his is a state where being No. 1 is important, especially in college football, but the beloved Sooners are off to their worst start in 16 years. Perhaps Oklahomans will find solace in the fact that, if federal prosecutors are correct, the largest kickback scandal in U.S. history is unraveling right here.

So far, more than 120 present or former county commissioners across the state have pleaded guilty, been found guilty or agreed to plead guilty to federal charges (usually income tax-related) in an investigation that centers on kickbacks in the purchase of road-building and repair equipment.

David A. Russell, the U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City, says that before it is over about 250 former or present county officials and suppliers will be convicted. Here in Cleveland County, two of the three commissioners have already resigned after signing agreements to plead guilty.

Special elections are being held across the state to fill the vacant offices and--wonder of wonders-- Republicans are replacing the Good Ol' Boy Democrats who have controlled the counties, the courthouses, and justice since statehood in 1907.

Russell claims active cases in 65 of Oklahoma's 77 counties, each of which has three commissioners. The investigation, which started in southeastern Oklahoma, has also spilled across the Red River into Texas. A similar, unrelated probe is under way in neighboring Arkansas.

Information developed by FBI and Internal Revenue Service investigators includes tape recordings of paybacks actually being made to commissioners and, literally, a barnful of records of bogus transacations. Investigators estimate roughly that, in the first 100 cases, as least $25 million has been misspent.

The kickback game has been going on for years and everybody knows it. "It's nothing new," said Leroy Wheeler, a political appointee who runs the auto license tag agency here. "But I was really amazed it was this bad. I knew when a guy bought a little bulldozer he got to keep something for Christmas, but I just can't imagine signing a voucher for equipment that wasn't delivered."

The investigators have found two basic types of deals. One is a standard 10 percent kickback. The county commissioner buys a load of gravel or a road grader blade and gets 10 percent from the seller. Simple and clean, very hard to trace unless either the seller or the commissioner talks.

The other is a little more creative and results in a bigger payoff. The commissioner buys a shipment of bridge timbers, but the lumber is never delivered. The commissioner and the seller split the entire fee, less 10 percent for the person who wrote the voucher showing the sale was made.

That person was the link in the chain that made it possible, after years of rumor and innuendo, for somebody to build cases against county commissioners that would stick. IRS agents had been looking at Dorothy Griffin's lumber yard in Farris, a tiny community in southeastern Oklahoma, wondering how it could be doing that much business. One night they called and asked. For reasons they still don't understand, she told them all about it and led them to a barn where she kept copies of vouchers detailing hundreds of bogus sales going back many years.

Soon Griffin and an Oklahoma City supplier named Guy Moore were carrying FBI tape recorders to their meetings with various county officials. "Usually after we play those tapes it's not too hard to get a plea," one of the investigators said.

So far, only three cases have actually gone to trial. The result is two convictions and one nolo contendere plea, entered in the fourth day of the trial just before the damning tape was to be played in court.

Most of those charged have signed agreements to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and to obstruct the Internal Revenue Service. Additionally, they have resigned their offices and in many cases have made restitution to the county. "I've made $17,000 in restitution," former Cleveland County commissioner Billie D. Poole said as he concluded a very brief interview. Russell's office confirmed the figure.

Neither Griffin nor Moore has been granted immunity, but it is clear they will not be charged with every possible count.

"I think the 10 percent kickback probably would have been accepted by the public at large , if it had just been that," said Democratic state Sen. John Clifton, co-chairman of a special legislative committee that is studying the scandal and considering remedies. "Where it got out of hand was in the last 10 years with equipment appreciating in price. That gave suppliers and commissioners a lot of room to play . . . This type of thing infuriates the voters."

It hasn't infuriated them much in the past. Russell's office has been researching the issue and has found only one case in the state's history where a county commissioner was convicted of anything, and he received a suspended sentence. The commisioners were just too powerful to challenge.

Each commissioner is the road-repair king of his district, with vast discretion to spend county funds without review. In a rural state that depends on farm-to-market roads, the commissioner can do big favors, like have the road grader fix your private drive or find a job on the bridge-repair crew for a teen-age son.

The county commissioners also own the courthouses and allocate office space and budgets for other elected county officials, such as the district attorneys and the sheriffs. At election time, with his own future sewed up, the county commisioner delivers votes to state legislators.

"Even if the district attorney had a mind to go after 'em, he is dependent on the county commissioners for money to run his office, his staff, etc.," said Arrell M. Gibson, University of Oklahoma research professor whose history of the state is regarded as definitive. "Through tradition and sufferance," he said, the county commissioner system amounts to "77 satrapies."

J. Howard Edmondson, a reformist governor in the early 1960s, proposed changes to correct some of the abuses and the legislature ignored him. Edmondson tried an end run by getting three state questions on the ballot that would have substantially diluted the commissoners' power. Each proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by the rural coalition led from the courthouses, and Edmondson was through politically.

Only now, with indictments tumbling out of the U.S. courthouse like an oil gusher, have both a legislative committee and a governor's task force been organized to investigate and recommend. "For the first time, the county commissioners in this state are prostrate," said U.S. attorney Russell.

Once again, it's those federal prosecutors who have given the state a bad name. It was federal prosecutors who nailed former governor David Hall for extortion and bribery in 1975; it was federal prosecutors who cleaned up a justice-buying scandal in the state supreme court.

At least three possible changes in state government are now being considered, according to state officials. One would create the first statewide criminal investigative force or finance district attorney operations from state rather than county funds. Another would require counties to hire professional managers and change the commissioners into non-salaried boards of directors. A third would implement one of Edmondson's reforms: state rather than county control of roadbuilding and repairing. That is less likely, because Oklahomans like to be able to call their neighbor to get things fixed.

The scandal could also be the beginning of the end of Democratic control of county politics. Oklahomans usually vote Republican in national elections but pick their local officials in the Democratic primaries. In the 12 special elections for new county commissioners held since the scandal became public, however, nine of 10 seats once held by Democrats have gone to Republicans, including Evelyn Orth, who took Poole's seat in a special election here.

The first day Orth went to the county road maintenance barn--the center of the commissioners' political power--the workmen asked if she would let them continue to fuel their own pickup trucks at the county gasoline pump.

"I just figured it wasn't right and I decided not to let them do it," she said.