Charlie Weis walked through the group of players stretching on the practice field at Scottsdale Community College, searching for one to needle.
Left tackle Ryan Harris was a big — and easy — target.
"You look like a dancing bear," Weis told Harris.
Notre Dame's rookie coach was looking for laughs, and he got them. A loose football team is usually a good one, and so far on this sunny day in the desert the Irish were enjoying their preparations for the Fiesta Bowl.
It wouldn't last long. Stretching was over, and kickoff drills were beginning. Weis was all over the field, pouncing on mistakes.
The coach was in charge.
"Explode through the hole. Don't be timid," he yelled at a kickoff returner. "If you're going to make a mistake, make it at full speed."
Full speed, as the Irish have found out, means something different under Weis than it may have under his predecessors. He has time to have some fun, but there's even more time to be serious.
And this is a very serious time of year for a coach leading a storied football program back to respectability.
So far it's been a magical season for the Irish, who are making their first appearance in a BCS bowl since being blown out by Oregon State in this same bowl five years ago.
But Weis didn't need 15 years as an assistant coach in the NFL to figure out the nine wins and a near-miss against USC won't be nearly as special if Notre Dame can't finish things out against Ohio State.
"Realistically you're only remembered by how the season ends," Weis said. "Everyone will say what a great year, you went 10-2, beat Ohio State, and got that win after a decade of winning no bowl games; 9-3 would be pretty good, but pretty good isn't good enough."
Notre Dame would have gladly settled for pretty good when it hired Weis from the New England Patriots last December to replace Ty Willingham. After all, the Irish were going with a relative unknown, a Notre Dame graduate who had four Super Bowl rings as an NFL assistant but no head coaching experience past the high school level.
What they got in their surprise package was a coach who turned quarterback Brady Quinn into a Heisman candidate, revamped a plodding Irish offense into a juggernaut, and rejuvenated Notre Dame fans from around the nation.
But, wait, there's more. Turns out the coach with a tough exterior has a soft spot, too.
Weis wasn't looking for publicity when he went to visit a 10-year-old boy with an inoperable brain tumor who lived outside of South Bend, Ind. To him, it was just the right thing to do.
Montana Mazurkiewicz died before Notre Dame's game against Washington, but Weis called his mother the night before the game and said he would stick by his promise to call a "pass right" on the first play of the game for the youth.
"This game is for Montana, and the play still stands," Weis told Montana's mom.
Weis didn't waver the next day even though Notre Dame was backed up on its 1-yard-line and every football instinct screamed at him for a run. He had Quinn throw and he hooked up with tight end Anthony Fasano for a 13-yard gain.
No wonder the school didn't even wait until the end of the season to give Weis a contract extension that ties him to Notre Dame for 10 years at a reported minimum of $2 million a year. Weis, on the other hand, didn't wait long to pay back that salary, putting the Irish in a bowl that will earn Notre Dame some $14.5 million.
More importantly, he has the entire Notre Dame franchise believing in itself once again.
"Everyone questioned his lack of head coaching experience and working in the pros for so long and not be really being equipped for the college life and the college coaching," Fasano said. "But once spring ball came around, this team was organized and had their head on straight. I think I knew we were going to be in the right direction."
NEW ERA FOR IRISH
Even before spring practice began, Weis signaled it would be a new era at Notre Dame. Some 200 students turned out at 6 a.m. one February morning to learn what he expected from them as fans, and he wasn't shy about telling college administrators he needed to be able to enroll some recruits in January to get top players in the country.
But it was the message he sent to the team in its first meetings and practices that has carried through a season that began with the Irish unranked and comes to a close with the team No. 5 in the country and playing in a BCS bowl.
It helped that Weis had some serious bling in the form of Super bowl rings to get attention from his players. He passed them around with the message that Notre Dame wasn't playing patsy for anyone anymore.
"From Day 1 he said we're going to be tough," guard Dan Stevenson said. "We're going to play nasty, we're going to play with that swagger and good things will happen."
The good things began in the very first game when Notre Dame upset Pittsburgh, then topped that the next week with a win over No. 3 Michigan. If not for an overtime loss to Michigan State in the third game of the season and a heartbreaking loss to top-ranked USC in a game the Irish appeared to have won, Notre Dame could have been in Southern California this week instead of the Arizona desert.
For that, the portly coach with the crew cut and the gastric bypass only blames himself.
"I'm a little disappointed," Weis said. "We lost two games by three points apiece. I'd like to think a head coach is worth three points but obviously I wasn't the determining factor in those games."
That's about as much attention as Weis wants to draw to himself. The 49-year-old doesn't like to give interviews, even to the people from NBC who pay Notre Dame some $9 million a year to broadcast its games.
QUIET, RESERVED LEADER
When he does talk, he wants to make sure it's not about himself. Ask him about his 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, who has a form of autism, or the foundation he and his wife, Maura, started to aid children with autism, and he's glad to talk.
Ask him about his team or the way Quinn has developed or about Tom Brady's leadership and he'll give you plenty. Ask how a football guy who often labored in relative anonymity as an assistant in the NFL can turn around a fabled program, though, and he clams up.
"Forget about Charlie Weis. Charlie Weis isn't important," he said. "I'm just part of the mix and I just like the fact Notre Dame is being thought about in high regard once again."
To Weis it's pretty simple. It helps that he's gone from one Brady in the pros to another Brady in college, but to him coaching is coaching and football is football.
This is a guy who talks bluntly, and works just as hard.
That's why, when his assistants gathered at 6:30 a.m. the other day to watch film of the previous day's practice, Weis had already watched it once.
"Football is a copycat sport. We all copy each other," Weis said. "It's been different for Notre Dame but I try to keep it just like I treated it with the Patriots. I just do what I do."
Right now what Weis is doing is trying to win one last football game, something he got pretty good at as the offensive coordinator for the Patriots. He knows how teams use the two weeks prior to a Super Bowl to prepare, but to find out what to do with a football team that doesn't play for more than a month Weis sought out Miami Dolphins and former LSU coach Nick Saban for advice.
He didn't say what Saban told him, but he did predict his team would be as ready as their coach for Notre Dame to win its first bowl game in 12 years.
The Irish are underdogs, but Notre Dame began the season as an even bigger underdog.
"I can tell you this, we didn't come here to drink margaritas," Weis said. "We came here to play a football game."