"To be quite honest, it's a lot like a sport. It's recruiting talent in high school," said the coach. "It's building a strong program and keeping your alumni support. You have to get scholarships for your team and you have to practice and practice."

Coach Dennis Beagen of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti spoke not of football, basketball or track. He is the forensic coach at Eastern Michigan and yesterday at Fairfax County's George Mason University, Eastern Michigan dominated the seventh annual national championship tournament in individual speaking events, as it has for the last several years.

Sponsored by the National Forensic Association a group dedicated to the encouragement of intercollegiate competition in public speaking, the tournament pitted more than 1,900 students from 150 colleges in 37 states against each other in five days of intensive speech competition.

It reflects, is sponsors say, a phenomenonal surge of interest in public speaking at college campuses across the nation. Seven years ago, they note, the competition drew only 300 entries.

"Aristotle said, 'Speech is the demonstration of man's power of thought,'" mused Dr. Seth C. Hawkins of Southern Connecticut State College, president of the Forensic Association. "That's what we're seeing demonstrated here today."

A far cry from the days of sleepy college deabting societies, speech competition has now reached the point where coaches talked in terms of recruiting raw talent, the amount of scholarship aid at their disposal, and there are dark mutterings of talent radis and other unsavory practices.

To prepare Eastern Michigan for the tournament, Beagan moved his 28 forensic team members into a special dormitory 10 days before the tournament began for intense practice sessions. Then, three days before the speaking started, the team arrived in Fairfax County for on-site preparation.

By contrast, Coach Bruce Manchester of George Mason said his team members practice whenever they can, "often in a gas station at 2 p.m. when one of them finishes work." Nevertheless, of the nine separate speaking categories, Mason students were finalists in three.

"I think people realize the value of communication and that's why the specific competition are thriving now," Manchester said. "Communication skills are what the employers are looking for. If you have that they can teach you everything else."

Categories of competition in the tournament included extemporaneous and impromptu speaking, after dinner speaking, persuasive speaking and a variety of literary interpretations.

"It's something that gets in your blood and you keep doing it," said John Buckley of Pittsburgh, one of 20 students attending Ohio University on a forensic scholarship. "I had an eight grade teacher who put me up in front of a room and told me to talk and I feel in love with it." Despite four years of competitive speaking in high school and one in college, Buckleys says he still gets nervous every time he gets up in front of an audience.

"If you're not nervous you're in trouble," he said. "Nervousness is energy. Forensics is using that nervousness, that energy, in an organized way."

During the five days of competition, tournament officials said, approximately 80,000 speeches - most of them between 5 and 10 minutes long - were given. They included such exercises as one in which John Buckley and five others were given only minutes to prepare and deliver a speech on the quotation from The Taming of the Shrew:

"A woman moved is like a fountain troubled, muddy, ill-seeing, thick and bereft of beauty." Buckley and several of the other competitors managed to link the quotation to a discussion of the pros and cons of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In the after-dinner speech competition - most of which was scheduled just before dinner or right after breakfast - topics ranged from life in the bionic age to discrimination against the dead.

"The dead are our largest silent majority . . . they are not going to take discrimination lying down," warned Mark Harmon of Pennsylavia State University.