On Jan. 2 a Notre Dame tradition will be born again. After a string of underachieving teams and coaching changes that left a national base of rabid fans little to rah-rah about, the Irish will return to the college football limelight. Southern Cal and Texas may be meeting in the Rose Bowl for the national championship, but Notre Dame has a lucrative date against Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, one of this year's elite Bowl Championship Series games.
A few days later, a lesser-known Notre Dame tradition will play out, perhaps over coffee and bagels: that of coaches being blitzed with offers. Charlie Weis -- the innovative, weight-challenged rookie who rose to big-program savior by an unlikely route -- and his agent, Bob LaMonte, will sit down to discuss whether Weis wants to spin his newfound celebrity into a pot of money and, if so, how large a pot.
The Weis era at Notre Dame already has rung up its first major ka-ching. On Oct. 29, as rumors swirled that the coach was being wooed by National Football League teams, the university inked Weis to a deal that runs until 2015 and hikes his pay to above $2 million a year.
Next come decisions about book deals, endorsements, and speaking engagements, for which Weis's fee just went up from $20,000 last spring to $50,000 or more. A book contract could be worth 10 times that, depending on what Weis has on his mind. Random House Inc. editor Mark Tavani was one of the first to suggest a Weis book to LaMonte, halfway through Weis's first season. "If he could speak to the concerns of loyal Notre Dame fans and why they should believe in him, that could be very interesting," says Tavani.
In all, LaMonte estimates that as many as 50 proposals are waiting for the coach -- not bad for a guy who, though he owns three Super Bowl rings, had been a virtual unknown outside football circles until this fall. "Charlie certainly doesn't own the Golden Dome. But he has the keys for 11 years," says his agent, referring to the gold-topped building that is among the most recognized Notre Dame landmarks.
Weis, of course, wouldn't be the first coach to leverage his position at Notre Dame. More than 80 years ago a legend named Knute Rockne broke new ground by lending his name to a string of football schools and carrying the ball for Studebaker. Ever since, Fighting Irish coaches have been sought-after pitchmen and speakers, sometimes to the annoyance of school officials who wish they'd stick to their Xs and Os.
MINISTER OF OFFENSE
That won't be a concern at Notre Dame for the next decade, predicts the 49-year-old Weis. "I want to be very sure I don't spread myself too thin.... I think I can be good at some of these things, but I'm not going to whore myself out," he says with typical bluntness. Still, Weis has a dandy story to tell in after-dinner speeches. When he was in the Class of 1978 at Notre Dame, he didn't play football -- a rarity among today's big-time coaches. He majored in speech and drama and dreamed of being a sportscaster. Then he started job-hunting. "The money was so low. The best offer I had was $6,000," he says.
Instead, Weis signed on as a high school English teacher and assistant football coach. After some years of dues-paying, he joined the New York Giants as a glorified gofer under then-coach Bill Parcells. Fifteen years later, Weis had helped coach three winning Super Bowl teams and, as Minister of Offense for the world champ New England Patriots, was one of the hottest candidates for a head coaching job in the NFL.
His moment might have come sooner if he hadn't also been the widest guy on the sidelines each week. "The one thing I've felt a semi-failure about is that I've never been able to control my weight," says Weis, who carried as many as 350 pounds for much of his career. In 2002, concerned that he would die and leave his wife, Maura, and their two children without a breadwinner, he opted for gastric bypass surgery. Complications after the operation almost killed him. Weis was in a coma for two weeks and has since filed a lawsuit against his doctors.
The coach doesn't shy away from talking about his obesity. "I've probably lost a thousand pounds in my life, no kidding. The problem is I've gained more than a thousand," he says. He also speaks frankly about his daughter, Hannah, 10, who's affected by a condition similar to autism. The Weises' foundation, Hannah & Friends, aims to establish a community for Hannah and others with disabilities. This year alone, Weis has donated $100,000 in speaking fees to the foundation, in part because under his old Notre Dame contract, outside income offset his pay.
His new deal allows him to keep whatever he makes -- though he says he'll continue to channel extra income to the foundation. The deal seems in tune with the ethos of the university, where football and All-American commerce have been playing in the backfield almost as long as there has been pigskin in South Bend. Even in 2004, when the Irish limped to a 6-6 record and coach Tyrone Willingham was dismissed, the gridiron generated $41.7 million in revenues, more than 75% of the money spun by the Irish athletic program. Profits of nearly $27 million raked in by football bought a lot of knee pads for volleyball players and sabers for fencers. And those figures will seem paltry when Weis's first season is over. By qualifying for the BCS, Notre Dame receives an extra $14.8 million that will flow into academics.
The business of Irish football is thriving on other fronts, too. This year the streak of sellouts at 80,795-seat Notre Dame Stadium, the hallowed oval a long block from Weis's office, hit 185. Then there are TV and merchandising deals, the richest in college football. NBC (GE ) pays $9 million a year for home games, which this season pulled in the highest ratings since 1995. NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer calls it a deal he'd like to extend "as far as the eye can see."
Shoe and apparel giant adidas-Salomon is no less eager. Last month it announced a 10-year, $60 million deal extension to sell Notre Dame jerseys and shorts. The dollars dwarf other college licensing deals, including Auburn's recent five-year, $10.6 million pact with sports clothing maker Under Armour Inc. (UARM ). "When you talk to retailers selling huge amounts of apparel, they tell you the No. 1 school by far is Notre Dame," says John Shanley, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group in New York.
It's all good for Charlie Weis, the man who brought the Irish back from the half-dead. Fortified by his new contract, he's building an eight-bedroom house in South Bend with an indoor horse-riding pavilion (for Maura), a playground and pool (for Hannah), and a regulation baseball diamond (for Charlie Jr., 12). What's in the house for him? That's easy: "Contentment."
By Mark Hyman