"It's a young man's game," Lefty Driesell, 46, said of college basketball coaching. Well, it is and it isn't. A whippersnapper of 37, Bob Gaillard, is getting out; a fossil of 64, Ray Meyer, has DePaul deep into the NCAA playoffs. And Dick Harter, 47, is again donning his bib overalls - or whatever costume one uses to rebuild teams.

Harter has taken teams on both coasts - Penn and Oregon - form gloom to the top 20. Yesterday, he returned east, to Penn State, which had plowed next to nothing into its basketball program for decades and harvested next to nothing in return.

As Driesell suggested, only men with a special hunger succeed in semiamateur hoops, men willing to travel nearly anywhere nearly anytime to recruit youngsters with adult skills. And lifting a program from nowhere to the top 20 takes twice as much energy.

"Philadelphia tonight, Pittsburgh tomorrow," Harter was saying over the phone, "then Philadelphia the next night and Washington as soon as we possibly can. If I didn't want to work, I wouldn't be here."

What it took for Harter to succeed at Penn and Oregon is exactly what it will take for Harter to lift basketball to Paterno-like esteem at Penn State. It was best defined by none other than Meyer, when he was full of zest and in possession of the nonpareil George Mikan.

"If a college team has one outstanding player, it will be tough," Meyer wrote ever so long ago. "If it has two outstanding players, it's going to beat most opponents. If it has three outstanding players, it will beat everybody."

Why Penn State?

"Because it's close to the players," Harter said, referring to the hoop hotbeds of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Ohio. At Oregon, Harter's two best players, Ron Lee and Greg Ballard, came from Boston and Los Angeles, respectively.

"We're looking for trailblazers, players who want to take something that's down and bring it up in a hurry. Lee was like that. It's a challenge. And I like work."

Unlike a college football program, which rarely takes less than four years to overhaul, basketball has no time limit for success. Driesell took Maryland to the top 20 in three years; Dean Smith did not have a 20-victory season for six years at North Carolina.

Michigan State was 10-17 last season. With two exceptional freshmen, the Spartans are 24-4 and still in contention for the NCAA title.

That Harter's is a high-risk profession is illustrated by the jobs that have opened in the last few weeks: Purdue, Tennessee, Richmond, California, Columbia, West Virginia, Georgia. And now Oregon, with the all-too-familiar rhetoric.

"We felt the situation was settled once Dick Harter said last week he had withdrawn his name from candidacy for the head-coaching position at Penn State," said Oregon sports director John Caine.

"Penn State is one of the untapped giants of college basketball," Harter said yesterday. "The potential is unlimited. There is no problem with the commitment. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."

Like pre-Driesell Maryland and so many other schools, Penn State was hoping for top-20 success without spending the money - for coaches and recruiting - necessary to get there.

Harter has a 13-year record of 217-134. His teams usually are stocked with players willing to endure the drudgery of basketball - the charges and defense - as well as work at what is celebrated by the stat sheet.

"Behind his desk (at Oregon) he had a picture of nine hockey players on the ice," said Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry. "His teams aren't dirty, but they do take the toughness approach to basketball.

"He's a very intense, a no-nonsense type coach. At Oregon, he had a rope that must have stretched 60 feet off the ground, and every player had to try to climb it right after practice.

"Greg Ballard was the only player who ever made it to the top. I asked him what would happen if someone fell and he (Harter) said: 'I never thought of that. I guess I'd be in trouble."

Like oil, excellent high school basketball players are not infinite resources - and now Harter will be competing with Driesell, Smith and so many others in the Washington-to-Boston territory.

Recruiters once used Cole Field House to recruit against Maryland, showing a prospect Bud Milliken's slowdown style and saying: "Do you really want to go here." Penn State once had a 6-9 player who couldn'tdunk. Now a spokesman, John Morris, is saying: "We're serious. We're going after it."