This is the story of a school that bit off more than it could chew and is now trying to figure out how to avoid a severe case of indigestion. As such it is an instructive example of what happens when higher education succumbs to the gaudy temptations of big-time intercollegiate sport without coming to grips with the unpleasant economic realities that are the dark side of the fantasy of athletic superiority.

Towson State University is an institution of modest size and decent reputation that throughout its existence has been a good citizen in the suburb of Baltimore from which it takes its name. Like many other second-tier state-supported universities around the United States, it began (in 1866) as a teachers college and over the years took on larger responsibilities; it now has an enrollment of about 15,000 students, of whom some 10,000 are undergraduates, and it has become a highly visible presence not merely in Towson itself but in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

This means any number of things, most important among them the inexpensive but entirely respectable education Towson State offers to citizens of Maryland, which is a particular benefit to residents of the immediate area, both college-age students and older ones working toward degrees while holding full- or part-time jobs. To the community at large, it means the various entertainment and cultural events staged at Towson State, the programming offered by its radio station and the many rather more intangible benefits that accrue from having a substantial institution of higher education in any community's midst.

One of these, in the minds of some, is the prestige, such as it is, that Towson State's intercollegiate athletic teams bring to the school and its surroundings. For most of its history Towson engaged in athletics on a moderate if competitive level, playing against comparable schools in the region and keeping costs down. But then, as invariably seems to happen when the process of transformation from teachers college to university reaches a certain point, Towson decided that it was ready for the big time, or at least the medium-big time.

So five years ago Towson State launched itself, to the accompaniment of much fanfare, into the National Collegiate Athletic Association's stratosphere, if not the ionosphere occupied by the likes of Oklahoma and Miami. Although almost every aspect of its athletic program was "upgraded," the most visible change was in football, where Towson entered Division I-AA competition -- and where the success it had enjoyed at less demanding levels was replaced, predictably, by defeat and disappointment.

These were compounded by indifferent attendance and, soon enough, by blistering financial headaches. The enthusiasm with which Towson boosters greeted the expanded program five years ago -- they pitched in some $100,000 to help out with scholarships and the like -- quickly turned into indifference; the level of outside support fell the next year to $20,000 and has stayed there ever since, and the entire athletic program has been dragged deep into the red.

Towson stands to lose $257,000 on its athletic program this year, a fat amount by anyone's standards but an especially troubling loss at a school where athletics already get 94 percent of their $2.8 million budget from a $270 fee imposed on students, few of whom directly or indirectly benefit from intercollegiate competition and many of whom regard the fee as an unwelcome drain on their limited resources. To its credit, Towson has not tried to disguise this loss or make it up by silently diverting funds from programs elsewhere in the university -- these being not uncommon practices in big-time college sport -- but it also has been unable to come up with the money.

As a result of this, last month the school's Intercollegiate Athletic Committee did something quite remarkable: It voted, by a thumping margin of 8 to 1, to recommend that the University Senate suspend the football program. Though this recommendation included a provision that the suspension be reviewed annually, there wasn't much doubt that it would effectively get Towson out of the football business: A football program is a cumbersome thing, involving much apparatus and a small army of support personnel, and once taken apart it is not easily, or lightly, put back together again.

The athletic committee decision had all the appearance of a fait accompli. Resistance in the University Senate seemed scattered at most, and TSU's president, Hoke Smith, sounded for all the world like a man who'd be happy to have this particular nuisance off his back. But people who welcomed the termination of TSU's ill-advised venture into the big time did not reckon with the zealotry that football arouses in those who benefit from it, not merely alumni who like to root for alma mater but also members of the press whose empires stand to shrink if a local college pares back its sports program. By late October these constituencies were in full cry, and suddenly the Towson State football program seemed to have risen from the dead.

It did just that last week, when the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee turned tail and voted, by an undisclosed margin, to recommend that athletics at the school, football included, be maintained at their present level. It did this after receiving financial assurances from various sources, including a commitment by the booster club and a newly organized alumni group to underwrite 20 football scholarships a year; there would also be what is described as a "modest" increase in the student athletic fee.

The final determination of Towson football's fate -- final, that is, for the foreseeable future -- will be made when the University Senate meets a week from today, which is to say that there is still time for the university to indulge in the luxury of careful reflection. What members of the senate and other interested parties need to ask themselves is whether the benefits to the university as a whole of continued competition in Division I-AA football are sufficient to justify the costs they impose on the university and the clear uncertainty that these costs can be met without further sapping the school's resources.

In considering this question, the senate would do well to reflect upon history. Five years ago, outside support for football rapidly dropped from $100,000 a year to $20,000. Who is to believe that in the coming five years a similar pattern will not be followed? What reason is there to think that enthusiasm for football, now so high, will be sustained if the Towson Tigers continue their losing ways? Does anyone really believe that students who have been mobilized behind football for the moment will stay mobilized in the years to come?

Most important of all, has football contributed so much to Towson State that it should be continued in the face of all this uncertainty and the likelihood of future budget deficits? Like many another school, Towson hoped that football would be a rallying point for students and community alike, but only at the moment of its near-demise has that expectation been fulfilled -- for how long, no one can say. What seems fairly certain, though, is that without football the university can look at least as hopefully to the future as it does with football, indeed all the more so since it will no longer have to wrestle with those athletic department deficits.

Will Towson State bite the bullet and say no to football? Probably not. The football crowd has a way of bullying itself into any old thing it wants, and it seems on the verge of exacting another surrender. But before the University Senate runs up the white flag, it should ask itself whether such capitulation is the proper business of a true university.