SOUTH BEND, IND. -- It is somewhat mystifying at this point that Dennis Green can still go to the VCR every week, that he can still teach formations and give pep talks and feel confident that what he's doing is the right thing. Dennis Green has lost often and lost decisively.

He is one of Bill Walsh's disciples. Football people will tell you Green knows the game, especially offense, as well as anybody. But that didn't help him at Northwestern or Stanford; combined, his teams had won 14 games and lost 56 before Saturday. Just think, Green could win the next four national championships and still not have his career record reach .500.

That is why Stanford's 36-31 victory over No. 1-ranked Notre Dame here is the achievement of a career for a man who has worked as hard as his peers -- probably harder -- but gone home week after week usually feeling the hurt of another crushing loss to a Southern Cal or an Ohio State.

Asked Saturday how many times he went 0-11 at Northwestern, Green said quickly, "Hey, only one time." Dennis Green is a positive man, even now. Especially now, as it turns out. This was the biggest day of his life. Even bigger, he admitted, than the 1989 Super Bowl when he was offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers when they beat the Cincinnati Bengals.

"Oh, I was up in the box trying to talk Bill {Walsh} into something, or he was trying to talk me out of something," Green said. "But this, oh yes, it's the biggest thing in my career. I went to school {Iowa} here in the Midwest, so I was just excited to come here and play at Notre Dame. When I got off the bus, I told the guys: 'I smell football. It's not that I'm happy to be here, I like being here.' When we were coming here on the bus there were sirens blaring, policemen on the sides of the road. I thought to myself, 'Move over, here comes the Stanford Cardinal!' "

Sirens or not, Green's team was an 18-point underdog as it rode that bus. Notre Dame had won 19 straight at home; Green's college teams hadn't won 19 total. But the cup is always half full for Dennis Green. He thought he could get the people at Northwestern to make a commitment to football, and it took him five years, including that one 0-11 season, to be convinced otherwise.

He had little chance Saturday, but he won the coin toss and took the wind. "The first thing," he told his team, "is to be in the game at the end of the first quarter. Then, we make a move in the third quarter when we have the wind again, and we do the best we can in the fourth."

At the end of the first, the score was tied, 7-7. In the third, the Stanford defense stopped Notre Dame on fourth and one, then the Cardinal scored to close, 24-22. And the end of three quarters, the Notre Dame lead was still two, 31-29. Stanford had made its move.

Its position was precarious for a while. Green seemed to have blown the whole plan by going too conservative early in the fourth, playing for a field goal that didn't come. The assembled cognoscenti in the press box moaned. But Green knows what it's like to have to try to convince a team with less talent that it can hang in at the end. On the drive that ended with the winning touchdown, he was again ready to settle for a field goal. "If Ed {McCaffrey} had not gotten as much yardage as he did {26 yards}, we'd have sat on it at midfield, run down the clock and gone for the field goal."

When you've coached as many bad teams as Green, you don't get greedy. You kick the field goal and get on the team bus.

Green recalled his first Big Ten game at Northwestern. His Wildcats trailed Indiana by 21-0, but scored three touchdowns to cut the deficit to 21-20, presenting the new coach with a problem: Green went for two, the play failed, game over.

Saturday, when there was less pressure on his team, he had the boys go for two when it was 24-13. The play worked, making it 24-15. "I'm not that smart," he said. "We have a chart that tells us when it's best to try for two."

There are a lot of people who are happy for Green, but none happier than that small fraternity of black coaches who suffer with him every time he gets bashed. Green never has asked for sympathy a day in his coaching life. But there are men such as Willie Shaw, his defensive coordinator at Stanford, who know the questions inevitably come. "Are you really as good as people say you are?" Shaw asked rhetorically. "Where are the wins to show for it?"

Stanford knows it is lucky to have Green. He should be an offensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL now, or at least have had the opportunity to turn down one of those jobs. Joe Walton? Gene Stallings? How many games do you think they would have won at Northwestern?

If Green is bitter, he doesn't show it. Not a trace. "I don't have a bad job," he said. He feels he has three all-American candidates, and some NFL scouts concur. At the end of the game, he had eight sophomores on the field playing defense against the No. 1 team in the nation. Stanford, with a little luck in the final 12 seconds of two other games, could be 4-1 instead of 2-3. Green can count the number of times he has been this close to .500 on one hand.

"I've been at good schools, great schools, even though the football wasn't quite what you wanted," he said. "But I always wanted to win too. I told {the assistant coaches} I want to recruit kids who want all the things Stanford has to offer, but I want kids who want to win too.

"A coach always has to ask himself, 'Can you win there?' The answer is yes, we can win here. I've got to sell it, though. Stanford dropped the ball a few years ago. It forgot how. But success can galvanize. I hope I'm up to the task. . . . The proof is still in the pudding."