One of the great all-too-unspoken pursuits of big-time colleges today is the mad dash after hot-prospect athletes -- and all the gross cheating that goes into ''recruiting.'' Even if you grant that most of this country's institutions of higher learning don't take the low road to field good teams, the stories of underhanded maneuvers don't quit -- they just get sleazier. And unlike the referee who spots a foul, too many of those who see dirty recruiting plays are reluctant to blow the whistle. The story of one Alfredo (Tito) Horford, as outlined by Post reporter Michael Wilbon the other day, is one to watch, however, because it is grubby enough to repulse more than a few college coaches across the country -- including American University basketball coach Ed Tapscott.

Mr. Horford, a 19-year-old 7-footer from the Dominican Republic, moved to Houston with the desire and talent to play big-time basketball power. What he learned from the younger players, apparently, was all about underhanded efforts of some other coaches to lure the athlete to their institutions. ''There were so many unsavory practices going on,'' Coach Tapscott told reporter Wilbon, ''the type of things you give consideration for going to the NCAA with. This is perhaps the worst recruiting situation in history.''

According to Mr. Tapscott, the player said representatives of one school had offered straight cash; those of another institution offered to pay money to the Dominican team that Mr. Horford had played for, and to pay an insurance policy if his American college team didn't make the NCAA tournament. There have been other reports that schools offered him a car, a job for his brother, a promise to make sure his girlfriend was admitted to school and an insurance policy.

Coach Tapscott has said he is considering turning in these institutions to the NCAA, but is concerned about what the NCAA will do: whether Mr. Horford may be made a ''scapegoat,'' whether the account may be dismissed as merely the word of one young player about the whole system or whether action may have a constructive effect. In talking about all this openly, Mr. Tapscott already has done a service to college sports -- and that is the spirit in which any further steps he takes should be considered.