When the coaches of Catholic University are in a blue mood, they talk about the pep rally of their dreams.

"We'll build this huge bonfire," said Athletic Director Jack Kvancz, "and burn the gym."

For 50 years, ever since Brookland was erected as a temporary gym that became permanent, CU coaches have joked about lighting a match and building a vacant lot.

Finally, CU thinks it sees light at the end of the tunnel. And it isn't a fire.

After years of discussions, committees, preliminary drawings and general fat-chewing, Catholic is on the verge of committing itself to a fundraising drive for a new $7-million athletic center.

An alumni leadership committee has been formed to raise the funds. Customary behind-the-scenes moneyraising has already been going on for more than a year. Every step -- except the last most crucial one -- has been taken.

"We've got the gun loaded, but we haven't pulled the trigger," says Kvancz, an AD who is on pins and needles. "The university has done everything except go public and say, "We're going to do it.'"

"We envision an announcement that the fund-raising campaign is 'ready to go' by Feb. 1," said Alumni President Bob Comstock.

"From that kickoff date, we could have the gym completed, we are told, within three years," says CU Vice President for Development Eugene Kennedy.

"On the day when we announce that the drive is on, they'll be a lot of happy people around here," said Comstock. "You don't announce a campaign like this... and put the school's reputation on the line... until you've already done enough spade work that you're pretty darn certain you're going to be successful.

"You don't dive into a swimming pool until you've checked to see if there's water in it."

If ground could be broken in one year, and a gym opened in three, why hasn't the cheering begun at CU? Why hasn't a tentative date been set for the giant, long-delayed pep rally and gym-burning?

"People at CU are very conservative, very cautious," said Kvancz. "I've been here four years and I've often felt that I wasn't getting the straight dope about this eternal promise of a new gym.

"I can't honestly say where we are on the road right now, but I know we're on it. We're not sitting beside the road anymore and kidding ourselves that we're moving.

"We're at the crossroads. In the next few weeks, this university is going to decide where it is going athletically. Are we going to take a huge step forward, or are we just going to fool around again?" said Kvancz.

"We made the move up to Division I three years ago, but we did it with a morally pure Ivy League philosophy and a pauper's pocketbook. That philosophy is fine -- I endorse it -- but it will only work with decent facilities.

"Georgetown and George Washington universities have built the athletic complexes they needed," he added. "They aren't standing around waiting for us to catch up."

No one at CU disputes the fact that Brookland is cramped, antiquated and an eyesore. "It's probably the most constantly used facility on campus, and it's definitely the most outmoded," said one CU official. "It's the first thing many people see on campus and it's a standing embarrassment and insult to The Catholic University of America."

Kvancz describes Brookland's architecture as "early Quonset hut," and said, "I show recruits the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and tell them, "That's really the new gym. I'd show you the inside, but I forgot the door key'."

CU officials emphasize that a new gym is not just an expensive toy for CU's respectable but unspectacular basketball team.

"This building is sure as hell not some intercollegiate basketball palace," said Vice President Kennedy of the modest 4,000-seat proposal. "It is a presently and urgently needed allpurpose facility that will serve faculty, alumni and all students.

"Right now, Brookland is only available for general, unorganized recreation less than 10 hours a week. In an era when everybodyhs interested in physical fitness and lifetime sports, that's not exactly an inducement for people to come to CU."

Nevertheless, the most conspicuous people who would be induced to CU by a new gym would be tall and wear short pants.

"For the first time, I'm convinced I'm not being misled (by the administration)," said Kvancz. "I gave up making gym-promises to recruits a couple of years ago. I knew I was in danger of being overly enthusiastic and grasping at inferences.

"Now I tell 'em, 'I firmly believe it's coming soon, but I haven't got a hole in the ground that I can show you. I wish I did'."

Kvancz is particularly anxious because he has fulfilled his part of CU's Division I bargain far ahead of schedule -- his scrappy Cardinals have consistently flirted with.500 seasons, even when disaster was predicted for them.

"I'm talking from strength," said the former Boston College star and Brown assistant. "I'm not some coach crying to save his job. We've produced and the whole athletic program is healthy. But somewhere down the road we're gonna get killed if we don't get moving on this gym.

"The old CU attitude that you just exist athletically -- just field a team -- won't work when you have eight Division I sports. This isn't Emmitsburg (Md.), where you're the only game in town. This is D.C., where you're competing at the gate with a million entertainments.

"I'm not a prostitute who's trying to win the NCAA title, but I do say that a new athletic center can be a revenue producer in many areas.

"But CU is soooo conservative. Whenever I mention a booster club or an alumni center or an ad campaign, people around here look at me like, 'Why does the heathen rage?'

"We're behind the times on knowing how to generate income, but we don't have to stay that way. I think I'm wearin' 'em down."

CU's Board of Trustees, at its meeting this week, will consider a recommendation that fund-raising efforts for the new gym, for library renovations and administration-building modernization would be lumped into one campaign aimed not only at alumni, but at trustees, corporations and foundations.

Regardless of that repackaging effort, CU is closer to saying goodbye to its high-school level gym and to its vintage 1919 locker rooms than it has ever been.

"We've finally got this project cooking on the front burner," said Alumni President Comstock.

For generations of CU students, athletes and coaches, that could mean a long-awaited and welcome fire.