Only at Notre Dame can a football coach be distraught with a 21-point victory.

But despite an impressive offensive performance in which the Fighting Irish didn't punt all day and scored 42 points in the second half, Coach Lou Holtz came away from Saturday's 52-31 victory over Navy sounding as though his team was on the wrong end of the score."This is probably one of lower spots in my career," Holtz said after the game.

Excuse me, coach? A low spot? The Irish are 7-1, ranked first in the nation and can pick any high-paying bowl for which it wants to contend for the national championship.

But Holtz was dead serious. After his brief meeting with the media, the subdued coach retreated to a corner of the Notre Dame locker room at the New Jersey Meadowlands to smoke his pipe and quietly reflect on all the things that can go wrong in a 21-point victory. He shooed away approaching reporters.

Such is the pressure of coaching football in the shadow of the Golden Dome. The job may be the most prestigious college coaching job in the country, but it includes so many extra pressures that it has a tendency to burn out even the most energetic of coaches.

"The best way to put it is that it's lonely at the top," said Ara Parseghian, who held the job for 11 years before he stepped down for health reasons. "There's no one to go to, no one to lean on. You're expected to know all the answers."

At Notre Dame, practically everything is in place for a coach to succeed. The school has tradition, high visibility and the ability to recruit only the top one percent of high-school prospects with the confidence that most recruits will choose to play for the Fighting Irish.

"Most schools recruit players. Notre Dame hand picks," Colorado Coach Bill McCartney once said.

But that same system also can set a coach up for failure. With annually the best talent in the nation, Notre Dame is expected to play in a New Year's Day bowl game and contend for the national championship every year. A 10-2 record at Notre Dame is considered mediocre, 9-3 a failure.

"Even when you're winning, there's criticism - you don't call the right plays, your pass defense isn't good enough, you don't win big enough," Parseghian said.

And the coach has to produce against what annually is the toughest schedule in the nation. Last year, the Fighting Irish played nine schools that went to bowl games, including teams that finished Nos. 1, 4, 8 and 9 in the final United Press International poll.

This year, Notre Dame already has faced No. 4 Miami, No. 17 Michigan, Michigan State and Pittsburgh. The Fighting Irish finish up with games against No. 8 Tennessee, No. 19 Penn State and perennial power Southern Cal.

"I've never envisioned a football team playing a schedule as difficult as ours," Holtz said. "We play a national schedule and we try to play awfully good teams. Also, when teams get a chance to play Notre

Dame three or four years down the road, it really helps their recruiting. Sometimes I think maybe the reason our schedule is so difficult is everybody's program seems to come up at the same time they're getting ready to play Notre Dame.

"I don't think anybody on the outside can understand how difficult it is for our players to play week after week and take the pounding they do, then go out on the practice field and try to continue to get better."

Holtz also takes a pounding. He doesn't get much sleep, suffered gall-bladder problems during the summer and last week visited a doctor for the first time "in a long, long time."

"I just haven't felt good," Holtz said. "You get maybe four or five hours of sleep a night and you can't take a week off. But I understand that and I probably thrive on pressure more than most people.

"(The job) is very demanding and takes a lot out of you. But when you come to Notre Dame, you expect that. You want to win and you understand that you're entrusted with that tradition and do the best you can to uphold that tradition."

That tradition includes three national titles since UPI began ranking teams in 1950, seven Heisman Trophy winners and 89 first-team All-Americas since 1926. It also includes a winning percentage of 76 percent - the best in the nation - in the 101 years Notre Dame has been playing football.

Unfortunately, it also leads to unrealistically high expectations of the Fighting Irish and frequent comparisons to the great Notre Dame teams of the past. And that's what Holtz is fighting this week as he prepares his team for Tennessee.

"I think you cannot be a great football team if you don't play great defense," Holtz said. "That's what I've said all along and you've got to do it. That's where it all starts. The reason I say it is because I know what's lying ahead of us next week. (Beating Navy) is not a high."

Lou Holtz may be an excessive worrier and have a tendency to exaggerate. But under the microscope created by the Golden Dome, he's also being realistic.