At the heart of the matter, sister inspires Charlie Weis Jr.'s coaching climb
It was a 17-hour drive, not counting stops — a transportation alternative this summer prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but a destination that very definitively tells the story of who Charlie Weis Jr. has become.
When the ascending 27-year-old coaching prodigy arrived in the town he still calls home, South Bend, from Tampa, health protocols dictated that he couldn’t give his 25-year-old sister, Hannah, a hug.
And they had to communicate through a screen door at her residence at Hannah & Friends Neighborhood, a facility that provides housing and programming for adults and children with special needs.
On Saturday, he’ll be back in the area, walking into Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since November of 2009, days before his father, Charlie Weis Sr., was told by the ND administration that his five-year run as the school’s head football coach was over.
And Charlie Jr. will do so as the University of South Florida’s offensive coordinator, going up against his father’s successor, 11th-year ND coach Brian Kelly, and his seventh-ranked Irish (2:30 p.m. EDT; USA Network).
It’s the younger Weis’ almost vertical climb in the coaching business, his father’s rep and the images of him as a teenager wearing a headset and flashing signals from the sideline, to the disapproval at the time of many in the Irish fan base, that frame his return.
It was Hannah, though, who helped inspire it.
Over and over again.
“Above all, Hannah just makes me want to be a better person,” Charlie Jr. said Tuesday in a phone interview of his only sibling, who was diagnosed with global developmental delays as a toddler. “And she makes me want to be extremely grateful for the life that I have and to be able to do all the things that I can do.
“She can only speak so many words. She can only do so many things. But despite all that, whenever I see her, she’s got a smile on her face. She’s laughing. She’s having fun. She always says she loves you.
“And man, if you can be a happy person and a person who’s extremely loving with all the adversity and all the things that she’s been through, it makes me want to seize every moment of my life that I can.”
Charlie Weis Jr. seized coaching.
Against the advice of his father. Against the forbidding of his mom, Maura, whom he nevertheless calls his best friend. And despite the boos and the insults, cyber and direct, that pocked Charlie Sr.’s final three years at ND after consecutive BCS Bowl appearances in 2005-06.
The ugliness seemed to crest at Charlie Jr.’s most recent trip to Notre Dame Stadium, a 33-30 double-overtime loss to UConn on Senior Day 2009 engineered by Huskies starting quarterback Zach Frazer, a player Charlie Sr. had run off a couple of years prior.
“It was obviously a hard night, losing to UConn, not fun,” Charlie Jr. said. “You kind of know how things go and where things were heading, kind of preparing yourself for all of that.
“So I just honestly remember after the game going home and being with my dad. And I thought he did a good job, in a very difficult time for him, of teaching me to keep my head up and to look forward and not worry about things.
“I learned a lot that day. But of all the things I learned, that’s what I remember most.”
The elder Weis landed an offensive coordinator gig with the Kansas City Chiefs shortly thereafter, and the move had an unintended profound effect on the trajectory of Charlie Jr.’s professional and personal life.
As much as he loved Saint Joseph High School, where he played baseball, he felt like he could make a fresh start at St. Pius X High in Kansas City, Mo. He shed 60 pounds in the offseason and went out for football for the first time, making the team as a wide receiver.
“I didn’t know at the time how much that it would help my coaching someday,” he said. “Playing the receiver position, getting a feel for it and seeing it through that lens I think was really important. As a coordinator, you have to develop the pass game and see a lot of that stuff.
“So having at least some familiarity with playing the position definitely helps. And I definitely got some good coaching there, good experiences. And then just bonding with the players and being part of a team as a player was another important thing to experience.”
Away from football, his school locker was located next to the woman who Charlie Jr., would eventually marry, Jennifer, a former figure skater who knew almost nothing about football at the time.
“She didn’t know who I was or who my dad was, and that was actually a good thing,” he said. “I’d talk to her and see her every day. By the end of the year we were dating. We stayed together through college and everything.
“God works in mysterious ways. You’d think my dad getting fired was the worst thing in the world. You love South Bend. You love St. Joe High School and wanted to graduate from there. Well I ended up leaving there, moving to Kansas City for my senior year, and so the high school I picked was the one where my (future) wife was.
“Oh, and now she pays attention to football, but I think it’s mainly because of (Chiefs QB) Patrick Mahomes.”
Charlie Jr. perhaps first showed signs of coaching chops — and definitely audacity — in the moments after Charlie Sr.’s first game as ND’s head coach. Standing on the sideline after Notre Dame’s shocking 42-21 pummeling of heavily favored and 23rd-ranked Pitt on the road in the 2005 season opener, 12-year-old Charlie Jr. leaned into his dad’s question about what he thought about the game and uttered, “Nice game. Sloppy second half, though, huh?”
Father and son still remember that exchange like it was yesterday. And they both too vividly recall moving into former Irish head coach Bob Davie’s house before building their own.
With a full-sized functional baseball field in the backyard.
“As much as I loved playing baseball, coaching football was always my true passion,” Charlie Jr. said. “Those relationships that my dad has with guys like Kyle Rudolph, Jimmy Clausen, Kyle McCarthy and Golden Tate — still today — to me made it so cool and made it something that I wanted to do and that I wanted to have.
“And to be a positive influence on young people’s lives and help them grow and help them be the best versions of themselves, not just as players, but as people.”
It was his own connection to those players that kept Charlie Jr. following Notre Dame football under Kelly, at least initially.
“I feel like he’s done a tremendous job at Notre Dame throughout the years,” Charlie Jr. said of Kelly.
The two, though, have never crossed paths. Nor has Charlie Jr. and ND’s 28-year-old offensive coordinator, Tommy Rees.
That is not since Rees was a 17-year-old high school senior quarterback that Charlie Sr. was recruiting. Oregon showed an interest in both Charlie Jr. and Rees this offseason. Rees interviewed for the offensive coordinator job there that ultimately went to Joe Moorhead.
Charlie Jr. had a chance to do the same, but stuck with the job he landed two days before Christmas as Jeff Scott’s offensive coordinator at USF.
Charlie Jr.’s previous two seasons were spent coordinating and revving up the offense at Florida Atlantic for Lane Kiffin. His coaching journey also includes stops with Florida and Kansas — with his dad — at Alabama under Nick Saban, and with pro teams Atlanta and New England.
Not always were the responsibilities glamorous or well-defined, but Charlie Jr. always found a way to make the most of those.
Driving from Tampa to South Bend and back this summer gave him plenty of time to dream, especially about where all this could be headed.
Instead, he thought about his sister’s smile and enjoying a promising present.
“I’m just extremely grateful to be where I’m at, at this point in time in my career,” he said. “Every day I’m thankful that I’m the OC at South Florida and get to work with a bunch of really good people and coach a bunch of good players here.
“I haven’t really put too much thought into the future. I really just truly am excited to be at USF and to have the moments that I think are possible here. And every day I learn something. That’s how I dream.”
No. 7 NOTRE DAME (1-0) vs. SOUTH FLORIDA (1-0)
Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
TV: USA Network
Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 25