In the spring of 1978, after a federal court ruling threatened a program vital to 126 savings and loan associations in Maryland and four other states, the industry turned to a young S&L executive from central Pennsylvania for help.

William M. Griffin, according to two former associates, successfully handled that assignment with a combination of forcefulness and tact -- two traits that are certain to prove valuable when he takes one of the most sensitive jobs in Maryland government early next month.

Griffin, 42, was appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes Tuesday to be the director of the state Division of Savings and Loan Associations, a $54,500-a-year post with built-in frustrations as long as Maryland remains mired in its nine-month S&L crisis.

"It's a very sensitive and very important job, especially under the circumstances we've gone through," said Frederick L. Dewberry, who as state secretary of Licensing and Regulation will be Griffin's new boss.

In a sense, Griffin, currently the head of the Municipal Employees Credit Union in Baltimore, will assume his new job with an advantage over his predecessor. Former division director Charles H. Brown Jr. was recently cited in a special state report as a weak administrator who turned a blind eye to the industry abuses that led to the crisis last May.

On the other hand, Griffin faces several immediate problems. The S&L crisis, said Dewberry, has left the regulatory division suffering from poor morale. Moreover, Maryland's state-chartered savings and loan industry is in disarray, caught in a popular backlash against many of those institutions, which must meet a July 1989 deadline to win federal deposit insurance or face extinction.

In addition, the industry -- and many members of the General Assembly -- are troubled by a proposal now moving through the legislature that would give Griffin and his successors unprecedented authority over the affairs of thrift associations.

"I'm not surprised Bill was the person they appointed," said Gary A. Brown, who succeeded Griffin as chief executive officer of the federally insured Cecil Federal Savings and Loan Association of Elkton, Md. Griffin worked at Cecil Federal from mid-1980 to early 1982, a period when the savings and loan industry nationwide was battered by the high cost of money. Griffin, said Brown, "was instrumental to our weathering the storm."

"While he was here he was tough, but he was respected for it," Brown added. "He's sharp, very adept at handling people and can be firm in a diplomatic manner."

Griffin, a wavy-haired man who wears large-framed eyeglasses, graduated from Steubenville University in Ohio and holds an MBA from Loyola College in Baltimore. Friends describe him as extremely hard-working. "His passion was his work," said one former colleague. "Professional business was his career -- and his hobby."

Those qualities, said Griffin's admirers, were never more apparent than in 1978, when he chaired an industry board that solved a regional banking dilemma with the creation of Financial Accounting Services Inc. (FAS).

A federal court had ordered the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh to divest itself of its data processing center -- the electronic lifeline that carried up to 30,000 transactions each day for S&Ls in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

"Eliminating the service would have been just devastating for a lot of S&Ls," recalled FAS Vice President Dan M. Frasier.

As head of the industry board, Griffin had to walk a line between those S&L executives who wanted to dissolve the central data center and those who fought to preserve it, Frasier said. In the end, FAS was formed and gave individual S&Ls the option of joining as shareholders. Of the 126 S&Ls in the region, 118 joined.

The episode showed Griffin's "very strong leadership ability," Frasier said. "No one in that board room ever felt alienated."

George P. Reichenberg, the head of the Maryland state employes credit union who has known Griffin for several years, described him today "as a man of unquestionable integrity."