Gary Cunningham already has his PhD. His higher-yet education begins this week.

"I know I have been hired to win," says UCLA's 36-year-old rookie basketball coach. "And I have been told what happens to a coach, especially a UCLA coach who loses.

"But I don't know how to talk about losing. I have experienced it so seldom.

These days Cunningham can start to learn.

Within a week his Bruins have lost to the Russian national team (an exhibition) and Notre Dame.

UCLA fans don't enjoy losing to a team from a foreign country. But losing to the Indiana Irish is worse, especially when it is the second time in one season.

Until this week, Cunningham moved through life almost unscarred, playing four years for John Wooden, then being the master's assistant for 10. He has been a hard-working angel in Westwood heaven since he was a teen-ager.

Those close to Cunningham view him with respect and fear. Not fear of him, but for him.

"Gary is capable, intelligent, moral," says his UCLA assistant Jim Harrick. "I wrorry about what will happen to him in this world."

Cunningham is the Top Ten's innocent abroad.

"He has no ego, no need for the limelight, no chip on his shoulder, no scores to settle, no backroom debts to pay, no stains on his reputation," says a Los Angeles reporter.

To the Bruin faithful, Cunningham is nothing less than Wooden's rightful heir.

Cunningham came to UCLA in 1958 as a 6-6 basketball player.And for the next 14 years Wooden covered every inch of him with his systematic basketball scripture.

Cunningham does not deny the Wooden Word, although he feels it is permissible to do a little scribbling in the margins.

"Cut the strings to the Wooden era?" he says. "Why? I'm part of that era.Its success is part of me.

"I believe in that system - the things I learned in thise years." Of Wooden, who still keeps an office in Pauley Pavilion, he says, "We are very close. We get together all the time. Why shouldn't I go to him if I have a problem?"

An austere serenity envelops both Wooden and Cunningham, especially in moments of crisis.

The heart of the Wooden-Cunningham presence is an Olympian calm, a disdain for foppish style and a willingness to testify for the fundamentalist creed in coaching and building character.

"We stress fundamentals, team play and conditioning," says Cunningham. ever forget, young people crave discipline," he says, taking care of moral philosophy in four words.

"This club never heard of team play when Gary got hold of them in July," says Harrick. "They do now."

That clipped comment is all that need to said of the two-year coaching interregnum between Wooden and Cunningham when Gene Bartow held the Bruin reins in his wishy-washy hands. No team play translates into no discipline, no order, no UCLA.

Wooden didn't want Bartow as first choice for successor. He preferred either of his longtime assistants, Denny Crum or Cunningham. Neither was available. Crum was happy and well paid at Louisville.

Cunningham, them 34, an age when most coaches are still at the high school level, passed up a chance for the nation's No. 1 coaching plum to become UCLA's alumni director.

In two years, Bartow lost nine games, won 52 - and fled Westwood, a frazzled bundle of nerves, a victim of UCLA pressure.

"Gene himself said he was just too sensitive about the whole thing," Wooden now says sympathetically. "Very unfortunate. Sensitive people are usually pretty good people."

It was often said that beneath Wooden's archdeacon's mien was the grisle of a street fighter. His expression was wooden, but, oh, the things he hissed at the officials behind that rolled-up program.

"Wooden was hard as nails underneath. Gary hasn't had the 30-year climb to the top that Wooden did," says one man who travels with the UCLA team.

"I can be forceful when I have to be," says Cunningham. "But I'm a secure person. I don't need to be the center of attention."

If Wooden was a purist, he also was a fanatic about victory. Cunningham a sterling analyst of strategy, may prove to be simply a purist.

"He doesn't care about anything that happens outside the court," says Harrick.

"It's the game that fascinates him, not recruiting, or jockeying for officials, or scheduling," says anther close observer.

After UCLA's second loss to Notre Dame, Cunningham seemed almost unmoved. Where was the sternly repressed fury that would have lurked behind Wooden's eyes, his menacing measured pronouncements?

"This was a great game for basketball, full of strategy," he said of the South Bend struggle, warming to a discussion of three-forward offenses and backdoor plays. "I'm proud of the way we came back."

With four seconds left and the Bruins behind by a point, Wilkes of UCLA stood at the foul line for one-and-one. How familiar.

Only this time it was not Keith-Jamaal (Silk) Wilkes, but James Wilkes, no relation, indeed.

Keith Wilkes would have made those free throws, not because he had ice water in the veins but because he had the icy eye of Wooden in the pit of his back.

Of course, Cunningham cannot duplicate his mentor. Nevertheless, it may be enough to satisfy the demands of Westwood that Cunningham has brought a sense of composure and ironclad self-assurance back to UCLA's court presence.

Al McGuire and Richard Phelps - Dirty Al and The Digger - watched the Blue and Gold sprint through a fierce and silent practice last weekened with a kind of worried fascination.

"UCLA looks like a team that is at peace with itself again," said ex-Marquette coach McGuire.

"UCLA'll make the Final Four no question," proclaimed Phelps after the victory. "Best guards in the country and much improved inside in just the last month. Gary's got 'em rolling now. And they'll get better."

McGuire was perhaps more candid:

"It usually takes an aircraft carrier (power center) to get you to the Final Four and they don't have one. David Greenwood (6-9) is a velvet player, not a cement mixer like Kentucky and Notre Dame's big kids. Their bench gets short in a hurry after their eighth man and they're a little soft at one starting forward (Wilkes). But Cunningham really has them playing like a team and that'll beat a lot of talent."

Phelps , McGuire and Cunningham holding court on the same floor, as they did Saturday at the UCLA practice, is like two peacocks in conversation with a plucked chicken.

McGuire may have invented the hip, high-profile style in college coaching. Phelps now epitomizes it.

McGuire, dressed in a coat of many Marquette colors - red, orange, yellow, blue - threw an arm around Phelps, who was clad in sheepskin coat and huge cowboy hat.

Cunningham, in an old out-of-season blue Levi's sport coat, flicked his eyes from Disco Digger to Motorcycle McGuire with a detached amusement worthy of Wooden.