Pressure is always on Notre Dame
It's true that Notre Dame rushed for 11 yards and punted 11 times last week in losing to BYU. It's NOT true that Touchdown Jesus has lowered his arms, stuck a single fist in the air and been renamed Fourthdown Jesus.
It only seems like every down is fourth down these days at Notre Dame. Fourth and long. That's because even now, 16 years after the Fighting Irish won their last national title and 11 years removed from their last serious run at one, so many people seem shocked when the program struggles.
And there has been an inordinate amount of struggle lately. Using the selective scalpel of statistics, we can tell you that the last 15 games of Notre Dame football have been the losingest 15 games in 44 years, since the inglorious Joe Kuharich Era. The Irish are 5-10 in this stretch, with six of the losses certifiably ugly (22 points or more).
Now comes a visit from Michigan Saturday, offering either a chance to dramatically reverse course or to sink a little lower. Las Vegas seems convinced of the latter, having set the line at 13½ points -- the biggest underdog spread for the Irish since Nebraska visited in 2000.
If this is a just world then Willingham, in just the third year of a reported six-year contract at a school that rarely pushes out a coach before his deal is up, should be secure in his job -- no matter how bad it gets this year. The P.R. hit for bumping off your first African-American football coach faster than Gerry Faust or Bob Davie would be savage and largely deserved.
Notre Dame isn't Auburn, where presidents skulk around on booster planes behind the back of the head coach. The Golden Dome simply doesn't operate that way.
Even if patience is granted, that doesn't mean Willingham can work in a cocoon of comfort. Not after a bumpy offseason, in which the Irish recruiting efforts were largely panned, a group of boosters sent a widely publicized letter to athletic director Kevin White that was critical of the football program's leadership, and former Golden Boy Paul Hornung nearly made himself Al Campanis Jr.
And certainly there is no comfort when you're losing. The pressure is omnipresent at Notre Dame, where the coach's every move and mannerism are magnified to a national (and sometimes delusional) fan base.
Ask Faust, who once got a letter from a fan who basically accused him of excessive piety.
"I'm sick and tired of you making the sign of the cross on the sidelines," the fan wrote. "I'd like to see you cross the goal line more."
Or ask Vinny Cerrato, recruiting coordinator under Lou Holtz from 1986-91. When Cerrato became director of player personnel for the San Francisco 49ers and was put in charge of the 49ers' draft, he was asked about the pressure of being in that position.
"Pressure," Cerrato responded, "is when you're at Notre Dame and you lose more than two games."
"You've always got pressure, because expectations are so great and half the country loves you and half the country hates you," Cerrato said. "It's one of the most difficult jobs in the country. You're not a regional school, you're a national school. You've got fans from California to Maine, and they're watching and listening every week, and so you've got a lot of people either very happy or very disappointed. You've got an obligation to try to be great, because they have been in the past.
"Everyone looks at you different when you're at Notre Dame. You are different. Notre Dame's different than everyone else."
Different is good, when you're talking about your own television contract, your own priority parking space with the BCS and the clout to say no thanks to every conference in the country. But there is almost always a difficult flip side to different.
"That's an extreme positive," said Utah coach Urban Meyer, a former Notre Dame assistant under Holtz and Davie who, it must be noted, has an out in his contract for the Notre Dame job. "You can go recruit anywhere in the country. Florida State can't go get a kid from Seattle, but Notre Dame can. The negative of that is that you don't have a home base in recruiting. Notre Dame has to go to Ohio and beat Ohio State, go to California and beat USC and UCLA, go to Texas and beat Texas and Texas A&M, go to Florida and beat Miami, Florida and Florida State"
Said Cerrato: "Everyone says it's easy to recruit at Notre Dame. No, it's easy to get in the door. In Indiana and Chicago, maybe, you're No. 1. But you go into Florida and you're probably No. 3, behind Florida or Florida State."
"It truly is one of the great places," Meyer said. "It's college football in its truest form. It's true student-athletes. You can't say that about every university. Most universities can sneak guys into certain majors -- and, if some of them succeed there, that can be good. But that doesn't happen at Notre Dame."
Faust: "They should never change those standards, I believe that. You've just got to work hard at it to get that quality of player, but they're out there."
Cerrato said that Notre Dame's academic standards should not be a recruiting drawback, as long as the school is diligent in identifying its recruiting targets up front. Wasting time on players who can't get in school does no good.
"You just have to make your list smaller," he said. "(Lowering the standards) is kind of a copout. Every team there that won a national championship did it with the same type of restrictions."
You don't see the Louisiana-Monroes, Utah States and Eastern Michigans of the world on Notre Dame's schedule. Not yet, anyway. In one bow to modern reality, the school is open to softening the schedule to permit a few breathers.
"I think that's smart," Faust said. "I think Kevin White's on the right track."
But that's all in the future. Meanwhile, Michigan arrives Saturday, and the Irish are staring at their first 0-2 start since Davie started 0-3 in 2001 -- on his way out the door. Willingham is an all-world stoic, but that will be challenged as the pressure settles squarely on his shoulders for this third season under the Dome.
"The toughest thing is the reaction after every game," Faust said. "Nobody wants to wait until the end of the season to analyze. Let's wait and see what happens. Let's see what plays out.
"I really like the man. But I know what he goes through."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.