Gary Moeller's line of work must be one of the very few in which a person can be intensely examined for first impressions at a place where he has spent 18 of his previous 21 years.
But the still brand-new coach at the University of Michigan - he will remain brand-new up to the kickoff of the Wolverine season at South Bend, Ind., on Saturday night - can expect to be scrutinized in areas from the approach to his passing game to whether he has the good sense to keep kickoffs out of the hands of Notre Dame's Raghib Ismail.That scrutiny is understandable at a school that has had just nine other head football coaches in this century, three of whom led Big Ten conference championship teams in their first season.
For this Michigan team to add Moeller's name to the list of Fielding H. Yost, Bennie Oosterbaan and Bo Schembechler, all the Wolverines need to do is become the first team in conference history to win a third consecutive undisputed championship.
And first, before the beginning of conference business three weekends away, Moeller can ease into his schedule with a nationally televised game against the No. 1-ranked Fighting Irish, a team that Schembechler's Wolverines have not defeated in the last three games.
``I'm excited, yet extremely nervous,' Moeller said. ``I guess sometimes as a coach you can start thinking about bad things happening. That's the thing I'm trying to stay away from.'
That thinking is understandable, too, in the first weeks of a season that has already been unkind to coaches making early impressions.
At Alabama, where Gene Stallings became the third in line to attempt to satisfy the worshippers of Bear Bryant, the Crimson Tide lost to Southern Mississippi at Legion Field in Birmingham.
At Kentucky, Bill Curry, who had been the second in that Alabama line before leaving last winter, began the next stage of his coaching career with a narrow victory over Central Michigan and a loss to Rutgers. And at Clemson, where Ken Hatfield was brought in to clean up the remains of the successful but tarnished Danny Ford era, the Tigers enjoyed a scrimmage against Long Beach State before suffering the ignominy of becoming the first team in school history to lose to Virginia.
With those disappointments in the background, and with Notre Dame Stadium as a backdrop, Moeller has a right to be aware of his nerves. ``It's not a live-or-die situation,' he said, ``but as a new coach, you want to get off on the right foot, too. It helps your morale.'
It also helps the critics. Moeller's only previous experience as a head coach, overseeing an Illinois program with hopes that exceeded its resources at the time, began with a 37-9 loss to Michigan in 1977. Three years later, after a record of 6-24-3 at Champaign, Moeller was back together with Schembechler, an assistant coach at Ohio State when Moeller played there and the head coach at Miami of Ohio when Moeller first became a college assistant in 1967.
At Michigan, Moeller has been a defensive coordinator and an offensive coordinator. He has been responsible, at various times, for defensive ends and quarterbacks.
He was placed in charge in the spring of 1976, after Schembechler first underwent heart surgery, and again for the 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl, a victory over Alabama that followed the head coach's second heart operation.
But those times were nothing like this. ``It's just the time you're away from the things you know you should be doing,'Moeller said. Several years ago, when Barry Switzer was asked about his contribution to the Sooner program, he mentioned the contributions of his assistants but added that the collection of all-Americans had not fallen out of the sky and landed on Owen Field.
The week of Moeller's first game in his new old place, he joked about head coaches who delegate so many tasks that they are free to play golf.
``I don't want to be that kind of coach,' he said. ``I really like to coach.'
Moeller's involvement with the offense creates an unknown for Notre Dame.
``What you don't want to do,' said Lou Holtz the Notre Dame coach, ``is say: 'What if they do this? What if they do that?''
One thing the Irish can count on is that Elvis Grbac, the 6-foot-5-inch second-year quarterback who suddenly gave the Wolverines another dimension in the game last year at Ann Arbor, will be a factor from the start of the game.