Every time it becomes necessary to offer advice or criticism to the wizards of sport the response never varies: "Hey, what do you know about all this? Get in the arena yourself and see how it feels."

After nearly a year, the arena feels as I'd imagined. It is a far smaller one than Lefty, George and their crowd have seen in decades but more thrilling and rewarding, at times, than anything that leads to long-term contracts and unlimites recruiting budgets. They call me coach, too, John Wooden.

The first experience was as an assistant with my daughter's fifth-grade softball team, a sort of G2rated Bad News Bear, where anything hit past the pitcher was a wicked blow and the coach, one of the mothers, Nydia Leiby, somehow managed to stay sober through the entire season.

She is a woman of limited skills with X's and O's but with vast, although not quite boundless, patience. To my knowledge, with a decent background in history an dhaving watched such as Billy Martin and Ted Williams at close range, she is the first manager ever to discipline a second baseman with:

"if you put that glove in your mouth one more time, you're out of the game." Did John McGraw or Connie Mack ever contend with a center fielder suddenly removing his shoes and scratching his feet with the count 2 and 1?

I could only wonder how Ted Kluszewski, batting coach of the Cincinnati Reds, would have handled two insituations. One concerned a girl who viewed the strike zone the way George Allen views the Redskin treasury - as never ending. If the pitch was between the sun and the ground, she swung.

Once during fielding practice the short-stop and leftfielder ran toward me as I was hitting grounders and attached themselves to my legs, like moss. They would not let go, even after some harsh language. For some reason, I imagined Joe Morgan and George Foster doing the same thing to Klu. And that helped, along with it being late enough to end the drill.

Minor triumphs, like a walk, brought major joy. And one moment of escstasy in the final game when a fly ball sailed toward the left fielder and, as usual, she raised her glove in its general direction and shut her eyes. Incredibly, the ball hit her glove - and stuck. You would have thought she had done something Mazeroski-like the way everyone hugged her.

In the fall, the Steelers were being soundly beaten by the Eagles in the only league where that was possible - third-grade flag football.Dissension was building rapidly, to return to action he tossed his grimy little face straight upward and snarled: "Why don't ya put in the shotgun?"

Our Steelers were sort of an expansion team, created when too many kids showed up try out for the Eagles, whose coach was a man with a flair for motivation an organization that may never again be seen on that level.

Dave had three assistant coaches who, for our game, brought along small walkie-talkies to relay tendencies from various spots about the field. Tendencies? The only thing even we coaches know would go as planned was that a defence tackle would leave the field after each series of downs and immediately leap into her mother's arms.

During practice, each player had been told his assignment on kickoff returns.Then came the real kickoff, and the returner scampered to one side of the field and everyone of his blockers ran to the other.

Before the Cowbay game, the players suddenly stopped warmups and watched, slack-jawed, at waht would shortly be across the line. He weighed 120 pounds if he weighed an ounce and stood a head taller then anyone in the league. Big Daddy Lipscomb may once have caused similiar feelings in the NFL. OUr quarterback quickly became too sick to play.

Game after game, it became increasingly difficult to remain positive, to convince these littls George Allen think-alikes that learning can be more important than winning. Even their one victory - a forfeit - had been tainted, becuse the losers, with two ringers, had won after it was decided to hold a scrimmage anyway.

In the final game, though, as Allen would put it, everything came togehter. It was backs-against-the-wall stuff, overcoming adversity, pride and poise, and mostly a kid on the other team pausing just long enough on one final charge toward the goal line for his flag to be plucked and the Steelers to score an 18-14 upset.

"It is your responsibility to help unlock the age of enthusiasm in a child," Don Linehan insists in his fine baskerball book, "Soft Touch." It had not occured to me, though, that after such a brief experience as an assistant coach somebody would throw me the key.

It was then that I realized that most head coaches are neither born nor made. They are volunteered, as in "Well, just take the team for now and we'll try to get somebody soon."

The basketball team was composed of five third-graders and two fourth-graders, and called the Trailblazers because Bullets and Nuggets already had ben as it was eager, and had a touch of irreverence.

Because everyone from Amos Alonzo Stagg through the ol'leftfooter has them, I called a team meeting early in the season and asked if anyone had any questions. Ieven brought along a large pad and pen, for diagrams in case they wanted more detail.

A hand shot up.


"When are you going on adiet?"

But they could play. In fact, with no practice, they won the season opener by 10 points. And kept rolling against one of their large and immensely talented friends, referred to in T-Ball as "The Franchise" because he smacked 14 home runs in nine games and batted a shade under 850.

They won that one, too, and ended the regular season as the only unbeaten team in the 16-team league. In truth, they won all the important games less heavily than the regular season, and there were trophies all around.

Who learned how much is impossible to totally measure. But the satisfaction here came during a 10-minute stretch of the first game. One player had cringed, covering his face with his hands when someone passed him the ball early in the game.

Later, though, he gained enough confidence to dribble a few times. Then he let one fly from 10 feet and scored - and his face took on a wonderful glow, part bewilderment, park satisfaction, as though something finally had clicked into place. It is a look every coach - even Lefty and George sees how and then, the one that keeps us all coming back.