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A fight in Irish

Weis has restored pride and toughness at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The Swagger is back. So is the sense of confidence that, in its heyday, critics suggested bordered on arrogance. You can feel it walking around a town that is now overflowing with hype and hysteria as the spotlight of college football is again focused on the Golden Dome in a positive manner.

You can sense it in the e-mails flowing into websites such as NDNATION.com. You can see it in the poll conducted earlier this week by the South Bend Tribune. Its question of the day: Will Notre Dame's football team upset USC?

The majority of respondents predicted that is exactly what will happen tomorrow afternoon when the Irish meet the No. 1-ranked Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium in what is being called the biggest football event on campus since the epic ''Game of the Century" between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Notre Dame in 1993.

That game, won by the Irish, 31-24, was more of a single-day event because Notre Dame, under Lou Holtz, had been one of the dominant teams in college football.

Tomorrow's event is filled with as much hope as hype. The Irish have struggled in recent years -- not only dropping out of the Top 10, but out of the Top 25 -- and questions have been raised about the direction in which the football program was heading. And that is the reason this is more than a game, a true coming-out party for first-year coach Charlie Weis.

Oh, it's still Notre Dame and the mystique about shaking down the thunder, but make no mistake: It's about Weis, the former Patriots offensive coordinator, the former Notre Dame student, the quintessential Jersey guy.

Weis has restored the pride in the Irish (4-1, the loss in overtime to Michigan State), who were trying to absorb seasons of 6-6 (2004) and 5-7 (2003), which prompted the firing of Tyrone Willingham three years into a five-year contract, something that doesn't usually happen at Notre Dame, where patience is preached as much as pride.

Man with an attitude
The irony is what is making Weis so popular now -- his attitude, his swagger -- almost prevented him from getting the job.

''Early on, he came across as a wise guy, as a Jersey guy," said one source familiar with the negotiations that brought Weis from the Patriots to his alma mater Dec. 12. ''That was too much for some people here."

So much so that after the first interview, Notre Dame officials, through a third party, told Weis he needed to tone down his act in the second interview. Weis, always quick at making adjustments, came across with a softer tone and the issue was settled.

Weis knew he was dealing from a position of strength since the Irish had failed to lure Urban Meyer from Utah and were not overwhelmed by former Irish quarterback Tom Clements, who had emerged as a contender with the support of former Notre Dame star Joe Montana.

Since Weis's arrival, a steady flow of positive vibes has built each week as the Irish have marched from the unranked to No. 9 in the Associated Press and USA Today polls. That the climb has come largely on victories at Pittsburgh (preseason rank No. 23) and at Michigan (preseason rank No. 4), which have a combined record of 5-7, doesn't matter. It is the power of Notre Dame, a power that Weis has used very well.

Weis knew the challenge he faced was building confidence as much as game plans. ''My biggest job is getting the team to believe they have a chance to win the game," said Weis earlier this week. ''That's easier said than done."

Weis has used psychological ploys to convince the Irish they can play with a team that has won the last two national championships, 26 games in succession, and has routed the Irish the last three years. ''I started off embarrassing them," said Weis, who has had two weeks to prepare for the 5-0 Trojans. ''We know the magic 31 [the margin of USC victories in all three losses]. We all know that number. So I told them, 'You're already down 31, let's see if we can close that a bit.' Then you build up their confidence."

The confidence the Irish have in themselves is building. ''One of the things [Weis] does best is to be unpredictable," said Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, who has turned into a winner in just five games under Weis. ''I think any time you are able to have a percentage of plays called on certain downs, or in certain situations, that becomes tough to predict to play defense against. That is one of the first things that Coach does extremely well."

All of it has worked, for the most part. Even the loss to Michigan State -- 44-41 -- was more competitive than many of the losses the Irish endured under Willingham.

''I know what I'm doing and if you listen to me, it will work out," Weis has been saying since the day he arrived on campus. Just ask Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner under the offensive guidance of Weis.

Irish aura
Notre Dame is different from many places in college football because the aura of the Golden Dome takes on mystical, possibly fictitious, proportions.

Longtime Notre Dame observers tell of how former coach Gerry Faust, who worshiped Irish football, was running through practice one day when the heavens opened up with rain. Faust, knowing his team needed practice time under decent conditions, looked to the sky and said, ''God, please not now." And just like that, the story goes, the rain stopped.

Weis is in only his sixth game and you already hear the whispers of Rockne, Parseghian, and Holtz rather than Faust, Davie, and Willingham, who failed to meet the expectations of an Irish administration that demands excellence on the field as well as in the classroom on a yearly basis. The Irish have bought what Weis is selling from the start.

''Coach Weis has brought a confidence to this team that's just kind of bled through the team," said junior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija. ''It's kind of something we've been trying to feed off. It's just a mentality that a football team has to have in order to be successful. He's brought a lot of things, but I think the mentality he's brought has just been probably the key part. We're just trying to go out with the confidence each weekend that we can get a victory."

And with fan support off the charts, Notre Dame Stadium will be rocking. ESPN has brought in ''College GameDay" and ''Cold Pizza" to chronicle the week, and the pep rally has been moved from the gymnasium to Notre Dame Stadium tonight, with estimates of 30,000 strong.

''We might have more people at the pep rally than some colleges have at their stadiums for games," said Notre Dame linebacker Brandon Hoyte.

The amazing part is the Irish are basically the same team that could barely hit the .500 mark a year ago. ''Like we always said, we had the talent here, even when we went 5-7, 6-6," said tight end Anthony Fasano. ''We had talent. It's just our attitude and mentality wasn't what it needed to be."

Fasano gives most of the credit to Weis. ''We had confidence last year," he said. ''But it wasn't really where it's at right now. [Weis] prepares us mentally so well that we're at a big advantage."

And Weis does it with his own sense of self-confidence. How many first-year coaches would have assistants that were former college head coaches? Defensive backs coach Bill Lewis (Georgia Tech), defensive coordinator Rick Minter (Cincinnati), and quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas (Allegheny, Holy Cross) all have called the shots in their careers, and former Mississippi coach David Cutcliffe was on the staff before a health issue sidelined him.

Weis is treating tomorrow's game as a midterm exam. ''It's a good opportunity to judge where we are right now," he said.

''We're going to have to play very well."

If Notre Dame wins, the bandwagon will extend from South Bend to Scituate. But even if the Irish lose, there is a feeling that the wins will continue to roll in under Charlie Weis.

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