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March 14, 2011

Cohen: The Unexpected Weis

Not sure what we were expecting, but the odds were on gruff, irascible, unflinching, unsmiling, straight-to-the-point-and-we're-done-with-this nuisance. Instead, when new Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis met with the press for the first time wearing a Gator shirt on Monday afternoon, we got a bit of Monty Python - you know, "and now for something completely different."

Weis does not carry the best prior reputation when it comes to dealing with the media and fans. But the Charlie Weis we got Monday was jovial (in the realm of a football coach), good-natured, self-deprecating and engaging. He surprised most folks by coming across like everyone's favorite uncle at the Thanksgiving table - just keep an eye on your drumstick.

And most of all, he presented himself as a pure Jersey guy. Weis is New Jersey through and through - blunt, tough and funny, but beware the sharp Jersey needle. When asked about quarterback John Brantley, who he knew from the recruiting trail back when Weis was at Notre Dame, he couldn't help deliver a zinger, in his words, a "jersey swipe."

"You came to run the spread - that made a lot of sense," he said, punctuating the comment with a laugh, "that was a great decision on your part."

He was asked if he shows off any of his Super Bowl rings on the recruiting trail. He said he used to, imploring prospects to look at his hand instead of his face - "I'd have a better chance that way," he said with a chuckle. But after getting chided by his peers for wearing his bling, he now carriers one around in his pocket, just in case - "the biggest one, from Super Bowl 39 (XXXIX, I guess) in Jacksonville."

He calls New England superstar quarterback Tom Brady, "Tommy," which he said Brady prefers his friends call him. "There's a little insight for you," he mused. He drops lines about venerable New England coach Bill Belichick and then says how much respect he's always had for Florida football after losing countless recruiting battles to Urban Meyer.

"There were a lot," he said, deadpan, waiting to deliver the punch line. "And you know what, he won two national championships and I got fired - I think maybe I came to the right place."

He laughed again and we laughed with him.

There was no rancor in his tone, even though the experience at Notre Dame left him and his family emotionally scarred. But lest you think this was merely a Seinfeld-type standup performance, Weis grew serious as well. He talked football for sure, but there is no hint of a smile when he talks about his family situation.

In explaining the thought process behind leaving a successful gig as offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL to return to the college game as second-in-command, Weis relayed that it was a family decision, a quality of life choice.

Weis has two children - Charlie, Jr., who will be a freshman at Florida in the fall, and a teenage daughter named Hannah. Hannah is a special needs child, and as the father of a soon-to-be-6-year-old son with autism, I know with acute sadness what Weis and his family experiences on a daily basis.

As last football season was winding down, Weis saw how his job was dividing the fabric of his family. Certainly being a high-profile football coach means plenty of family concessions, but there is more to the story when you have a child like Hannah. Special needs children often have difficulty when taken out of familiar surroundings, and Weis said the move from South Bend to Kansas City was extremely unsettling for Hannah. Believe me, I've walked many miles in those shoes.

So with Charlie Jr., about to head off to college and his wife and daughter back in South Bend while he toiled away in Kansas City, Weis decided this was no way to live. So the opportunity to bring the family together in one place, with Charlie Jr., attending UF while Big Charlie (sorry about that!) coaches here and his wife and daughter eventually get settled in Gainesville (actually Ocala - Weis said his wife loves horses and he's buying a house there - "I've got serious brownie points right there," he said), was too much for Weis to bypass.

So the decision to leave the NFL to become a college offensive coordinator, which on the surface didn't make sense to many, was explained in very matter-of-fact fashion. Weis didn't dwell on his personal situation - this was not meant to be a solemn treatise on the plight of special needs children and their families.

Instead, it was back to football. He was very frank in his new role - "I didn't come here to take (Muschamp's) job, I came here to run the offense" -when asked about working under a neophyte head coach.

Without condescending, he explained a little of the terminology that appeared on Florida's released "depth chart," with positions of "F-21," "F-12," and "F-11" listed between the wide receivers and running backs.

It denotes the multiples packages within the offense (the first number indicates how many running backs are on the field and the second number represents tight ends) and who will be the "starter" on the field in those formations. He even sprung a pop quiz on the media person who asked for an explanation of the terminology.

"How many receivers are on the field in 'F-22?'" Weis queried. The writer correctly answered "one" and Weis was duly impressed. The scribe then asked Weis for a job, and Weis declined, accompanied by a hearty laugh.

Perhaps in the cauldron of the fall, when the pressure of the season is on his shoulders, we will see a different side of Charlie Weis. Maybe if the offense is struggling, and he is getting some heat from fans or media, the Weis who seemingly did not endear himself to many along the coaching path may emerge.

But for now, we have a comfortable, confident, cocksure Weis. He shrugs off the high-profile disappointment at Notre Dame by poking fun at himself. He knows who he is, where he came from and also what he looks like. He carries himself with a swagger of Jersey flair and has the toughness - and success - to back up the bravado.

We likely won't hear much from Weis during his UF tenure. There were no announced plans for access to any of the coaches besides Will Muschamp until the Orange and Blue Game. One of Muschamp's mentors, Nick Saban, keeps his assistants off-limits to the media.

If that's the case, it will be our loss.

Weis may be a lot of things to a lot of different people, but he is never dull. Yet eschewing the limelight, which some feel might cause a problem down the road, actually suits Weis at this point.

"First of all this is Coach Muschamp's offense, not Charlie Weis' offense - this is the University of Florida, this is not Charlie Weis' offense, and you know, we work as a unit and I follow (Muschamp's) lead," he said. "I appreciate the confidence they have shown in me by bringing me in.

"I'm not really worrying about (the spotlight). I'm just trying to get us back to winning on a regular basis. I think we all want the same thing."

After 25 entertaining, enlightening minutes, Weis was done, shuffling his large frame away from the podium. It was hardly what we expected - and that was a good thing, for us and for Florida football.


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