FORMER REDSKIN JERRY Smith visited his alma mater, Arizona State, some months ago, watched several practices and came away with a distinct impression about his former coach, Frank Kush.

"It did seem to me that he's mellowed a bit," Smith said. "I mentioned this to him; he got a chuckle out of it."

And so will the rest of sport. At the moment, Kush is an athletic buzzword, symbolic of what angers anyone who bothers to ask more about major college football than who beat.

Kush, as in a university-related activity that brings glory and money to the school but perhaps is controlled by persons outside the university.

Kush, as in demeaning reasonably intelligent young men in front of their peers so they will play a violent sport more violently.

Kush, as in the $1.1 million lawsuit that's better known as the "punching the punter" case.

Most major college football programs are more appealing from afar. From a 50-yard-line seat high in a crowded stadium set in the special bite and brilliance of autumn, football seems grand.

It is our most complex game, because it involves the greatest number of players almost totally dependent on one another. It requires strength, grace and speed, and quick and inventive minds.

The sights and sounds of football from afar frequently and majestic.The roar of the crowd, or, closer in, the sounds of fellow fans aglow with satisfaction or the Loser's Cocktail: beer mixed with tears.

Let's take our eyes and ears and focus closer and closer on the field. Yes, it's true. Many of the players who were recruited so heavily and trained so intensely for the game do not get a chance to play at all, or for a few minutes at most.

Yes, that is football's equivalent of a professor over there swearing and insulting a teen-ager for missing a tackle. Yes, that is a loyal alum, veins nearly ready to explode, threatening to toss his tax-deductible money elsewhere if the ninny on the sideline doesn't beat the spread.

Yes, the sound of large bodies colliding is ugly. You can hear a youngster's knee being ripped to shreds from several feet away after a hit an out-of-control linebacker.

Yes, that is the school president looking the other way.

Into all of this came Frank Kush, player at Michigan State, assistant for three years at Arizona State under Dan Devine and, at age 28, head coach. And fired last week, at age 50, for allegedly punching one of his players during a game and then allegedly trying to cover it up.

Kush was both blessed and cursed by coaching at Arizona State. His teams and his reputation were hurt by playing two time zones from the prime image makers of college football and often at night.

For years, nobody paid much attention to the Sun Devils except pro scouts, who would drop by Tempe and grab such players as Smith and Charley Taylor, Tony Lorick, Curly Culp, J. D. Hill, Danny White and so many other future NFL standouts.

But there always were whispers, that said the way Kush prepared young men for football games was more harsh than the way Marines prepared young men for war. This madman had his players in hand-to-hand combat daily, scampering up and down a mountain every 10 minutes, smacking players harder during drills than they would be hit during games.

Even the football-factory towns flinched.

"What nobody realized," said Smith, "or what usually did not get reported, was that while Kush had us running the mountain (in the early '60s), he was running it, too. Frank Kush pushed players harder at that level, but he never asked me to do anything unreasonable."

Smith did not consider it unreasonable for Kush to slap players upside the helmet now and then during practice or grab them by the face mask and twist their heads toward his. He had experienced that all his football life. That was the way coaches taught.

What a damning realization.

An especially vivid example of Kush at work has been playing on television since his firing. It begins with a No. 74 (with his name printed on tape stuck to the front of the helmet, just in case goodhearted Frank happens to forget) being called to attention.

Much of what Kush says is bleeped. What is shown is Kush slapping No. 74 hard on the left side of the helmet and then on the right (HAR-der, HAR-der). Then he grabs No. 74's face mask and jerks it, the way Bud Delp might yank the bridle of a stubborn horse.

After No. 74 has been sufficiently embarrassed, after the proper fear-and-loathing message has been implanted to the other players huddled nearby, Kush lets loose, adding: "Get some intensity about you."

About now, Kush and the other football hardnoses assume a tut-tut posture. Rigid and condescending.They say, very slowly -- the way anyone would to somebody completely ignorant of his business -- football is a tough game. You've got to establish discipline, get a kid's attention. Nobody gets hurt.

Besides, Lombardi did it.

That always is the final argument. Because St. Vincent, like Kush and all the other Kush-like creatures in football, taught an occasionally cruel game by being occasionally cruel, that makes it proper.

Kush is wrong. Lombardi was wrong. And whoever Lombardi learned it from was wrong. It is as demeaning as can be imagined -- and that so many have done it for so long is the worst sort of commentary on parents and universities.

Two acts that would be patently illegal on the field are tools to stimulate the ignorant for these character builders, these molders of men. The next logical disciplinary step is to punch a player in the mouth for his sins. Perhaps if enough Devils come to Kush's defense that will become accepted sideline procedure.

A former basketball coach, Bill Reinhart, comes to mind. He was quite successful at George Washington University, in fact the only coach to win more than 20 games in a season there, and he never carried a whistle.

He said if he needed a whistle to get attention and respect from the players he did not belong in coaching.

Is football so different? Is there no code of ethics?Nearly every coach at nearly level of the game will admit, under pressure, that, yes, he's "tapped" a player every now and then. Probably grabbed a face mask. Possibly even encouraged a practice fight or two.

Is there no other way to win?

"George Allen didn't do any of that," Jerry Smith suddenly volunteered. "And he won."

This is an aspect of football Smith had not considered at length, though he admitted: "the demeaning aspects bothered me tremedously as a player." But he always considered that part of the price one paid to play football. Until now.

Smith added: "I'm 36 years old now; I was in football maybe 27 years. It is a difficult sport, but I would have preferred more of a George Allen approach. More and more coaches at the professional level are realizing that there are 45 different personalities on a team. More of them are coming around to George's way.

"Maybe eventually that'll filter down to the college and high school level. It hasn't yet."