PITTSBURGH -- When a replay official ruled that quarterback Jimmy Clausen's right arm wasn't moving forward on a controversial fumble with 2:10 to play, Notre Dame's fourth loss of the season was sealed. No. 12 Pittsburgh would hang on for a 27-22 win.
Sometime during the next three weeks, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will have to decide whether his school's once-storied football program is moving forward in coach Charlie Weis' fifth season.
"I evaluate every program at the end of the season," Swarbrick said Saturday night just minutes after Notre Dame lost its second game in a row to fall to 6-4. "It's not about evaluating coaches; it's about evaluating programs."
But Swarbrick made one thing clear Saturday night: Money won't be an issue when it comes time to decide Weis' future.
It was believed Weis might be safe for at least one more season because Notre Dame wouldn't want to pay his hefty buyout. Weis has six years left on a 10-year contract extension he signed after coaching the Fighting Irish in only seven games in 2005. The exact amount of Weis' buyout isn't known -- Notre Dame is a private school and its coaches' employment contracts aren't subject to state open records laws -- but it is believed Weis would be owed in excess of $10 million if fired after this season.
If Notre Dame fires Weis and wants to pursue an established coach such as Florida's Urban Meyer, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, Stanford's Jim Harbaugh or former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, who might command as much as $4-5 million per season, the school might have to be willing to write a $20 million check to fire Weis and his assistants and hire their successors.
"That's too big-picture right now," Weis said when asked where his program was headed after the Pittsburgh loss. "I'm shortsighted. I think the most important thing is trying to get this team to worry about the last two games, in particular just focus on one game. That's the way we do business, and that's exactly what we're going to do."
The Fighting Irish have two more games to play -- against Connecticut at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday and then at surging Stanford on Nov. 28. Chances are they won't win both games -- the Cardinal just walloped top-10 programs Oregon and USC in consecutive weeks -- but there's a good chance the Irish could lose both contests given the current temperature of the program.
"It's a dismal mood right now," Notre Dame linebacker Brian Smith said.
If Notre Dame doesn't recover and loses both of its last two games, a 6-6 finish most certainly would get Weis fired. Even a 7-5 finish probably would do it.
Since leading Notre Dame to what was believed to be a breakthrough season in 2006, when the Fighting Irish finished 10-3 and lost to LSU 41-14 in the Sugar Bowl, Weis' teams have lost more games than they've won. Since the start of the 2007 season, the Fighting Irish are 16-19. Notre Dame finished 3-9 in 2007, the worst record in school history, and went 7-6 last season.
Notre Dame's unsightly three-year record includes two losses to Navy -- which the Fighting Irish once defeated 43 times in a row -- and a loss to woeful Syracuse on Senior Day in 2008. Notre Dame has lost eight games in a row to opponents ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the longest such streak in school history, and it has defeated only one team that finished the season ranked (Penn State in 2006) during Weis' tenure.
Weis has an overall record of 35-25 at Notre Dame, which is the same winning percentage (.583) his predecessors, Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie, had when they were fired. Willingham was 21-15 when he was fired near the end of his third season in 2004. Davie was 35-25 when he was dismissed after five seasons in 2001.
Weis made his debut as Notre Dame's coach in the 2005 opener, which the Fighting Irish won at Pittsburgh, 42-21. By the middle of the fourth quarter Saturday night, fans at Heinz Stadium were chanting, "Bye-bye, Charlie! Bye-bye, Charlie!"
Swarbrick couldn't have liked what he saw from Notre Dame early in the game. The Fighting Irish trailed 10-3 at the half after gaining only 119 yards of offense in the first two quarters. Instead of playing loose and using his team's best players (Clausen and receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd), Weis coached like a man trying not to lose his job.
"It was how we called the game," Weis said. "We were playing the game relatively conservatively. When you're playing the game on the road, with a raucous crowd, I think it's important to understand how you call a game. You don't call a game the same way at home as you do on the road. We're sitting there 3-3 with five minutes to go in the second quarter. To be honest, at the time, we were in a pretty good spot."
But it got worse for Notre Dame from there. Pittsburgh went ahead 20-3 late in the third quarter and led 27-9 early in the fourth. But then Tate gave the Fighting Irish a chance to win.
With 9:10 to play, Tate caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Clausen to make it 27-16. After Notre Dame's defense forced a three-and-out, Tate returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown. A two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving Pittsburgh with a 27-22 lead with 7:16 to go.
"I know that when we get the ball to [Tate], he has a chance to make a play," Weis said. "He did by returning a punt for a touchdown. He gave us a shot to win the game."
But Notre Dame couldn't win again in the end. In the final minutes, the Fighting Irish reached their 42-yard line before an illegal chop block thwarted the drive. Then Clausen lost the controversial fumble at his team's 28 with 2:10 to play.
"We're 6-4, and that's what we've got to live in right now," Clausen said.
A season that once held such promise -- the Fighting Irish looked like a BCS bowl contender only two weeks ago -- is now teetering on the brink of collapse.
"From everything I know, none of us were talking about the BCS in the locker room," Clausen said. "It was the media and everyone else."
The best the Irish can hope for is a 7-5 finish and possibly a trip to the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day. But even that postseason destination seems unlikely after their fourth loss.
And at some point soon, Swarbrick will have to decide whether the right coach is steering Notre Dame.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.