Few treasures inspire the passions of "the ring," and few can exact such sacrifices of young men. For four years, they live monastically in a corner of this seductive southern city, obeying a strict military code of conduct that prescribes everything from table manners to the contents of each dresser drawer.

What drives them is the right to wear a gold oval conferred like knighthood, "the ring" that confirms their passage through The Citadel.

The Citadel is a military college of the old-fashioned sort, an American Sparta in the age of permissiveness. Even as the military service academies, such as West Point, admit women and liberalize campus life, The Citadel maintains the male exclusivity and the restrictiveness set out by its founders 144 years ago.

Unlike the service academies, however, The Citadel, a state institution, charges tuition and does not require military service for cadets after graduation. Only half enter the military.

"We try to pass to young people the moral and ethical values that have undergirded Western civilization to date," said retired Army major general James A. Grimsley Jr., the college's president. "The Citadel has never wavered from that ideal."

The Citadel, to be sure, accommodates modern times when necessary. Faced with a federal desegregation order in 1980, the school that contributed many officers to the Army of the Confederacy has more than doubled its black enrollment in the last five years. Today, 8 percent of the 2,000 students are black. They are excused from having to sing the school fight song, "Dixie."

Freshmen hazing, for years a Citadel staple made famous by the novel and movie "The Lords of Discipline," has been strictly prohibited since a college president resigned in 1980 -- partly as a protest against such abuses.

"Times have changed, and we've changed with them," Grimsley said.

Still, it is the tradition of relentless discipline set in the antebellum society of citizen-soldiers that draws teen-agers to The Citadel today, steels them and underlines the value of the college ring as a badge of survival.

Indeed, The Citadel is enjoying unusual popularity after lean years during the Vietnam war. More than three applicants compete for each spot -- mostly from South Carolina and the rest of the South, where military tradition runs deep.

"It's honor and duty, the qualities of Robert E. Lee that we're all about," said senior Luke Kissam, 21.

Symbols of those virtues are engraved in the cherished college ring: a rifle, saber, wreath and five-pointed "Star of the West," the name of the Union steamer shelled en route to Fort Sumter by a detachment of Citadel cadets as the Civil War began.

The ring takes on mystical power for denizens of a cloistered culture. Seniors receive it early in their final year at a "ring ceremony" in the college chapel. They celebrate it at the "ring hop." There is barracks talk that it contains so much gold that the alumni association has to subsidize it. In fact, seniors pay $322 for it, signing a pledge to return it if they fail to graduate.

"When it gets rough, I tell myself I could have gone someplace else and had a good time," said senior Phil Simmons, 21. "But when I get the ring, there will be no time as good."

Junior Charles Dunn, 21, said he dreams about the ring. "Sometimes, there's a big set of lips, saying, 'You can't have the ring,' " he said. "Then, I see a giant ring and go to grab it. But I can't reach it. Something keeps hitting back my hands."

"The ring is a visible sign that you conquered The Citadel," said retired Army colonel T. Nugent Courvoisie, a former assistant commandant. "We threw you into the whirlpool, and you passed the test."

The test begins after a freshman passes through Lesesne Gate onto The Citadel grounds, 110 acres of South Carolina low country abutting the Ashley River. There, he finds tall oak trees dripping Spanish moss and white, Moorish-style buildings enclosing the center of campus like a military fortress.

Assigned to a batallion and company, he receives uniforms, the "Blue Book" of regulations and a haircut so short that first-year cadets are known as "knobs." On "Hell Night," upperclassmen rouse the initiates from their beds, shout at them and order push-ups in the barracks quadrangle while a bugler plays taps.

For a full year, a freshman must sit at attention on the edge of his chair while eating meals, walk in single file in sidewalk gutters known as "knobs' alley," polish his shoes and brass to glassy perfection and remain silent in most public places. "Don'ts" range from running on stairways to carrying reading material to the toilet.

Upperclassmen cannot physically or psychogically attack knobs but can "verbally reprimand" them for violations of the rules. Certain cadet officers are authorized to mete "on-the-spot correction" in the form of 15 push-ups an hour, 60 a day.

Retired admiral James Bond Stockdale, who served as school president from 1979 to 1980, said freshmen came to him "in emotional shell shock" from hazing and were dropping out in droves. Stockdale, who received the Medal of Honor for bravery while imprisoned by the North Vietnamese, said he ordered seniors to read Herman Melville's novella "Billy Budd" to teach them that "responsibility could not be carried out with brutality."

Grimsley said the freshman attrition rate has fallen dramatically since "we cut out the nonsense. There's nothing military about hazing."

Knob initiation is intended to ingrain Citadel principles. Although the pressure eases after the first year, campus life remains highly regimented, with 22 separate bugle calls daily from reveille at 6:30 a.m. to taps at 11 p.m.

The "Blue Book," a half-inch-thick manual, spells out the rules: mandatory class attendance, military haircuts, 6 p.m. curfews for authorized trips to town, no beards, no civilian clothing, no hitchhiking, no public gum chewing or smoking in uniform, no profanity, no gambling and no sunglasses without a prescription.

A beefy, one-time Marine drill sergeant named Harvey Dick administers the rules. In his office is a picture of two bulls locking horns and the words, "Lord, forgive those who don't see things my way."

"Everyone has certain rules to live by," said Dick, the assistant commandant. "We help young men to get in the habit."

Rules are enforced by a demerit system for such minor infractions as a missing button or unauthorized television-watching. For each demerit in excess of the monthly allowance, cadets receive a 50-minute "confinement" to barracks or a 50-minute "tour" marching with rifle and uniform in the quadrangle.

More serious offenses, such as possession of alcohol on campus or more than four hours absence without permission, can bring penalties of 120 "tours," enough to consume all of a cadet's free time for months.

An Honor Code strictly forbids cheating, lying, stealing or failing to report a fellow student for any of those offenses. A cadet accused of violating the code is formally tried before the Honor Court of 10 cadets supervised by a faculty member.

The defendant can hire a private lawyer to help prepare his case but can be represented in court only by a fellow cadet. A unanimous decision is necessary for conviction. A guilty cadet can be expelled or given "leniency" -- 120 tours. He has the right of appeal to the college president.

Last year, a senior was expelled for cheating on a take-home test a few months before his graduation. He asked a South Carolina circuit court to overturn the expulsion, claiming he was denied due process. The court upheld The Citadel.

A Citadel graduate gains far more than honor. In South Carolina, the ring is an important calling card, opening doors for jobs or bank loans. In a state steeped in military tradition and military bases, Citadel men are considered the cream of the crop.

Far fewer Citadel men rise to top military jobs than graduates of West Point and the Naval and Air Force academies, which train students specifically for military careers. But The Citadel, offering a liberal arts curriculum, contributes heavily to the South Carolina business and political establishment. Graduates include Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) and former governor John C. West.

"There's a Citadel graduate in every hamlet of South Carolina," said Arthur Wilcox, editor of The News and Courier of Charleston. "They have a network which functions in their behalf. If you need a favor, you know where to get it."

Wilcox said he believes that the power of the ring will extend even to black graduates, who share few of the school's southern traditions but find a certain equality in a system that treats all newcomers as lowly knobs.

"Those who get into The Citadel find themselves in the mainstream of South Carolina," he said. "When they blacks get out, they'll be recognized as just another member of the clan."

Chip Lilliewood, 21, a black senior from Columbia, S.C., said racial tension at The Citadel melts in the uniformity of campus life. He said he expects to tap the influential alumni network after graduation.

"I'm sure there will be a few good old boys," he said. "But for the most part, those guys are going to help."

After all, he will be wearing the ring