Customarily, the lag time between myth and reality in sports is rather lengthy.

When a notion gets stuck in the public mind for a quarter of a century, it usually takes years for the facts to catch up with the cumulative fiction.

In the case of Woody Hayes -- that sad old King Lear of football coaches who has gone howling into exile, banished by his own deteriorating judgement -- that painful reevaluation may have taken only a few quick weeks.

It is just another of Hayes' torments that his former Ohio State team -- almost exactly the same players who were 7-4-1 under him a season ago -- are 10-0, with a margin of victory in their last five games of 206 points.

After 28 years as an OSU legend, Hayes' place in Columbus lore is in danger now of rapid transformation.

It was gospel here two months ago, when OSU was unranked in preseason polls, to say that the Buckeyes, after a nondescript recruiting year, would have an atrocious season.

That would show the Hayes haters how valuable the cantankerous old gent had really been. Earle Bruce, who had arrived at age 48 with little fanfare, would simply be the first victim on a campus that was known, before Hayes appeared, as the Graveyard of Coaches.

A coach's reputation is built on sand. Already the whispers make the rounds here 'Is it possible Woody was a lousy coach?"

When Bruce saw his new players, "My mouth watered," he said.

Folks hereabout call this the worst Ohio State talent in years. Bruce uses other words, words like "fabulous running backs who are all burners" and "skill people with blinding speed."

"Woody told me we might not have the good big people we used to," said Bruce. "But I sure can't knock the talent I inherited."

Don't say that around 1711 Cardiff Rd., where Hayes still lives, working on a tome in which he analyses the similarities between the great military battles of history and his own humble tactics on the banks of the Olentangy.

Neverless, the OSU team, which could be only two wins away from a national championship, is in the process of giving the life to the long-held belief that Hayes was a classic football strategist, a pigskin Patton.

It is Hayes' misfortune that no matter how well-suited he was to the coaching world of five or 20 years ago, he lost touch with his team and his game in his last season.

Now, by a quirk of circumstances, he is in peril of going from genius to dunce in an inkling.

In Bruce, Ohio State appears to have picked the perfect successor to Hayes, at least for the short run.

Where Hayes was a charmer of a multitude of mothers and a charismatic backslapper who swayed many a recruit to Columbus, Bruce has all the elan of a kindly professor.

On the other hand, Hayes, always surrounded by talent, was cautious to the point of phobia because of a fear of careless defeat. Bruce, however, is an innovator by necessity. Six seasons worth of small, slow players at Iowa State taught him how to win on a shoestring and triumph through trickery.

The marriage between Hayes' players and Bruce's tactics and temperament has been a dandy.

The most conspicuous transformation has been in sophomore quarterback Art Schlichter, a freshman disappointment with four touchdown passes and 21 interceptions, who has a dozen scoring passes this year under Bruce and only four interceptions.

The change is simple. Hayes, whatever virtues he had as a producer of NFL tackles, fullbacks and linebackers, thought that a pass pattern meant sending out one receiver. No kidding.

"Now we send out second and third receivers," said Bruce, "and we have a safety-valve man, too, for dumpoffs."

Thus has OSU joined the rest of the football universe.

If Schlichter has gone from hamburger to Heisman candidate, the Buckeyes have undergone many other subtler changes.

Whereas former State teams were tight and rigidly disciplined -- an unfeeling football phalanx -- Bruce has loosened the reins and striven for gung-ho spirit and even creative flair.

"We had a fine fun day at the spring game and we've been having a good time ever since," said Bruce.

A fine fun day? Hopefully, Hayes, apostle of football as war, didn't overhear.

"Coach Hayes did our talking for us," said Schlichter. "Now we speak for ourselves. I like it better this way."

Whereas Hayes was a ranter, as well as the original face-mask jerker and butt-kicker, Bruce wears a constant wry half-smile and, while a disciplinarian, is a civil one.

When Hayes left, so did senior Tom Cousineau, the hellion linebacker who was picked first in the NFL draft.

Who should supplant Cousineau as the central rapscallion in the OSU defense but middle guard Tim Sawicki, a free spirit who rode the bench for three Hayes seasons.

"Coach Hayes and his assistants and I had our hassles," said Sawicki, "I didn't go along with the system and I got in a lot of trouble in the dorms."

Hayes cast malcontents into outer darkness, simply tabbing another of the blue-chippers on his 120-man squad as a replacement. Bruce, unused to luxuries at Iowa State, has made a study of reclamation projects.

Not only is Sawicki a star, but Jerome Foster, who failed to report for a week of preseason practice, is now a starting defensive tackle. Bruce sought out Foster to talk over the player's personal problems. Hayes might not have made that accomodation after one of his basic rules had been broken.

Whereas Hayes practiced in a locked stadium to avoid spies, Bruce practices in the open on grass. Whereas Hayes filled his local TV show with pure-Woody bombast, Bruce is low-key and old-shoe on the same program. Bruce's ratings are better.

That seems to be the case in every area. "If Woody were still here, we'd probably be 7-3 now," said one OSU official. "We've pulled out three games with passing. No way we do that with Woody."

Bruce, an avid horseplayer who even owns a thoroughbred appropriately named Everybody's Choice, has even added a touch af razzle dazzle to Buckeye bludgeonings.

Not only has he tried fake field goals and used a "flanker counter" with the wide receiver running a trap play over center, but Bruce has transformed two of Hayes' corps of fullbacks into a starting tight end and tailback.

"Play-calling is the heart of college coaching," said the bright-eyed, analytical Bruce. "I love the blackboard, the Xs and Os. That's the fun. aHow can we strike 'em? How can we shock them?

"The rhythm of the game . . . that's the thing. How do you plug into it and get a play ahead of the game instead of a play behind it? Some days you have that 'I knew it' feeling all day. You and your assistants will be yelling at each other, 'They're gonna come with the draw!' or 'They're gonna check down to the weak side sweep!'

"And you're a step ahead of the game all afternoon."

"We really haven't even shown much of what we have yet," said one Ohio State player. "We've got a play where our reserve flanker (who was recruited as a quarterback) comes around on a pitchout reverse and ends up throwing a long pass to our quarterback."

Hopefully, if Schlicter ends up catching a touchdown pass from a flanker to win the traditional war with Michigan Saturday, Woody Hayes will be spared the pain of watching.