The success or failure of a major college's athletic program is determined to a great extent by how successful the school recruits high school athletes.

During the past four weeks members of The Washington Post sports staff have examined recruiting precedures, methods, styles and problems of many area basketball coaches and recruiters.

Their reports will appear in a series this week .

John Thompson knows that every year, at least one of his colleagues will tell a white high-school basketball player not to accept a scholarship from Georgetown University to play for its coach, the big fellow who stands 6-foot-10, wears size 14 and is black.

"You'll be the only white man on the team," they will often whisper to a young recruit. "He only goes with the blacks," they will tell a parent. "Your son will never play at Georgetown."

One year Thompson was recruiting a player in Canada and the young man's father asked him, "Why would my son want to come to an all-black school?" When Thompson told him Georgetown was 99 percent white, the father said, "that's not what another coach told me."

Some players and their parents listen to that sort of talk, and Georgetown suddenly drops out of the recruiting picture.

Jeff Bullis, a 17-year-old forward from Bel Air, Md., heard a similar message the night he telephoned the head coach of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., to tell him he would be attending Georgetown and playing for Thompson.

Bullis felt an obligation to tell all the coaches pursuing him about his plans. All had offered best wishes and congratulations, but Bullis had a feeling the men of Madison would not be quite so kind.

"Jeff paced around here for an hour before he made that call," his mother, Celeste Edwards, said the other day. "They had spent a lot of time recruiting him and they were his No. 1 choice up until Coach Thompson offered him a scholarship.

"Anyway, the coach (Lou Campanelli), told Jeff he'd never play for Georgetown. He said Coach Thompson was misleading him about where he stool with the team. He told him he'd be the token white player and he also brought up to him how much time and money they'd spent on recruiting him.

"The last thing he said to him was, 'God Bless you, Jeff, you'll need it'."

Bullis and his mother were deeply disturbed by that telephone call. And two days later, when the letter from Madison assistant John Thurston arrived in the mail, they were outraged enough to go public with their story. "This kind of thing just shouldn't be allowed to happen again," said Mrs. Edwards.

In the letter, written by hand on Madison school stationary, Thurston told Bullis, "You are beyond any doubt the most deceitful young man I have ever come across. To have spent as much time with you as I did, I would think I deserve to hear your decision before I hear it on the radio. That would be only a matter of common courtesy.

"Common courtesy also would have dictated that your mother would have visited us just as she did Brown and Georgetown. After all, you would think the mother would visit what you said was your No. 1 choice all year. But that obviously was just a lie. By the way, thank your mother for me for her courtesy.

"The thing that annoys me is that I mentioned you in the same breath as Steve and Tyrone (two other Madison players). You may be close as a player, but not as a person.

"You looked down your nose at us all year but didn't have the guts to tell us. But that just about sums you up."

Sitting in a Bel Air restaurant one day last week, Jeff Bullis seemed more concerned about the sprained ankle he had suffered playing basketball.

Bullis stands 6-foot-7, has broad shoulders from years of work on the family farm, and a flowing blonde mane.

He was talented enough to be named all-city in all the Baltimore papers, even though he lives in a rural community and plays against mostly average competition.

He also is an excellent student woh spends several hours a day after school working with physically handicapped children and teaching French to a kindergarten class.

"Yes, I was very upset by the telephone call," he said. "I'm kind of an emotional type person, and to have somebody, especially an adult, talk to me like that was very disturbing. And when the letter came and said I was discourteous and my mother was too, well, that was just too much.

"Oh no, it wouldn't make me change my mind about Georgetown. The racial stuff made me angry more than anything else. I wouldn't care if I was playing with people who were green or pink, just as long as they were good people.

"As far as not telling them the truth - well, I let them know everything I was doing. I did that with everyone. I told myself right from the beginning I would be as honest as possible with all the schools right from the beginning. Coaches are human beings. I wanted to be fair. I told a lot of schools right away that I wasn't interested. I had a responsibility to be above board with everyone, and I was.

"Now that it's all over, I actuallyk feel a whole lot better that I didn't go to Madison. All the stuff they said, well, now I just consider the source."

In an interview last week, Campanelli, 39, and head coach at Madison the last six years, at first declined to comment. Then he relented ever so slightly.

"He deceived us," he said. "He told us the day before he went to visit Georgetown that he wasn't going to sign there, and then he did. He lied to "us."

What about his conversation with Bullis? Did he tell the youngster he would be a token white at Georgetown? "That's his interpretation, it's something he'll have to live with," he said. I'm disappointed that he would do something like this."

What about the letter from Thurston?

"My assistant coach had worked very hard to recruit this young man. He was very deceiving to us an that's all I want to say. Yes, I saw the letter before it went out. I have no problems with it. We have a clear conscience on this thing. Did he (Bullis) actually send you the letter?

"Look, you have no background on this situation, you better be very careful about what you print." When asked to provide some of that background, Campanelli said, "I've said everything I'm going to say."

The same day Mrs. Edwards received the letter from Thurston, she also wrote to Madison President Dr. Ronald E. Carrier, detailing the history of her son's recruiting by Madison, the telephone call from Campanelli and the letter from Thurston, which she enclosed.

"I believe the law protects a person from such defamation of character and I intend to contact our attorney . . . to discuss this," she wrote. "Aside from that, I don't believe anyone so 'unethical has any place working with young people, especially during a time when so much confusion is entering their minds."

In an interview last week, Dr. Carrier told The Washington Post that he was sending Mrs. Edwards and her son a letter of apology.

"I think the coach was acting on his behalf and not on the behalf of the institution," Dr. Carrier said. "Yes, I was upset about it. I don't think this was done properly. A student doesn't have any obligation to come here. It's just one of those unfortunate things that won't happen again.

"If that's the only thing we do well, it's not like we're giving out cars or money."

At Georgetown University, John Thompson leans back in an overstuffed chair, takes a deep drag on his pipe and says, "I really do want to emphasize that every coach in the country does not recruit this way, but yes, it does happen. I told that to Jeff's mother. I apologized to her. Most of the people do not conduct themselves in that manner.

"I'm concerned about how all this is going to affect Jeff. I hope it won't. When something like this happens, it can leave a scar, and I want to protect Jeff from that.

"No, I won't talk to the people at Madison. When I first got into coaching. I'd probably have picked the phone right up and given them hell. But I don't feel it's my responsibility. The letter speaks for itself and I have no reason not to believe all those things were said on the phone.

"It happens every single year, where we're trying to recruit somebody who happens to be white and the color aspect comes into it.

"It's past bitterness with me. I accept it. I just have to deal with it, and overcome it. The people who accept us for what we are and what we have going here are people who will play here."