By any reasonable standard, James J. Unger of Georgetown University is the winningest coach in the Washington area and one of the winningest in the country.

Four times in the past six years, his teams have been rated number one in the annual coaches' poll. In post-season competition, they have reached the national finals three times since 1973, and they won in 1977.

To put together his winning combinations, Unger recruits nationwide and selects only the top high school talent to compete for a position on the Georgetown squad.

Yet, beyond a relatively limited circle of colleagues and competitiors, Unger remains largely unknown.

For the past 10 years, Unger has been the coach of the Georgetown debating team, a group of about 20 students who, over the past decade, have demonstrated mastery of a skill that has become a lost art in other places.

Like any winning coach, he finds hard work, lots of practice and endless hours of drill the keys to success.

Typically, his team members report to campus a month before classes begin in September to prepare for the season.

Most will spend the better part of the school holidays at Georgetown honing competitive skills or on the road in tournament competition. Instead of going home for Thanksgiving, they are staying in town where, beginning tomorrow, Georgetown will host a major national tournament that is expected to include teams from more than 100 colleges.

According to other coaches, the work pays off.

"Jim is regarded as a pacesetter in terms of theory and technique of debate," says Prof. J.W. Patterson, debate coach at the University of Kentucky and one of the leading figures in intercollegiate debating. "He is regarded as one of the two or three best coaches in the nation. If there is any criticism of Jim, it is that his teams are over-coached, but they always acquit themselves well."

Like college football teams, the word about college debates teams gets around.

"It was known in high school that if you were really serious about college debating, you went to Georgetown and debated for Jim Unger," says Thomas Rollins, a member of last year's championship team.

"A former national champion debater. Unger came to Georgetown in 1967 fresh out of Harvard Law School to replace William Reynolds, who was retiring. Even then, Georgetown had a formidable reputation in intercollegiate debating circles.

From 1921 to 1939, the university had an 18-year winning streak in debate. The team, known as the Philodemic (meaning love of words) Debating Society, dates back to 1830 and is thought to be one of the oldest in the nation.

Each year before the debating season opens, the American Forensic Association - the NCAA of college debate - selects a single proposition that will be the subject of every college debate and tournament throughout the year. This year's proposition is, "Resolved: The federal government should implement a program to guarantee employment opportunities for all United States citizens in the labor force."

According to Unger, topics are deliberately kept broad to permit a variety of arguments and cases. Previous subjects have dealt with consumer product safety, reform of the criminal justice system and the way in which American presidents are elected.

At any tournament, a team reaching the finals will have to debate the issue 12 times - six in the affirmative, six in the negative.

Thus, debaters have to be thoroughly familiar with nearly all the pros and cons of the issue. Additionally, it's considered wise for a debater to refrain from forming a strong personal opinion on it himself.

"It can affect the way you argue," says Jim Kirkland, a sophomore from Buffalo, N.Y., and one of two members of Georgetown's first-string debating team.

Since mid-summer, Kirkland has been gathering information on the topic and recording it on file cards that he stores in long portable file drawers. He estimates he has filled out 10,000 file cards already this year, and before the year is over the number will be closer to 20,000. He brings every one of them to each debate.

He and his partner, sophomore John Thompson of St. Paul, Minn., will probably represent Georgetown at 10 debates this year - provided they can keep their status as Goergetown's number one debaters. There are anywhere from a dozen to 18 teammates who would like nothing better than to replace Kirkland and Thompson as Georgetown's premier debaters, and Unger plays it cagey when they ask about the permanency of their status. For example, one of the choices tournament trips is a three-tournament, 10-days West Coast swing that includes matches at the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Fullerton. Unger won't commit himself on who will draw that assignment.

"It's wisest to have a certain element of uncertainty," he says.

For the full academic year, Georgetown will participate in approximately 30 debates. The 20 assignments not give to the number one team will be divided among other team members.

Each debate follows a specific format: 10 minutes of opening argument by each of the four participates (essentially presenting cases for the proposition and the arguments against those case), three minutes of cross-examination after each opening argument, then five minutes of rebuttal by each speaker.

Each side is allowed 10 minutes for preparation. "Usually that time is best saved for rebuttal," says Kirkland. "That's where the debates are almost always won or lost."

Since he's been coaching the Georgetown debaters, Unger says, almost half have gone on to law school.

"A debater tends to be a person who is very much interested in persuasion," says Unger. "They tend to be highly competitive and they tend to be extremely hard workers. About 75 percent of our people go into law, business where communication is involved, or teaching."

Most debaters say they got into debating in junior high school or early in high school.

"It was something I was especially good at and it was unbelievably stimulating," says Rollins. "During high school it was head and shoulders above any of the educational experiences the schools were offering."

Adds John Walker, a 1977 national champion from Georgetown, "It's one of the few activities where your opponents can also be your best friends. I debated a guy from Kansas every year for three years, and we're the best of friends."