The family man

When Florida hired Will Muschamp as its new head coach, who he would name offensive coordinator quickly became one of the biggest storylines in the sports world.

But as days stretched into weeks, the story slowly slipped from the public interest.

The rest of the nation moved on, assuming Florida had fired blanks at its top targets, while Gators fans awaited the announcement in agony.

Finally, as if the price paid in patience had pacified the football gods, fans were rewarded with a stunning and spectacular surprise.

Florida had found its man.

And he was the perfect fit.

* * * * *

It was January 1995.

Charlie Weis, the New England Patriots’ tight end coach, had just finished his fourth season coaching in the NFL.

Weis’ career had taken off after tight end Ben Coates had just put together the best season of his life and earned his first Pro Bowl appearance after a 96-catch, 1,174-yard season.

He would soon be promoted by the Patriots to running backs coach after the success he had coaching tight ends the previous year.

He was the proud father of a 21-month-old son, Charlie Weis, Jr.

Maura, his wife, was almost six months pregnant with their second child.

It was February, and Maura went in for a routine ultrasound.

Only, the ultrasound was anything but routine.

Doctors diagnosed the baby with polycystic kidney disease and said there was a good chance the baby would die shortly after birth.

A few months later, Weis’ second child, Hannah, was born.

As expected there were complications. Doctors were forced to perform surgery on Hannah’s kidneys.

The surgeries were successful, and Hannah seemed safe.

But two years later, developmental problems began to appear.

Over the next ten years, Hannah underwent dozens of diagnostics before a neurologist finally diagnosed her with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, a disorder that affects the parts of the brain that control comprehension and speech.

* * * * *

After being fired from his head coaching job at Notre Dame, Weis decided to go back to the NFL, taking a job with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010 as offensive coordinator.

In his first year with the Chiefs, Weis helped turn around a horrible offense and make it one of the best in the league, securing a playoff berth in the process.

But before the NFL regular season was finished, the University of Florida announced it had hired Weis as its next offensive coordinator.

On Monday, Weis met with the media and explained how his tumultuous path over the past year led him to Gainesville.

“First of all, it was a fairly easy decision, but almost all of it was directly related to family issues,” Weis said. “My wife and I decided during this football season that we had to bring Hannah back to South Bend sometime late spring to get her back into her normal comfort zone. She had a really rough year.”

Weis realized he would have to make some changes for the sake of Hannah and the rest of his family. Things just weren’t working out in Kansas City.

“Sometimes when you move, you forget about things that are really important in life,” he said. “My daughter and my wife were going to be most of the time in South Bend, my son was going to graduate and go somewhere else, and I was going to be in Kansas City. We really didn’t think that that made a lot of sense.”

Opportunity knocked at the right time for the Weis family. When it did, they didn’t hesitate to jump at it.

“So when Will called and I thought about how I could best take care of my family … the fact that I could take care of my wife, and my daughter, and my son, and kind of mesh everything together, really, it’s a simple answer.”

* * * * *

Family has become a permanent fixture in Florida football over the past few years.

Former head coach Urban Meyer cultivated a tight-knit family atmosphere on and off the field. Players were like brothers to each other, and the coaches and their families were like fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters to them.

Year after year, Meyer’s players talked about how close they felt to each other and their coaches.

Ultimately, it was Meyer’s family that led him to walk away from the game. Like Weis, Meyer realized there are more important things in life.

And on Monday, Weis humorously bridged the gap between the Meyer era and the Muschamp era.

“I’ve admired Urban in this program from afar for getting beat on the recruiting trails a whole bunch of times,” Weis said. “Seriously, when you get beat on the recruiting trails a whole bunch of times, which I did, and he ends up winning two national championships and I get fired, I think I made the right choice (coming here).

“Pretty simple.”

* * * * *

Through his own experiences as a father, Weis has become a father figure on the field for his players.

He’s helped them grow and develop, learning over time how to perform not only on the field, but off it.

With such a young, impressionable group of college athletes, that’s something Florida has emphasized on its coaching staff.

It’s something Weis hopes to continue with the Gators.

“As any parent would know, probably the number one thing that happens when your kid goes to college is they grow up,” he said. “Because they have to make the decisions on their own for the first time in their life. They’re not living under your roof anymore.”

And because of the growing attention that young high school athletes are getting in the modern era of mass media, the transitions to college for freshmen have sometimes been more difficult.

Florida’s struggles last season with egos among some of the younger players were well documented. At times, it appeared there was a huge rift between freshmen and upperclassmen.

“They’re 18 years old,” Weis said. “They’ve gone where they were the big man on campus walking around high school sticking out their chest and everyone said you’re the star. Now all the sudden you’re fifth team.”

That’s a hard adjustment for many to make, but it’s one he has seen happen over and over again.

“By the time they matriculate through college, you start to see the sophomore year, the junior year, you start to see the changes,” he said. “They get it. They come in thinking they’re men, but they’re still big kids when you first get ‘em.”

Watching that maturation and getting to be a part of it is one of the things that drew Weis back to the college game.

His experiences and growth with his own family make him a perfect fit for the Florida family.

“Watching them evolve and turn into the fine young men that most of them turn into is really one of the most rewarding experiences you have as a college coach.”

* * * * *

Perhaps the reason the pairing of Muschamp and Weis in Gainesville seems so odd is the paths the two have taken to get to Florida.

Muschamp is a 39-year-old, up-and-coming coach in the college ranks. He’s been coaching for 16 years, having spent 10 of the past 11 years coaching in the SEC and at Texas mostly as a defensive coordinator.

Meanwhile, Weis is a grizzled 55-year-old veteran. He’s been coaching for the past 32 years and has coached in the NFL for years, as well as being the head coach at Notre Dame.

Despite the gap in age and experience, Weis is comfortable working under Muschamp.

“As far as the transition goes, this has been a very smooth transition,” he said. “I really didn’t know coach Muschamp other than through conversations with Mack (Brown), who I know very well and am a big fan of … I think that we mesh very well together. He’s the boss and wanted a guy to turn the offense over to, so I was a very good complement to what he was looking for.”

More than anything, Weis understands what it takes to be successful.

Like a family, it takes teamwork and an understanding from everyone of exactly what’s needed and how best to accomplish it. It takes experience.

That’s something Weis hopes he can bring to the table for the Gators.

“When you go through your first head coaching job – for me my first head coaching job was Notre Dame – where everything you say and everything you do is national news,” Weis said. “When you go through for the first go-round, there’s a number of things you sit there and do and say ‘why did I do that?’ I think the fact that he’ll have somebody like me who’s gone through that experience to kind of lean on, it’s a very comfortable situation.”

Not only will Weis be able to help tutor his players, he can also help Muschamp come along as a head coach. He’ll get to watch Muschamp’s maturation and offer guidance when needed.

The two know there will be things they don’t agree on. There will be times they butt heads.

That’s part of what Muschamp was looking for when he hired Weis. He said Monday he didn’t want to hire a bunch of “yes men.” He wanted guys who aren’t afraid to voice their opinions if they think something can be done better.

Weis understands that.

And because he’s a family man, he understands how to do it the right way.

“I think the good thing is knowing how to disagree with the head coach,” he said. “I think there’s a protocol, there’s a way of handling it. You never do it in front of the other coaches. I think that there’s a proper way of doing it. Everyone needs to know what your role is.

“Coach Muschamp is the head coach. There might be times, through personal experiences that I’ve had, where I’ll wait till after the meeting’s over and say ‘you might want to rethink this one.’ I have no problem saying it, but I think you have to make sure you have a very strong conviction. It’s not what you say, it’s when you say it.”

With his comments on Monday, Weis made it crystal clear that everyone knows who the head of the family is.

“This is Will Muschamp’s team,” he said. “This isn’t Charlie Weis’ offense. This is the University of Florida. This is not Charlie Weis’ offense. We work as a unit. I follow his lead.”

As the Florida family gets set to start spring football practice, the goal is clear.

“All we’re trying to do is get us back to winning on a regular basis,” Weis said. “I think we all want the same thing.”

Some of the information in this story comes from the Hannah & Friends charity, founded by Charlie Weis and his wife Maura. You can find more information at the Hannah & Friends website.