by Mike Coffey
Alright, it’s more like my dinner with Charlie and 2,000 others. But I got the most vivid reminder yet why Charlie Weis is such a good fit at Notre Dame, and far be it from me not to share it with those who weren’t able to dine with us. In deference to him, I waited more than “two or three hours”, so let it not be said I’m inconsiderate.
In a lot of ways, the 2006 version of the ND Club of Chicago’s Rockne Dinner was typical: the company was excellent, the drinks flowed freely, the service was great, the food was mediocre, and the overall experience was more than satisfactory for ND fans of all ages and shapes. But it was the differences that stood out for me last night … differences that really brought an end to the eight-year reign of Davieham.
First, the coach was there. That might sound odd considering how long the Rockne Dinner has been going and how much of a tradition an appearance by the coach has been. Bob Davie, for all his flaws, never missed, which was one of the few points in his favor accumulated in his five years at ND. But Tyrone Willingham didn’t see fit to continue that tradition, and I believe he made only one appearance at the dinner during his tenure. While appearances by people like Mike Brey and Muffet McGraw and Randy Waldrum were good, let’s face it, this crowd comes to hear the football poobah share his thoughts, and recent crowds had come away disappointed.
Charlie Weis, though, knows what side of the bread the butter is on. Though knee-deep in spring football, this was his second trip to the Sheraton in his short career. Not only that, he announced early in his speech he had decided, given the large number of alumni in the area and the size and tradition of the event, to make the Rockne Dinner his one alumni appearance every year. To say the group was thrilled would be an understatement.
Second, the people were there. Again, that might sound odd considering how long the Rockne Dinner has been going and how many alumni are in the Chicago area. But the 2,000+ in attendance last night was the largest crowd in Rockne Dinner history. My father, who remembers the early events in the Plumbers Hall featuring corned beef, cabbage, and buckets of beer, can attest to the increase in crowd size. That can only mean good things for the Chicago Club’s scholarship fund, for which the Rockne Dinner is the primary fundraiser.
Third, the people were quiet. Long-time attendees of the Rockne Dinner know the tradition, questionable as it may have been, was the only people who got undivided attention were the priest saying grace and the football coach giving the homily. Although it hasn’t been the norm lately, it was very out of vogue this year, with Aaron Taylor exhorting the crowd early to lend its ears in full to all the speakers. And lend they did.
Which may be due to the fourth change, the large numbers of women in attendance. Once again, I return to my dad’s recollections from the Plumbers Hall, which describe the Rockne Dinner as a mostly stag affair. Even after its moves to larger venues like the Hilton Towers and the Water Street Sheraton, it remained a guy thing. But the last few years has brought out more than the usual share of the fairer sex, and while some may complain about the shift in atmosphere as a result, I find it hasn’t detracted at all from the quality of the event and may, in fact, be improving it.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Kevin White’s State of the Union and Jim Flanigan’s Lou Holtz reminisces notwithstanding, Charlie was the man we all came to see. And in a 20-minute speech, he reinforced once again why he is more likely to succeed in this job than the two men who preceded him in the position.
He’s one of the gang.
No, that doesn’t mean he’s Caucasian. Bob Davie was Caucasian, and he was doomed to failure from the get-go. No, that doesn’t mean he has a respect for what Notre Dame stands for. Tyrone Willingham did that, and he was doomed too.
It means Notre Dame is, to Charlie, not just a job, but an adventure. And every coach, regardless of sport, who has succeeded at Notre Dame has understood that.
When you hear him talking about how “wrong guys”, as my mother would call them, don’t fit in at ND, you know he understands that. When you hear him talking about how he describes the Grotto and other campus landmarks and their personal meaning to him, you know he understands that. When you hear him talking about how happy he his that his charitable works have borne much more fruit since arriving in South Bend, you know he understands that.
Charlie spoke for about 20 minutes last night, and not one X or one O was dispensed, disected or otherwise discussed. No updates from practice. No depth chart analysis. No one had a knee or an elbow or was a “special player”. And we weren’t asked to clap once.
No, this was Charlie and the Notre Dame Experience. Charlie waxing philosophic about what Notre Dame means to him. Charlie showing the folks at the tables he lives and dies with Notre Dame just as we do 24 hours a day, with that bleeding not stopping when the whistle blows and the crowd hits the Toll Road.
In other words, Charlie saying he’s just like us. And nothing’s better than the knowledge that one of us is at the helm in South Bend.
Does that mean success is guaranteed? Of course not. Gerry Faust loved Notre Dame with every ounce of his heart and soul, and we know how that ended up. But Charlie also brings moxie and football experience to the table, which puts him more in the Parseghian/Holtz mold.
Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham may know a lot about football. But they didn’t know a lot about the Notre Dame Experience, and that as much as anything killed their coaching careers in Rock’s House. They chose to bemoan ND’s high standards at Rockne’s grave and work on their handicap when they should have been working on halfbacks. They didn’t make themselves one of the gang, so when the time came to march up to the gates of Hell and knock, no one was with them.
Charlie’s got an army ready to kick the doors in. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.