The telephone rang in Jerry Claiborne's office.

It was Rick Jennings, a former Maryland running back who then played for the Oakland Raiders. Jennings had returned a kick for a touch-down only hours before. Claiborne had already heard. He usually does.

"I suppose you want me to pat you on the back just because you scored a touchdown," Claiborne growled.

"No," Jennings replied innocently. "I just wanted to know how all the guys are doing."

Claiborne smiled.

"Sure you did," the coach said.

Besides Claiborne's six-figure income - among the highest paid in college coaching - the rewards unique to his job include late-night telephone calls and visits at spring practice by former players.

Coaching football is a special and overwhelming part of Claiborne's life.Asked what he would be doing if he were not a college coach, Claiborne though long and answered. "I probably would have been a high school coach."

The professional game is an irresistible lure for many coaches. But to some college football is a world in itself ineligible for comparisons of any kind.

"I think college football is a unique occasion," said Claiborne. "Fans come and open their tailgates. Alumini return to campus and see each other - it's all part of the college game.

"The fans get to know the players. Some of them go down the roster and they know more about these players than I do."

Coaching the college game is perhaps the best job there is in football once recruiting is finished.

"I've never coached the pros," said Claiborne, "but I like working with youngsters in the developing stage. It's not like coaching pros who have been around for eight or 10 years and maybe don't have much more to learn. In college, it's more of a teaching process and that's the enjoyment of it.

To take a new group each year and mold into your scheme requires a little more doing, a little more challenge.

"If you're coaching somebody who makes more money than you, who has control? The player? The coach? The owner? I don't know."

Although Claiborne must endure the college coach's curse of recruiting, he never has to call players into his office and fire them. He can become more personally involved with his players, and he does.

"I'm fairly close to them," said Claiborne. "With a youngster, you're helping them with academics and other things in their lives. It's a different type of relationship. With a professional, it's his job.

"I still get letters from players. Randy White (defensive tackle now with the Cowboys) has called several times since he left. Tommy Walker (who played for Claiborne at Virginia Tech) brings his kids to watch spring practice."

Because college students are not playing under million-dollar contracts, it has been theorized that only they play with the all-out enthusiasm the game was designed for.

"I think there's more hustle in the entire group," said Claiborne. "College kids get out of the huddle faster.

"I think the college game is more exciting. I read that in college there are more long runs, more long passes and more plays run.

"In the pros, the zone defense took away the long bomb. The defensive people are so big and strong that they have to control the ball."

Claiborne has talked with some professional teams about various jobs and doesn't rule out a future move in that direction. After reading of the rich pro contracts signed by then-college coaches John McKay and DIck Vermeil, a coach has no choice but to listen.

But for now, it seems, the love affair between college football and Jerry Claiborne is a perfect match. Claiborne, in fact, had a hard time comparing the college and pro games.

One reason is that Claiborne is not one to offend. The other?

"I can't remember," he said, "when was the last time I sat and watched an entire professional football game."