SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It used to be much easier for followers of the football team at the University of Notre Dame. The teams were either very good or a year away from being so. The coaches were either heroes or soon to be history.
But now, the fifth year of the Gerry Faust regime, the only thing obvious about the current Fighting Irish team is that nothing is obvious. On any given day, Notre Dame can beat anybody. Or lose to them. It can win like a prince or lose like a pauper. With this team, it just figures that nothing figures.
Saturday, the confusion got more confusing. Notre Dame beat USC, 37-3. That's right, USC. The arch-rival. The hated Trojans with the funny marching band helmets and silly horse.
This was Notre Dame-SC, not Notre Dame-Delaware State or Notre Dame-Pawtucket Tech. This was the game that inspired Marv Goux's inspirational speech when he was an SC assistant: "Big man against big man, muscle against muscle."
But this was also a Notre Dame team that entered the game 2-3, that had opened its season losing to a Michigan team it was supposed to beat, that had played an awful game in losing to traditional opponent Purdue and that had done the unthinkable by losing to Air Force for the fourth year in a row.
So, even though the Trojans were not exactly tearing the record books apart themselves this year, there was just no expectation that they were about to run into what they did.
"We just got whipped in every phase of the game, and we were ready to play," said USC Coach Ted Tollner, looking more than slightly shellshocked when he said it.
But how was Tollner to know? How was anybody? Notre Dame is as easy to calculate as the new math. If the Irish were an Apple, they wouldn't compute.
Central in the confusion is Faust, the man whom Notre Dame hired out of a high school job in Ohio five years ago. Like his team, Faust and his future here are a puzzle.
Going into Saturday's game, the consensus was that Faust was history; that this, the fifth year of his five-year contract, would be his last. Had he lost to the Trojans Saturday, he would have become the losingest coach in Irish history, with 24 defeats. Knute Rockne coached 13 years and lost a total of 12 games. Frank Leahy coached 11 and lost 11. Ara Parseghian coached 11 and lost 17. Terry Brennan coached for 5 years, the same as Faust, lost 18 games and was fired on Christmas Eve.
So, had Saturday's score been reversed, it figures that Faust would have been a goner. Oh, Notre Dame usually lives up to its contractual agreements, meaning that Faust would have coached until the end of the year before being given his leave.
But after Saturday, after he beat the one team that matters more than any other to Irish fans, after beating it, 37-3, and after ringing up a third straight win against USC after two losses, there is some likelihood that Notre Dame fans may have Gerry Faust to kick around again in 1986.
The administration's stance remains one of reviewing the coaching job after each season. Faust has long ago stopped answering questions about his status. He jokes with reporters about it, claims that he hasn't changed a thing about his approach to coaching and that this team is "just improving, like I knew they would." He even has built a new home in South Bend.
Faust's next two games are at home, both against beatable teams--Navy and Mississippi. But those two are followed by Penn State on the road, LSU here and Miami at Miami.
If Saturday's Notre Dame team were to turn out to be the real Irish, rather than impostors brought in to replace the guys who played against Air Force and Purdue, Faust could finish at 8-3. That would mean a bowl bid and much-regained glory.
But the bowl bids come out on Nov. 18, and the best the Irish could be at that stage of their season is 6-3, which would include a victory over Penn State. Whether a major bowl would take a chance on a 6-3 Notre Dame team, with LSU and Miami still to come, is questionable. But a major bowl may also be Faust's best shot at a new contract.
There is also talk around here that, with as little as even a 6-5 record, Notre Dame would be the choice of something called the Cherry Bowl, a one-year-old extravaganza in the Silverdome at nearby Pontiac, Mich., which, amazingly, has come up with the funds to give each participating team in its game $1 million.
Were that to happen, the Notre Dame Fathers would be faced with the prospect of firing a coach who has done beautifully by the school in the pocketbook, who is universally recognized as a fine man and a fine recruiter, who has led the nation for the last three years in percentage of his players graduating (98% last year) and who has constantly voiced the accepted theory that academics come first.
So the confusion continues.
His players don't slobber all over themselves to sing his praises. But they don't fail to back him, either.
Said Allen Pinkett, star running back: "Coach Faust remains optimistic through it all. And that sort of trickles down to the rest of us."
Said Steve Beuerlein, quarterback: "We have a lot of confidence in ourselves now. Coach Faust has kept us believing in ourselves. We thought we'd play well today. We just didn't think it would be so easy."
So Faust carries on. Five years ago, he was a high school coach. Now, he is on the hottest seat in college football. If nothing else, he has carried on with a sense of humor.
When a reporter asked him if he would read the papers Sunday about his big win, Faust replied: "No, no. I don't read the papers anymore. That's the only way I can keep my sanity these days."
Even while his team drives its fans crazy week after week.