Joe Pascale does not snap off the one-liners as he used to. Ask the Catholic University football coach about the bad old days, when players needed help with jumping jacks and the team was chased off early morning practice fields by sleepy nuns, and he will talk instead of scouting reports and national rankings.

Like a stand-up comic who has switched to Shakespeare, Pascale is trying to play down the gridiron guffaws. These days, insists Pascale, CU has a much classier act.

"We do everything the major colleges do except give scholarships," said Pascale, whose Cardinals (4-2) are at Georgetown (5-1) Saturday in the 1 p.m. big game of the season for both teams. "We are as serious about football around here as they are at Notre Dame."

The team Pascale will field against Georgetown, for Washington's small college bragging rights, bears little resemblance to the ragged crew he inherited in 1971. That team had forfeited the previous season after losing its first three games by scores that looked like typographical errors.

In the eight seasons since, Pascale has combined solid coaching with aggressive recruiting to carry CU from club status to the upper levels of the Ncaa's Division III. Last year CU finished 7-3. This season the team is 4-2 and ranked first in the nation in defense among the 198 Division III schools.

As a result, good high school players, who had to be courted in the past, now come calling. This year, for the first time, Pascale had so many players try out for the team that he actually cut some.

"Winning," Pascale said, with the smile of a hungry man finally getting fed, "does a lot for a program."

But while CU has graduated from the bush leagues, it retains evidence of its inelegant past.

Despite a recent paint job on one section of wooden benches, the school's Brookland Stadium still appears to have suffered a century of neglect. The offseason weight training program consists of workouts in dormitory rooms with personal barbell sets. And the football budget, which is provided through student fees, is small enough ($20,000) that the coaches are embarrassed the make it known.

"This is real football," said linebacker Mike Hubert, a 1977 graduate of Walt Whitman High School in Bethsda. "With none of the esthetics."

Last week, CU ran into, and over, another reminder of its humble past. Virginia Commonwealth Unversity's football team brought neither enough talent nor helmets to the game. They were able to borrow the helmets from CU, which won, 76-0.

"It's embarrassing," Pascale said after a 47-0 first half. "When I started coaching here, VCU beat us."

Back in those bad old days, of course, VCU was better and CU was much worse. Before he stepped up his recruiting program, Pascale was coaching many players who were not good enough to play for their high school teams.

Another story Pascale no longer tells is about the player who showed up for practice carrying two test tubes. He said he could only stay until they changed colors, then he had to go back to lab.

"We used to get players who came to CU for academics and then found out there was a football team," Pascale said. "Now it's changed. They come for both."

The last three years, CU has been luring an increasing number of "all-area" players, most of them from the Washington suburbs and New York. But the school has a long way to go before it will be mistaken for a football factory.

"You don't get treated special because you play football here," said defensive tackle Mike McGowan, a 1976 graduate of Churchill High School in Potomac where he was all-county. "Some of the teachers even hold it against you."

Two of the team's cocaptains are biochemistry majors. Other starters are studying architecture, accounting and law. When Pascale insists that brains are no deterrent to playing professional football, Hugo Bonucelli, who played on the 1970 squad, adds:

"That's true. But from here you generally aspire to becoming an owner."