If the players are not coordinated, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is. John McKay is a presence, not to be mistaken for the stereotypes of the past, the big-belly guys with the gamy sweat shirts, baggy pants, and a whistle dangling from a string around their necks.

McKay meets his inquisitors in a scene begging for a magazine cover. It is indoors, but he wears stylish sunglasses and a coach's cap in the club silks of Florida orange and white; carefully draped orange windbreaker, and orange-striped athletic shoes. He doesn't use dollar bills as lighters, but the cost is the same as he anchors specially-wrapped Tampa cigars with his back teeth and smokes them only a third of their length.

Golf-tanned McKay is at 55 studiedly casual, laid back; not just cool but chilly, with the saving grace of the quality of his humor not being strained. He has come a long way from his birth place in Everettsville, W.Va.

His barbs are ether-tipped these days as his surprising 3-0 team prepares to play the Rams here Sunday. They leave no scars.

"I once said at USC, 'We do not fear Notre Dame; we respect them,' " he said today. "Let's use that for the Rams on Sunday. I think Amos Alonzo Stagg first said that."

About the media saying everything is right now, he says: "Nothing were losing and saying everything is right now, he says: "Nothing is as good as it seems; nothing is as bad as it appears. John McKay in 1913."

When he was asked about Jack Youngblood of the Rams commenting that Tampa Bay has not beaten much to become 3-0, McKay observed, "The Rams have always been a talking team; there's always been quotes from the owner, the assistant owner, the general manager, the players, the coaches, and the cab drivers who take you to their games."

Coach Ray Malavasi of the Rams said over a news conference telephone hook-up, "There is nothing at all I fear about Tampa Bay." McKay commented, "He's like me; he is not going to play Sunday."

When a newsman asked which of nose tackle Bill Koller's hands was broken, McKay said, "I don't know," as if to keep the information from curious Rams. When someone volunteered that it was the left hand, McKay said, "I knew it was one or the other."

Another interviewer opened up an old wound about whether the Buccaneers' play-calling, taken over by McKay this season, is predictable, as once charged.

"Only one guy ever said that," McKay reminded his listeners, referring to Bill Brundige, former Redskin player who said after a 10-0 Washington victory, "The Buccaneers are never going to win running out of the predictable I formation."

McKay called Brundige "a dumb -- tackle" and noted that the Redskins scored their winning touchdown from the I formation. The exchange at that time occurred after McKay walked into a Tampa news conference and let his questioners know how little they were informed about football.

This time, a media representative inadvertently gave McKay a chance to kill the newsmen with kindness when the coach was asked whether he might sign defensive back Raymond Clayborn of the New England Patriots, who recently traded punches with a sportswriter.

"We haven't talked to Clayborn and I doubt that we will," McKay said. "The Patriots probably would want a No. 1 draft choice and we probably would have given one before that incident. We're not taking to anyone who strikes newspapermen."

While McKay was at Southern Cal, National Football League types in the Los Angeles area used to suggest that McKay would be receptive to NFL head coaching offers so he could enhance his status at Southern California. When he became a loser with the expansion team here, the word was circulated that he had won big in college because of extraordinary material.

McKay has a memory to match his needling and said about Sunday's game, "I hope the temperature is 100 degrees and the humidity 105."

Sunday's game originally was scheduled for 1 p.m., but was moved back to 4 p.m., "or they would have been carrying fans out of the stands (with heat exhaustion)."

The Buccaneers usually play their first two home games at night for that reason, rather than at 1 p.m. "We have an advantage," McKay said of the heat.

Might the Bucs slip back against the Rams?

"We're going to do well, but it all depends on your definition of the word 'well' (meaning he thinks that a close loss could be construed as "well" if the team acquits itself admirably) . . . unless we get blown out of the stadium, and we're not going to do that. I don't know any NFL team that can blow out another NFL team; the Steelers could not blow out St. Louis."

If the coach has not quite convinced the zealots here that he can walk on Tampa Bay, neither are they now wearing T-shirts with the advice, "Throw McKay in the Bay," as they did in the sour seasons.

One slogan was "Go for O" so the Bucs would get the No. 1 pick in the next draft. The fans threw Cokes on him and obscenities at the players, and running back Ricky Bell once had to be restrained from going into the stands after a heckler.

McKay has been turning the team around with a quarterback who has a 37.7 percent pass completion average after three games, Doug Williams, and defending him nobly.

Defensive end Lee Roy Selmon has been the heart of the team and its historian of emotional ups and downs. Like McKay at USC, he came from a winning Oklahoma team as a unanimous All-America, inexperienced at long-running adversity.

"We've had some veterans from winning teams," Selmon recalls. "Me, I was a rookie, just happy to be playing in the NFL. We had a big meeting in the beginning at which the coach conceded we did not have much material or experience on the squad.

"If there was a 'magic' turning point, it happened in our second year, 1977, when we won our last two games (against New Orleans and St. Louis, resulting in Hank Stram and Don Coryell being fired). That gave us the confidence that we weren't actually as bad as we seemed.

"We were coming on in 1978, but too many players got hurt. This year's game against Baltimore was the key game in our turnaround. We had to come back from a 17-0 deficit to win, 29-26. That tells us a lot about our people's confidence. Other teams have started to respect us more. The first year we were a little joke; teams didn't bother to prepare for us. Johnny Carson made fun of us on TV.

"No, we never had little groups thinking about giving up. The coach kept us working hard. He would say, 'If you don't want to work hard it's no use staying here; get out or we'll get slaughtered.' We would lose a game and the coach would give us a little hope by showing us how we improved in it. The coaches never threw their hats in.

"During the losing streak of 26 games, some guys would come into meetings with their heads down. The coach would say, 'Hey, get your heads up.' He kept reinforcing people; he didn't jump on, or criticize players, deeply. For me it was a challenge to keep chugging. How the coach kept himself up with all the heat on him, I don't know."

Offstage, McKay acknowledges he doesn't know the truth about the team yet except that, "We don't die on defense.

"We may have the best camaraderie in the league from what I am told," he said. "And we have good coaches."

Abe Gibron, the chief assistant and defensive line coach, and Bill Johnson, the offensive line coach, are former head coaches, at Chicago and Cincinnati, respectively. Tom Bass, the defensive coordinator, has written two books or poetry and is board director for the Gulf Coast Symphony. Gourmand Gibron is a fan of Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and named one of his sons after him.

"We have four or five quality players," McKay said. "We've turned the team around through the draft and with trades -- trades for young players. My goal was to be competitive within five seasons, picking up about three or four quality players a year. I don't want to be a team that would get to something like 8-8 or 9-7 and stay there.

"I'm pleased with our timetable but not satisfied yet. I'd tell an expansion team coach, 'Take all young players; they won't try to tell you how their old coaches taught them.'

"We have the quarterback in Douglas; he's a professional. He had a good game against Green Bay. Maybe he will slip back a little Sunday; who knows? But he will come up again. He just needs experience and protection; he's got the arm."

Williams has not been sacked in his second year. He has been high with his strong arm and low with his anxiety, but he can make up quickly for one or two throws off target with one pump of his arm for a touchdown. He is "blooded" after suffering a broken jaw against the Rams last year.

"We could call plays that would give the quarterback a higher completion percentage if we asked him to throw three-inch passes," McKay said. "Some teams complete a short pass and the crowd cheers and it's second and eight, in our favor. I want a big play quarterback.

"I want athletes who have not played for other teams. Why, I had one guy from our expansion draft who tried to tell me he shouldn't have to pass-rush from a three-man line. Now, you know he's gone."