opening no-huddle drive that rumbled like a tractor. Against Purdue in Week 5, on third and short from the 22-yard line, Quinn jogged over to the sideline, and when Weis asked, "Do you want to go for the first down or for a touchdown?" Quinn replied, "Touchdown, but you're the coach." Weis gave him a play and got in his face: "Carlson is going to be wide open in the end zone. Don't screw it up." Quinn faked a handoff, spun and there he was—tight end John Carlson, miles from everyone. Six.
There were quieter moments, like when Quinn came off the field after a second interception against Stanford to hear Weis say softly, "I told you to be careful. This isn't good enough." Quinn might have been able to detect the manipulation in the coach's inflection, but instead he felt as if he'd let Weis down. When Stanford took the lead with less than two minutes left in the game, Quinn was on a knee next to Sullivan on the sideline. "I was freaking out," says the lineman. "But he just gave me a look that said, 'Time to go.' We scored in 50 seconds." Quinn not only takes all the heat—he also basks in it. "Now he was tough," says Weis, "and confident."
By the end of last season, Quinn had honed his outdoor voice—complete with Weis-taught modulation and trigger words—and the team was listening to the quarterback the way the quarterback had listened to the coach. "You couldn't have picked anyone better for Brady," says Uncle David. "What Charlie brought Brady is a sense of assuredness."
Notre Dame finished at 9—3, with the nation's 10th-best offense—up from 81st the year before—and a quarterback who had thrown 32 TDs and only seven picks and completed 64.9% of his passes for a total of 3,919 yards. Okay, so he didn't quite hit 65% and 4,000 yards, but both are school records. By checking down, Quinn had turned untapped potential into No. 1-overall talent. NFL analyst Gil Brandt calls him "a Manning look-alike" who is "mature beyond his years." When Darius Walker's father, Jimmy, who played for Lou Holtz at Arkansas, is asked what Quinn has learned under Weis, he has a one-word answer: "Control."
QUINN MAY still scribble notes in team meetings and schedule his every move in a day planner. But now he does it not to ward off the unexpected but to plan for the expected.
So, on the first day of practice, Quinn is waiting for a barb or two from Weis. The moment comes when the quarterback makes a bad read, holding the ball a beat too long before letting go. Here comes the mule, and here comes the kick: "Come on, Brady! Where are your eyes?!" Weis yells, before getting a feeble reply. "Don't tell me that! I'm the coach! It's my job to tell you!"
Brady just smiles. This is only Weis being Weis. The coach has his own way of maintaining control. Weis still gets on Quinn "to make sure he doesn't get too comfortable," but he also concedes the yelling "goes in one ear and out the other." Both men know the bombast is mostly for show these days. It's the quiet one-on-one sessions that are for tell.
Soon, though, the serenity of the practice field will give way to the bedlam of Saturdays, and Quinn will hear more than the boom of Weis' voice and the ping of e-mails from his folks. He'll hear the roar of thousands of people who paid $700 a night for a hotel room, then more for a ticket, to see him lead the team to the school's first national title since the 1988 season. He'll hear scouts tell him he's No. 1 and agents tell him he's worth gazillions and girls tell him he's a perfect 10. New voices, new impact. A thousand mule kicks create callouses, but flattery always finds a way to seep in. Now that he has proved he can withstand unbridled criticism, Quinn's future may ride on his ability to withstand unbridled praise.
"Distractions," Weis booms, listing his biggest concern about his prize pupil. "Everyone wants a part of him." Of course, Weis, ever the micro manager, has an answer for that, too. "I'll take the hits for him," he says. "I'll protect him."
But what about next year, when Quinn has left South Bend and his coach? "A year from now," Weis says, lowering his voice, "I feel confident he'll be able to call."
The talk will be different. Quinn only looks like a thoroughbred. At heart, he's just like his coach—head down, plodding straight ahead, unfazed. So when Weis and Quinn do speak, it will be the way Weis and Tom Brady still do: without inflection or modulation or trigger words, without kicks or barbs.
Just one mule to another.