By JOHN FINERAN
The following conversation took place in Wrigleyville – the neighborhood surrounding Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs – near the end of the 2015 baseball regular season.
A couple of hundred fans of the Kansas City Royals, who were in the midst of their run to the World Series title, were darting in and out of the bars, restaurants and souvenir shops near the famous ballpark at the corner of Clark and Addison.
“Welcome to Chicago,” one Cubs fan asked a couple wearing Royals jerseys. “Where are you from?”
“Lawrence, Kansas,” the male replied. “We are both graduates of the University of Kansas.”
“Well, I graduated from Notre Dame,” the Cubs fan replied, extending a hand in friendship before asking, “You know, our alma maters have one thing in common.”
The man and woman shrugged their shoulders, wondering what the denominator was.
“We’re both paying Charlie Weis not to coach our football team,” the Cubs fan explained.
Weis, who went 41-35 at Notre Dame before being fired after the fifth year of a 10-year contract that had been restructured after Notre Dame went 5-2 in his first season,
A non-football-playing alumnus of Notre Dame who went into coaching and eventually accumulated Super Bowl rings as assistants with the New York Giants and New England Patriots, Weis never quite figured out how to make the adjustment to the college game. Much like his mentors Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, Weis often made like the bull in a china shop.
“Charlie Weis burned bridges that hadn’t been built yet at Notre Dame,” a writer once noted.
Notre Dame was 5-2 in his first season in 2005 when then athletic director Kevin White recommended the school tear up Weis’ original five-year contract for one that extended through the 2015 season. White then moved on to Duke, leaving current athletic director Jack Swarbrick to fire Weis after his fifth season in 2009 with Notre Dame on the hook for about $18 million for a 35-27 overall record.
Kansas, which hired Weis for five years beginning in the 2012 season, owed him about $6 million after it fired him three games into the 2014 season with his record at 6-22. “We have not made the on-the-field progress we believe we should,” Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger said in a statement.
If my addition is correct, Weis received $24 million in settlements for an overall collegiate record of 41-49. Makes you wonder what they are teaching at Notre Dame and Kansas these days or question the intelligence of those in charge of the purse strings at both schools and elsewhere in big-time college football.
We offer as evidence Les Miles, who produced a national championship at Louisiana State in 2007 in addition to two SEC championships and seven 10-win seasons in 11 seasons in Baton Rouge.
Late last season, well-pocketed LSU benefactors were willing to buy out Miles for $15 million after the team followed a 7-0 start with lopsided November losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. Miles survived the coup d’état, however, when his Tigers beat Texas A&M in the season finale and Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl.
But after LSU got off to a 2-2 start this season, the grim reaper finally got to use his scythe. The big pockets came up with nearly $13 million and Miles was shown the door by athletic director Joe Alleva, who knew what was good for him. When the big money donors talk, college administrators tend to listen.
So it is at the University of Texas, where Charlie Strong, hired away from Louisville with a five-year contract that pays his $5.25 million annually, finds himself on the hot seat. Strong was 37-15 at Louisville in four seasons, including a 12-1 mark in 2013, but he’s only 13-16 in Austin after a 2-2 start in season three.
Strong, the defensive coordinator when Florida won two national titles under Urban Meyer, stands No. 3 in the latest ranking of coacheshotseat.com. Yep, there really is such a website.
No. 1 on the hit list is Clay Helton, 2-3 in his first full season at Southern California after being relieved of the interim status bestowed on him by former athletic director Pat Haden who he fired his original choice Steve Sarkisian who had a substance abuse problem.
No. 2 is Steve Addazio, whose 20-23 record in three-plus seasons at Boston Colleges includes 10 straight losses to ACC opponents. Addazio, by the way, once was the offensive coordinator at Florida for Meyer, who is comfortably set at Ohio State with his No. 125 ranking just ahead of San Diego State’s Rocky Long, Houston’s Tom Herman (who worked for Meyer at Ohio State and also worked at Texas as an assistant) and Alabama’s Nick Saban, who has five national titles under his belt.
Heading to Dallas to play Oklahoma in the annual Red River Shootout, Strong takes over the defensive play-calling duties this week following a 49-31 setback last Saturday at Oklahoma State where current coach Mike Gundy hardly talks with the school’s big athletic benefactor, T. Boone Pickens, who has the football stadium named after him. Gundy, who is making $3.75 million this season, is ranked No. 26.
Get the picture, folks? Auburn’s big spenders are supposedly disappointed with Gus Malzahn, who is No. 6, one spot ahead of his one-year-and-gone defensive coordinator, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, who underachieved at Florida as Meyer’s successor.
And the guy at No. 8? Why it’s Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, whose team’s 2-3 start includes the firing of his handpicked defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who was getting $1 million a year. Kelly, 57-26 in six-plus seasons, was the pick of Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame alumnus and Stanford law graduate who fired Weis and has twice re-upped Kelly, who is signed through 2021 at $4.5 million annually.
Weis’ last check from his alma mater was drawn at the end of last year.
Fortunately at Notre Dame, the collection plate remains pretty big.
(John Fineran has spent more than 40 years covering a variety of sports for newspapers in Michigan, Indiana, Florida and his native state of New Jersey. College football remains a favorite because of the people he got to meet. He once rode the elevator to the press level with rocker John Mellencamp, who gave the money for Indiana’s indoor football facility, and he once was among those Ohio State’s fiery Woody Hayes lipped off at a post-game press conference. He saw three coaches win national championships at Notre Dame – Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz – and Urban Meyer win two at Florida. But someone has to explain to him why Howard Schnellenberger, who established the national-championship tradition at the University of Miami, rebuilt the program at Louisville and built one from scratch at Florida Atlantic, is not in the College Football Hall of Fame.)