In the winter of 1974, when Robert Mallett was thinking about college, he considered Yale, Hampton, Stanford and the University of Texas. Then one day, sitting in his grandmother's den in Houston, he read a brochure from Atlanta's Morehouse College.

"It was titled 'The Quest for Quality' and had a quote from the theologian Howard Thurman that said: 'Over the heads of her students she holds a crown that she challenges them to grow tall enough to wear.' Well I thought that was baaad," says Mallett.

Mallett -- Morehouse '79, Harvard Law '82, legal counsel to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) -- has attained the sort of success expected of The Morehouse Man and is part of the growing Morehouse network in Washington.

Morehouse, a small, historically black, all-male school, is where the Rev. Martin L. King Jr., a 1948 graduate, first read Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience." It has produced more black PhDs, college presidents, scientists, lawyers and doctors than any other school in the country. It was the training ground for such leaders as former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, former Georgia state senator Julian Bond, congressmen Major Owens and George Crockett Jr., historian Lerone Bennett and Jet magazine publisher Robert Johnson. Other graduates include Walter E. Massey, director of the Argonne National Laboratory, jazz musician Olatunje, international track star Edwin Moses, and filmmaker Shelton (Spike) Lee.

The 600 alumni in the Washington area have a godfather in Edward Mazique, a well-known physician and president emeritus of the Washington Boys and Girls clubs, who explains the Morehouse tradition and loyalty as "a spirit that reverberates."

Mazique, a poor kid from Mississippi, enrolled in 1929. "When I explained I had no money, I had my head bowed and spoke almost in a whisper," he says. "John Hope, the president, was standing behind me, and I didn't know it. He said, 'Young man, you look me in the eye,' and he told ipper Gassett, the bursar, 'Don't give him any concessions until he holds his head up. There is no shame in being born poor.' "

The Morehouse mystique has not only produced its sterling successes but also its blind fanatics. Even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion, a few hundred Morehouse alumni and students made up part of an overflow crowd of nearly 30,000 people at Howard University Saturday for the 23rd meeting of the rival schools' football teams. Howard dominated this year, winning by a final score of 54-7, and now leads in the overall series 14 games to seven, with two ties.

At half time, Bill Cosby, entertainment colossus and Morehouse parent, gave the Howard homecoming queen a whopping hug that almost knocked off Cosby's brown brim, but didn't disturb her crown. "Now having made the first half successful for the Howard football team, I will now take my good luck over to the Morehouse side," announced Cosby. The Howard boos overwhelmed the Morehouse cheers.

Surrounded by cameras and fans, Cosby said he was at the game because "this is a tradition that is worth it. My son goes to one of these two schools. I just enjoy it." Cosby, a graduate of Temple University, joked that if he had been subjected to the academic rigors of Morehouse or Howard, "I would have been a 'Thank You, Laude.' "

Despite Cosby's endorsement, most of the Morehouse men had retired to the alumni tent by the fourth quarter. "Well, this isn't about football," observed James L. Hudson (Class of '61), a prominent Washington attorney and a Morehouse trustee.

Inside the yellow-and-white tent, Marion O. (Duke) Greene Jr., president of a D.C. software firm, management consultant James Moss, and physicians Charles Trotman and Edward Saunders, as well as Hudson, were directing guests to wine, punch, roast-beef sandwiches and consolation cake. While sports excellence is not at the core of the Morehouse reputation, new President Leroy Keith Jr. ('61), proudly pointed out that quarterback Jimmie Davis has a triple major in physics, math and electrical engineering and a 4.0 average.

Reaching out to shake hands with dozens of old friends, Frank Smith, D.C. city councilman and Morehouse grad ('63), was joking about "all the money" the other alumni had made. "I was {part of} the civil rights era at Morehouse, and we got on the streets and worked for change. Morehouse prepared us to move into these places."

In the Morehouse tradition of setting multiple challenges, the school's Washington alumni filled the weekend with -- in addition to football -- a prayer breakfast, two panel discussions, an honors luncheon, a couple of cocktail parties and a dinner dance. Besides all that, one of Morehouse's newest names, Spike Lee ('82) continued his growing tradition of sponsoring a homecoming disco. Word of mouth and one radio interview made this the second most popular event of the weekend, after the football game. As soon as 4,000 people had crowded into the Old Post Office Pavilion, the doors were shut, leaving several thousand would-be dancers outside.

Leaning against a brass rail and watching a fashion parade of balloon irts and washed-out denim pass by, Gerald Richardson ('87) said he had flown in from Los Angeles for the weekend to get what he had attended Morehouse for: A submergence into blackness. "I grew up on the West Coast and I felt it was important to go back to my roots," said Richardson, now an accountant with a brokerage house. He was accepted at Yale, Syracuse, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley, but Richardson chose Morehouse because "it was an opportunity to be on equal ground with my people. This is the only vacation I have, and I came back for the ambiance -- being with black people who have goals."

For years, the giant Howard and the less imposing Morehouse have competed for people, power and prestige. Both schools are steeped in the traditions of racial pride, leadership training and competition with the best. They have overlapped in leadership; two Howard presidents have been Morehouse graduates. Morehouse and Howard, along with Fi University, are the only black colleges with Phi Beta Kappa chapters.

Right now, Morehouse is enjoying a boom in popularity and nationwide recognition. Its endowment is $20 million, triple the average for private black colleges but small compared with Howard's $58 million, or those of many prestigious, predominantly white colleges -- Amherst, for example, which, with about 500 fewer students than Morehouse, has an endowment of $243 million. Enrollment at Morehouse is now a bustling 2,343, up from 1,500 10 years ago. This year, 2,700 students applied for the 600 places in the freshman class.

Last year, when the Ford Foundation selected a group of colleges to train teachers to offset an expected shortage of college professors in the 1990s, Morehouse was one of 31 chosen and the only black college that met its criteria. One factor the foundation weighed was that 75 percent of the faculty have doctoral degrees. "We thought that made it an academically distinguished college," said Peter Stanley, a Ford program director.

When Richard Powell ('75), program director for the Washington Project for the Arts, went on to Yale to earn the first of two master's degrees there, he found "the things I was hearing in art history and Afro-American history, I had already learned at Morehouse."

Morehouse is also making a name as a pop culture symbol. Cosby has worn a sweat shirt bearing its big "M" at public appearances, and he has suggested to his television-family son that he should consider Morehouse. The hot T-shirt on black campuses, which proclaims "Black by Popular Demand," was designed by a Morehouse Man. It might be surpassed in popularity by the sunflower-yellow pullover advertising Lee's next film, "School Daze," which has the slogan "Black to the Future." The film, a $6 million project depicting life at a black college, was being filmed at Morehouse last year until then-president Hugh Gloster decided it "was going to be a derogatory portrayal of Morehouse," according to Lee.

Part of the new attention being given Morehouse is fueled by the return of middle-class students to black colleges nationwide. "There is now a need for more identity in the community, and it is exercising itself in the black schools," says Washington attorney George Haley ('49), whose son graduated in 1980. Other sons of prominent Washingtonians now at Morehouse include those of D.C. City Councilman H.R. Crawford and the District recorder of deeds, Harold Bardonille.

"I had visited a number of predominantly white campuses and they were always hospitable and open. But I always had the impression I would be a guest," says Robert Mallett. "Morehouse was made for me. At a black school, when the people in charge are black and when you are reprimanded you knew it was because you were wrong."

Like many colleges, Morehouse is concerned about the impact of the country's financial upheavals on its endowment and worries that it doesn't have its own safety net. It shares with many predominantly black institutions concerns over the suggestion that black colleges may no longer be necessary, the financial inability of many minority students to attend college and the need to update its curriculum to meet today's job market.

The status of black males in society at large is particularly worrisome to Morehouse, in the face of recent reports that there are now more black men in prison than in college. "The social indicators don't look good for black males. We have to be a focus for that improvement," says President Keith. At the game, Robbie Dix ('67), an attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Joseph Arrington ('58), of the city's Department of Human Services, were discussing that issue. "Just look at the federal prisons, look at what's happening to black males. That's why we need a Morehouse," said Dix.

More than anything, Morehouse has been successful at perpetuating its aura. Russell Adams ('52), now chairman of the Afro-American history department at Howard, remembers taking a group of students to his alma mater some years ago. "The students looked quizzically and said, 'This is it?' I told them Morehouse is two-thirds invisible. Morehouse is as much a set of ideas as anything else."

When Morehouse alums see Henry M. Thompson ('66) headed their way, they say, "Here comes Dr. Lookup."

Thompson, a data base coordinator for the D.C. Board of Education, earned that nickname two ways. First, he's short. "When I got to campus, I had this briefcase, and I would walk around looking up," says Thompson. The college nickname also stuck, his friends say, because Thompson, who is president of the Washington alumni chapter, is always pulling out his master list of members and "looking up" who owes dues.

When he decided to go to Morehouse, Thompson was trying to escape the influence of his family. "It was the college with the least amount of connections to my family, and I could strike out on my own," says Thompson. He was immediately swept up by the mythic presence of educator Benjamin E. Mays, the college's president for 27 years. "He made you feel a cut above," says Thompson. "In chapel he would say, 'There are three great men in this world -- Martin Luther King Jr., Mordecai Wyatt Johnson and Benjamin Elijah Mays, and the greatest of these is Benjamin Elijah Mays.' " He laughs as he tells the story, but he says the students dutifully applauded.

The Washington alumni group -- the largest outside Atlanta -- includes 50 lawyers, 40 doctors and five members of the Morehouse board of trustees. They are attorney Hudson; physicians Mazique and Saunders; T.M. Alexander Sr., an insurance executive; and Rep. Crockett (D-Mich.).

The chapter is the school's largest fund-raising group, and last year 25 percent of the freshman class came from the Washington area. Among the Washington network are Rep. Owens (D-N.Y.); D.C. school board member Calvin Lockridge; Hardy Franklin Sr., director of the D.C. libraries; Julius E. Coles, a director at the Agency for International Development; attorneys William Earle, Claude Bailey and George Crawford of the Corporation Counsel's office; former D.C. City Councilman Rev. Jerry Moore, pastor of the 19th Street Baptist Church; Rev. Henry Miles, pastor of the Third Baptist Church; and Robert Simmons, executive vice president of the medical staff at Providence Hospital.

Ralph Everett ('73) went on to Duke Law School and was associate attorney general in North Carolina before coming to Capitol Hill, where he is now chief counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee. He has a picture of Benjamin Mays on his office wall. Another Morehouse Man on the Hill is S. Howard Woodson III ('74), legislative director for Rep. Charles A. Hayes (D-Ill.).

Jerry Washington, the disc jockey known as the 'Bama on WPFW-FM, is a non-degreed Morehouse Man but vigorously promotes the alumni's events. He attended the school for four years but didn't have enough money to finish his last 12 credit hours. "I got the indoctrination though," he says wryly. After Morehouse, he spent 22 years in the Army. "I think it caused me to do the best I could at what I did. It is adapting that mystique to what you want. I went to school not to change the world, but to live better than my daddy."

The network works. When Greene started International Business Services Inc. with $500 in 1969, he called Hudson to draw up the incorporation papers.

When George Haley ran for Congress in Montgomery County last year, five Morehouse men actively worked in his campaign. When his law firm was changing its word processing system, Mallett convinced the attorneys to donate it to Morehouse.

When M. Jerome Woods ('52) became head of the city's Department of Human Services this summer, he received 200 calls and letters from Morehouse men, and he has 10 Morehouse Men on his staff. When Mazique needed $1,000 for the Shiloh Baptist Church Life Center, he made one phone call to a Morehouse Man. "He said I'll match what you give," recalls Mazique.

Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse in September 1944, determined to study medicine, but was soon persuaded by the charismatic Mays that his calling was the ministry. But even before he knew that, King said, he knew that "nobody there was afraid."

Mays was a man of courage, and in 1945 he told his students: "It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College ... to produce clever graduates, men fluent in speech and able to argue their way through; but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private -- men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting the ills."

"Tweed," as King was called because of his sharp attire, was not alone in falling under Mays' hypnotic spell. "Dr. Mays would talk about 'free men in a semifree world and semifree men in a slave world.' It was the first time I had heard someone talk like that," remembers Hardy Franklin Sr. ('50). "He would always hold your elbow with his left hand and then shake with his right and he would look you dead in the eye. He would always call you Mister. I was 16 and someone was calling me Mr. Franklin. Well, you begin to think differently."

The mandatory daily chapel meetings, at which Mays preached on Tuesdays, also included discourses on almost everything. "You learned how to eat, how to dress, how to bathe, how to groom yourself, how to speak," says Ed Saunders ('49). "And we heard Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Jay Saunders Redding, Richard Wright, Ralph Bunche."

Another Morehouse tradition is working hard at being smart. "The hero at Morehouse was a four-pointer. And you got $125 in tuition if you had an all-A semester," remembers Adams. The all-night discussions in the dorm were so intense, Adams says, that the students prepared in the library for the sessions.

"The bulk of my education was the learning experience I got from the other people. When you confessed your dreams, they said, 'Yes, you can do it,' " says Lamar Wilson, ('75), a Washington wholesale art dealer.

Even those who came into conflict with school policy could be surrounded by the school's benevolent paternalism. James Early, an administrator at the Smithsonian Institution, was one of the students who took over the administration building in the spring of 1969. Early also hung out with a group of "marginal" students, who drank and smoked grass. When he appeared before the board of trustees, which included Martin Luther King Sr., Charles Merrill and President Gloster, the first question he was asked was "Do you love Morehouse?" Says Early, "I thought how odd with all these criminal activities {the school had charged him with} ... Morehouse never had us arrested. They would never do that. Morehouse protected its own." His total punishment was suspension of his degree for one year.

Being in the forefront of the fight for racial justice was and is a strong element in the Morehouse heritage. But Hudson remembers that academic excellence was always the priority. "When I was there, {we could not take} the LSAT or medical entrance examination at Morehouse because of segregation. We had to go to Emory. And the academic dean said, 'We are going to solve the race question another day, but today would you go over there and do well on these exams.' "

"Dr. Lookup" Thompson is already immersing his two sons, ages 8 and 10, in the myths of Morehouse. "They have Morehouse sweat shirts, naturally. If I don't over-Morehouse them they will go," he says.

That confidence is part of another Morehouse maxim, Thompson says: "We are not conceited, we are convinced.