Shelley Fabares of ABC's "Coach" takes the long view about TV series:

"The first couple of years of the show, everybody's finding their way, the writers are finding their way, with each individual character. It seems to me, over the years, some shows fall together, but most shows evolve. Unfortunately, some aren't around long enough to do that."

Whether "Coach" will survive the programmers' axe and get the time to evolve, only ABC can say -- and at this writing, hasn't. "Coach," which airs Tuesdays at 9:30, gets bumped this week and next for "The Women of Brewster Place" and is due to return May 15.

But with a 43-year career to her credit, Fabares knows whereof she speaks.

Born Michele Fabares -- the name is French, from Alsace-Lorraine, and pronounced FABA-RAY -- she began her career as a 3-year-old model. At 9, she guested on a live TV special with Frank Sinatra, who sang his hit "Young at Heart" to her. She appeared on a TV adaptation of "Our Town" with Sinatra, Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, and was a regular on "The Mickey Mouse Club."

The '60s were beach-bunny days for the girl from Santa Monica: She showed up in three Elvis Presley films ("Clambake" in 1967, "Spinout" in 1966 and "Girl Happy" in 1965) and made "Ride the Wild Surf" (1964) with crooner Fabian and "Hold On!" (1966) with Herman's Hermits. In 1962, she recorded a million-seller, "Johnny Angel," which hit No. 1.

Fabares' career also numbers six television series, including ABC's long-running "Donna Reed Show" and later, CBS' "One Day at a Time." In 1971, she played in "Brian's Song," the well-regarded -- if tear-jerking -- television movie about the Chicago Bears' Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer.

So as "Coach" wound down, and not knowing whether it would be picked up for next season, she was reflective.

The title character, Hayden Fox (Craig T. Nelson), is a denizen of the world of men's college athletics. Helping coach the Minnesota State Screaming Eagles are his long-time assistant, Luther Van Dam (Jerry Van Dyke), and his student-coach, Dauber Dybinski (Bill Fagerbakke).

"Jerry is very much like Luther," said Fabares. "Barry Kemp {the show's creator/writer/producer} created that role for Jerry. They've been friends for a very long time. A lot of Luther's wonderful, endearing qualities come from Jerry."

But there are also women in Fox's life: television anchor Christine Armstrong (Fabares), his long-time girlfriend; and his daughter Kelly (Clare Carey), who enrolled at Minnesota State as a freshman. In the show's second season, Kelly married the sensitive, artsy Stuart Rosebrock, whose penchant for breaking into tears appalls Fox.

This season brought the arrival of two more women, Judy Watkins, a basketball coach who won't cave in to Fox's blatant male chauvinism, and the new president of the university, with whom he once had a short affair.

And therein lies the true focus of "Coach": relationships, not sports. Rarely -- if ever -- has "Coach" gone to a playing field. Instead, stories are set in Fox's somewhat rustic house, his office at the college and the sports-oriented restaurant he favors. Occasionally we see Christine's apartment, a classroom or another office, such as that of the college president or of a professor.

"The show is about the coach and the relationships in his life," agreed Fabares, "but it certainly serves Hayden well if you learn more about the different people in his life. Clearly Christine is a very successful woman and is firmly entrenched in her career and loves her work. And she loves this man.

"There's been more of a focus this year on Hayden and Christine's relationship. Obviously, I enjoy that. I love to work. I like how they have our relationship developing. They've been very clear from the beginning that Hayden and Christine both sort of came into the relationship with the same idea: Neither one was looking for a relationship, but they met and everything happened between them.

"I think Hayden and Christine are at an interesting point in their relationship where they are moving forward, but both are frightened -- Hayden much more.

"It's a difficult problem in life to find your balance. We're all going through the same things. I have a wonderful relationship with my husband (actor-producer Mike Farrell), but I'm still a career woman."

Fabares' personal and work lives came together April 17 when Farrell appeared as her former beau. The guest appearance was supposed to be a surprise for her.

"It was fun to do, I must say," said Fabares. "In fact, when Barry Kemp asked Mike to do it, they were going to keep it a surprise, but it turned out that Jerry Van Dyke spilled the beans. Jerry said to me, 'Why didn't you tell me about next week?' I had no idea what he was talking about."

Previously, Fabares and Farrell had appeared in a TV movie called "Memorial Day" and in play readings that included parts of Neil Simon's "California Suite."

"Mike and I both enjoyed it and we would be happy to do it again," she said. "But we really both feel we have our individual careers and if they coincide, that's great.

"I would like to see the witty, elegant, 1940s-style sophisticated movies come back. Since Mike is now a producer, I keep whispering to him to make one of those."

Fabares, whose 1964 marriage to record producer Lou Adler ended three years later, tied the knot with Farrell in December 1984 in a garden wedding at the home of her father's sister, actress Nanette Fabray (who altered slightly the family surname). The Farrells live in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with his three teenagers, two sons and a daughter.

But these days, Fabares has a new concern and a continuing project. One involves her mother, the other a tribute to the woman who was her television mom.

For the past 18 months, Fabares has worried about her 78-year-old mother, who was diagnosed in November 1988 with multiple infarction dementia. In early April, Fabares testified on Capitol Hill along with others speaking about dementias such as Alzheimer's disease. (An accurate diagnosis cannot be made until autopsy, she noted.)

Now 46, Fabares wonders about her own genetic heredity. "That's a concern for everyone who has someone in the family with Alzheimer's, my sister (Nanette Echols, 49) included. We have to have more research. It's meant an endless amount of time and tears."

Her aunt, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress/comedian Nanette Fabray, became deaf in mid-career, but later had her hearing restored, said Fabares.

On the other hand, Fabares is enthusiastic over the annual four-day Donna Reed Festival for the Performing Arts in Reed's home town, Denison, Iowa, the first weekend each June. The project, organized by a foundation whose members are friends and relatives of the actress, honors Reed, who died in January 1986, and provides scholarships for Iowa students seeking a career in acting. Fabares is vice-president of the group.

From 1958 to 1963 on "The Donna Reed Show," Fabares played Reed's daughter, Mary Stone, and the two forged a lifelong friendship. During that time, Fabares recorded the teen love song that earned her a gold record.

"This comes from my absolute enduring love and admiration for Donna," said Fabares. "This is the fourth year we have done the festival. We fly in from L.A. actors, directors, producers. It's a four-day theatrical workshop open to the public for very nominal fees. It's quite wonderful. We'd like to have our classes accredited.

"We were able to buy a beautiful little 1913 opera house and we have plans to refurbish it and restore it to its original state, to bring people into that area and to have live theater in western Iowa. It will be gorgeous when we get it all finished.

"We work all year long with the people in Denison -- they're wonderful people and they just work their heads off all year long. I like people to know about it."