Four years ago Notre Dame reached out to Gerry Faust, whose previous head coaching experience consisted of 18 years at a high school in Cincinnati, and gave him a five-year contract to become its football coach, bypassing a group of pro and college coaches who might have sold their first-born for the chance to coach under the Golden Dome. At the time, Faust's hiring was seen as a great risk for Notre Dame, the most celebrated college football program of them all; yes, Faust's record at Moeller High School was 174-17-2, but Moeller was, after all, high school, and Notre Dame was, after all, Notre Dame. As romantic a move as hiring Faust was, was it the sound move? As affable as Faust was, was he the right man?

They said only time would tell.

Well, time is running out on Gerry Faust. The clock is ticking, and Faust's in a fourth and long. Very long.

After 41 games as head coach at Notre Dame, Faust's record is 21-19-1. That might be good enough at many schools, but not at Notre Dame. This year's team is 3-4, having lost to Purdue, Miami (Fla.), Air Force and South Carolina. Notre Dame led in each of those games; against South Carolina, last Saturday, the lead was 26-14 in the fourth period, and the Irish then yielded 22 points in 6 1/2 minutes. It would not be surprising if Notre Dame loses three of its remaining four games -- LSU (5-0-1), Penn State (5-2) and Southern Cal (5-1) -- and beats only Navy, to finish 4-7.

Even if that were to occur, the word from Notre Dame is that Faust wouldn't be released; the administration wouldn't be comfortable doing that. Though what Faust has done professionally can be reasonably questioned, he is quite popular personally. By all accounts he is a kind, ebullient, honest man, who has served Notre Dame unfailingly, even to the point of maintaining friendly relationships with a press corps that has grown increasingly critical of his coaching skills. "Everybody's rooting for him," said John Heisler, Notre Dame's associate sports information director. "He's everything that Notre Dame embodies."

But rumors persist that Faust might resign, citing discretion as the better part of valor.

"Everyone figures it's his decision," said Heisler. "It's tough to operate around here when you're losing. People expect us to do better than 5-6 or 6-5. I can't believe it's too comfortable for Gerry. I'm amazed he stays as positive as he does. Honestly, he gives no indication that he doesn't plan on being back next year."

"I'm coming back," Faust said yesterday, as upbeat as ever. "Why shouldn't I?"

Why shouldn't he, indeed? Look around at other coaches going through hell. How many of them would sell their souls to the devil to keep their jobs? Foge Fazio is 1-6 at Pittsburgh, and people thought he had a top 10 team this year. Ray Perkins is 2-5 at Alabama, and he came to that school from a head coaching job in the pros, with the reputation as one of the great offensive minds of football. Jackie Sherrill, with the megabucks contract, is 3-3 at Texas A&M. If Faust is in over his head, those guys have to be treading water nervously.

"Look, there's still a lot of season left," Faust said optimistically. "We have four games to go. If we win them all, that'll be a super year. We can make a bowl game. A lot of teams'll get bowl bids with three, four and five losses."

That might sound like Faust is whistling past the graveyard. But he'd have to be crazy to bail out of South Bend. The bad news is his record. This is Faust's fourth season; most all the players now are his and his alone. Year after year his team is in somebody's preseason top 10. Year after year it fails to live up to expectations. But the good news is that every year you start clean. If he quits now, he retains his dignity. If he stays on through the duration of his contract, maybe he reinforces his image as a mediocre coach, but maybe he gets lucky and wins big. It's no more and no less of a gamble than Notre Dame took in hiring him.

"Who knows?" Faust asks. "Maybe next year we'll win them all."

The sad thing is that if Faust does no better next year, he surely will not have a year at Notre Dame after that. And the impact on the hopes and dreams of high school coaches will be felt for years to come.

"I really rooted for him to be successful," said Maus Collins, for 25 years the head football coach at Washington's Carroll High. "The way things are going now -- unless he goes 11-0 next year -- almost any big college would give very little consideration to hiring a high school coach." Collins thinks Faust was let down by his staff, not by his coaching ability. "I don't think Xs and Os are all too different on any level of coaching," he said. "But coming from high school, you don't have your staff in place; you haven't been in that society long enough to know who to hire and who not to hire. He was too thrilled about getting the job himself; he probably didn't make sure he brought the right people with him." In fact, only two of Faust's original nine assistants remain at Notre Dame.

Roy Lester, now the football coach at Magruder High, once went from Richard Montgomery High straight to the University of Maryland as head coach. He lasted three years, 1969-71, winning just seven of 32 games, before returning to the high school level, so he knows what Faust is going through. "I felt he was as good a choice as any pro or college assistant would have been," Lester said. "There's too much emphasis put on Faust coming from high school. There's not a dime's worth of difference between Faust and Jackie Sherrill. Having players is the main thing. It's recruiting. If you don't have the players, you won't be smarter than anybody else . . . I hope he stays. Things might turn around for him."

Hope springs eternal.

"I'm going to hang in there," Faust said.

Why shouldn't he?