Friday, September 02, 2005

Leaving On a Noon-Day Trip to Pittsburgh...

But before I go, the #1 Key to the Irish Season, and (whoa - big shock) it's all about the man at the top.

The pace, attitude, and results of Notre Dame's 2005 fortunes depend more than anything else on Charlie Weis and his expertly picked staff of assistants. Since I'm on my way out the door to Pittsburgh for the game, I'll lot local Sports legend columnist Jeff Jeffers expand on this theme...

Weis & His Wise Men
by Jeff Jeffers

Charlie Weis is always quick to give credit to the Notre Dame administration for allowing him the financial freedom to hire what could very well be one of the best groups of assistant coaches in the game today. The payoff comes in wins and losses, much the enthusiasm pulsing through the Notre Dame nation originated from the resumes of Weis' assistants.

There are many excellent groups of assistant coaches spread across the college football landscape, but what makes this assortment of aides unique is their collective experience and reputations. Both factors reflect on Weis, who hired several of these assistants over the phone back in December.

Weis had never met some of them but had a variety of very good reasons why he wanted them at Notre Dame with him. There is little question that Weis could have put together his staff based solely on his contacts and experience in the NFL. But Weis realized he needed a staff that would reflect what he wanted to bring to Notre Dame: a dynamic mix of experience, enthusiasm, recruiting expertise and an appreciation and admiration for Notre Dame.

The lack of familiarity among assistants was quickly swept away by a unified effort to tackle the job. One clear quality is that each and every one of Weis' assistants is a teacher. Sometimes lessons can be learned immediately while other lessons takes weeks, sometimes months, to master. Who didn't want to start a class with A's right out of the chute? But we all know it doesn't always happen that way. The same holds true in football.

Thirty years ago, Dan Devine assembled his own tremendous group of assistant coaches. Some were retained from Ara Parseghian's staff and others were new to Notre Dame. The triumvirate of Notre Dame graduates ¬– Greg Blache, Joe Yonto and George Kelly – represented three of the best assistants ever on the Irish sidelines.

The offensive coordinator, Merv Johnson, has a story worth telling for several reasons. Johnson, who came to Notre Dame in 1976 along with Ron Toman, is credited with the development of a quarterback named Joe Montana. Johnson also called all the offensive plays and worked seemingly three downs ahead of opposing defenses. Over a four-year period Johnson's attacks were as varied as any in college football.

If a defense wanted to play a stacked front, Montana would go to Ken MacAfee, Kris Haines, David Waymer, etc. You want to drop seven into coverage, Mr. Defensive Coordinator? Try to handle Jerome Heavens, Vagas Ferguson, Al Hunter, Terry Eurick and Steve Orsini.

Johnson has the hardware. He owns national championship rings from four different decades: Arkansas in 1964, Notre Dame in 1977, Oklahoma in 1985 and again with the Sooners in 2000.

I have not met anyone within the world of college football with more class, character and compassion that Merv Johnson. In the early 1970's while at Arkansas, one of those on Frank Broyles' Razorback staff was current Irish assistant Bill Lewis, who shares many of those same traits and qualities as Johnson.

It would be great if the 2005 Notre Dame coaching staff stayed in tact through the next six seasons, but we know in the reality of college football that's not the case. Enjoy this staff, Notre Dame fans. You may not see a collection like this one for a long time. Then again, who would have thought Weis could have put together a staff like this in the first place? If he has to, Weis will probably do it again.



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