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Notre Dame “Senior Years”: Weis

Today is the second part of our countdown from 11 to 1 of the best fourth seasons by a Notre Dame head coach, beginning with Knute Rockne’s tenure that started in 1918. Not included are Hunk Anderson (1931-33) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), who were axed after their third seasons.

Charlie Weis' fourth season at Notre Dame produced a bowl win, but also an unlikelihood that he would stay beyond five seasons.

No. 10: Charlie Weis (2008)
Record: 7-6
Final AP Ranking: None
On paper, Charlie Weis’ fourth season looked good because his Notre Dame team won four more games than a year earlier. Unfortunately, the previous year might have been the worst team in school history with a 3-9 finish.

After such a train wreck in year 3, it is virtually impossible for a head coach to regain credibility in a fan base, if not a team and athletic administration.

However, unlike with predecessor Ty Willingham, who was ousted after his third season, Weis had built up coaching equity two ways.

One, Weis had back-to-back BCS bids in 2005 and 2006. Two, his incoming recruiting class in 2008 — led by five-star prospects Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Dayne Crist — was rated behind only Alabama’s among most recruiting services. The 2006 and 2007 hauls also were in the top 10, so Weis had earned the benefit of the doubt.

There was no place to go but up in Weis’ “senior year” in 2008, and that did occur.

However, the uninspiring 7-6 record also came against the 89th-ranked schedule in the country — the lowest ever by a Notre Dame team since the NCAA first began its strength of schedule data in 1977. It was one thing for Lou Holtz to finish 5-6 in his first year against the No. 3-ranked schedule while losing five of the games by 14 points. It’s different when a coach is in his fourth season and loses six games in the regular season while playing the No. 89 schedule.

Weis needed at least an 8-4-type regular season in 2008 to regain some credibility in the program’s direction.

A 5-2 start put him on path toward that end, especially with the Fighting Irish having a supposedly “easy” November ahead of it that included Navy plus the Big East trio of Pitt, Boston College and Syracuse.

Alas, Notre Dame squandered a 17-3 halftime lead against Pitt to lose a four-overtime 36-33 decision at home. A week later, sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen tossed four interceptions in a 17-0 loss at Boston College before ending the skid with a 27-21 win versus Navy.

Sporting a 6-4 record, all Notre Dame had to do to receive a Gator Bowl bid was defeat a 2-8 Syracuse team whose head coach, Greg Robinson, had just been fired, effective after the season.

The 24-23 loss at home to Syracuse on Senior Day was basically the “this isn’t going to work” epiphany. There are some losses that are pretty much impossible to come back from for a coach, and this was one of them, especially with the way the Irish snatched defeat from the jaws of victory while holding a 23-10 lead.

The 38-3 loss at USC in the season finale — a game where the Irish didn’t even record a first down until the final play of the third quarter — left Weis’ job status in limbo for a few days. First-year athletics director Jack Swarbrick opted to keep Weis for the fifth year.

Notre Dame did crush Hawaii (49-21) in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, ending an NCAA-record nine-game losing streak in bowls that had extended back to 1994.

Weis’ fifth season in 2009 ended with a 6-6 record and another poor November with four consecutive losses. In his final 40 games at Notre Dame, Weis was 17-23 — the same record Joe Kuharich (1959-62) had during his four-year tenure.

Kuharich ranked No. 11 on this list and Weis No. 10. Both were Notre Dame graduates and both came from the NFL. Kuharich stepped down a few months later, whereas Weis stayed one more season.

Both had dynamic California natives at quarterback — Daryle Lamonica for Kuharich and Clausen for Weis.

No two coaches had rougher senior campaigns when they needed a breakthrough than Kuharich and Weis.

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