One day last month, Gerry Faust sat in his office and atop the world at the same time.

He had coached one football game at Notre Dame and already they were measuring him for granite. The Irish were ranked No. 1. The big concern on campus was what the legend-to-be would do for an encore after going 12-0 his first season.

"I'm not worried about any of that," Faust said at the time. "I'm used to being No. 1, used to having people shooting at me. What would worry me would be losing. Heck, if we went 7-4 or something, they'd probably want to hang me."

He laughed. But neither Gerry Faust nor anyone else around the Golden Dome is laughing any more. The Irish are 2-3 and clear underdogs going into Saturday's game with No. 5 Southern Cal. A 5-6 record is a genuine possibility.

"Gee, I hope not," said Faust this week. "I'm still hoping for 8-3. I don't like losing, can't stand it. But I think I've learned from this experience. I think I'll be a better college coach for it.

"I used to lose a game at Moeller (High School in Cincinnati) and it would bother me for a year. Now I know in college with the balance of talent, you're going to lose games. I don't ever want losing not to hurt, but I know now you have to take 12 hours to get over it, then get back to work."

Faust has been wrong about one thing: in spite of the record, no one here wants to hang him. Two weeks ago, after the Irish lost their second game, to Purdue, the Notre Dame alumni senate made him an honorary alumnus. On campus, the main question seems to be: "How's Gerry, is he okay?"

Gerry says he is okay, but admits the losses to Michigan, Purdue and Florida State were a shock. "I felt sorry for myself at first," he said. "But now I think I understand a little better that you can't just win and win and win."

On the surface, the losing has not changed Faust. But his players say things have changed on the practice field. Minor mistakes, overlooked or merely pointed out during preseason, are now jumped on by the coach.

"The week after the Michigan game he was hard to live with," said linebacker Bob Crable, who played for Faust at Moeller. "Losing like that was just a complete shock to his system. He became a lot more intense after that."

Blair Kiel, who will start at quartyerback against USC, agreed. "Now, he wants perfection in practice," he said. "I think maybe he took a look around when he first got here, saw all the athletes and figured if we made a little mistake in practice, we'd correct it in a game. Now, he knows that's not true.

"He doesn't smile as much as he used to out there. The atmosphere isn't as friendly as it used to be but that's necessary. We all understand that."

What has concerned everyone here -- players, coaches and Athletic Director Gene Corrigan -- is how hard Faust took each loss. "He just heaped all the blame on himself," said Corrigan. "He has to understand it isn't all his fault. There's a lot more involved.

"But that's the nature of Notre Dame. Heck, nobody knows the AD at Notre Dame, they all know the football coach. Either he gets a standing ovation or the back of everyone's hand. There's no in-between."

Today they still are cheering Faust. He has a five-year contract, so his job security is almost complete.

"The problem is we built expectations so high because of Gerry's enthusiasm that the fall has hurt more," Corrigan said. "It's all a learning experience, though."

Digger Phelps agrees. The Notre Dame basketball coach was 6-20 his first season and knows you can't promise miracles on arrival. "Gerry is always enthusiastic by nature," Phelps said. "But you learn, for the sake of your own survival, to control it a little. You can't be perfect."

Phelps smiled. "He still doesn't curse. But I keep telling him, he'll learn."

Although 95 percent of Faust's mail has been positive, he says, there have been a few letters suggesting he reconsider his profession. "One suggested I become a priest," he said. "That's not a bad job."

Still, Faust knows he must be tougher on his players, that they cannot adapt to a multiple offense overnight. And he knows he can't be nice to everybody.

When Faust arrived, he had nothing but good things to say about his predecessor, Dan Devine. He even put a picture of Devine on the wall in his office.

But last week Devine showed up in the press box at a Chicago Bears game and said publicly, "This is the weakest Southern Cal team I've seen in 15 years."

Publicly, all Faust would say when asked about Devine's remark was, "Consider the source."

"That's really a self-serving comment (by Devine)," Southern Cal Coach John Robinson said today. "They ought to make a rule that any coach who leaves a high-visibility job gets sent on an all-expenses-paid, first-class trip around the world for a year. That way, the new guy has half a chance."

Faust won't talk about Devine. But in the place in Faust's office where Devine's picture once hung, there is only a picture hook.

Faust is learning some hard lessons. But he is also retaining his sense of humor. On Tuesday, Faust visited a local retired nuns' home. Faust sensed the sisters, whom he had visited previously, were uneasy now, unsure how to react to him.

Faust never blinked. "I just pointed my finger at them and said, 'Now gosh darn it, I've got a bone to pick with all of you. You haven't been praying hard enough for us. That's the problem. None of this is my fault. It's your fault.' "

Faust broke up and he said the nuns broke up. And on Saturday, the Irish will look for a small miracle against USC.