Once, while coaching the Buffalo Bills, Lou Saban decided to give his team a pep talk in Chinese. "There comes a time when you've got to use a change of pace," said Saban. "They looked at me like, 'Who's this bum trying to fool'?"

Lou Saban isn't trying to fool anyone, anymore, particularly the brass at the U.S. Military Academy, where he is completing his first year as head football coach.

Saban's team has a 27-1 record going into Saturday's finale with Navy in Philadelphia.

"I don't knwo whether they realized the condition of our football team," said Saban, until it was "made clear out on the field" this year.

Saban, who is described by his admirers as "a man's man," and "the perfect man for West Point," has had anything but a perfect first season there. A big-name coach -- O. J. Simpson's vavorite -- in the tradition of Paul Dietzel and Red Blaik, Saban came "in with the idea that we could play big-time football here."

As he marshaled his troops for his first Army-Navy game, Saban was asked if Army can compete at the top level. "I don't think it can be done. I'm sure it can't be done," he said.

Saban is sure of something else: the future of Army football, at the end of a 36-67-3 decade, depends on how the academy resolves some big-time problems -- recruiting, scheduling and deciding just how important football at West Point should be.

"We need answers" from the brass, said Saban. "What they saw on the field this year gave the answers to questions they have been asking for years.

"We are at the bottom."

The Army is the epitome of tradition. If you don't believe it, ask Curt Palcer, one of three cadets who take turns dressing up as the Black Knight of the Hudson and patrolling the sidelines at home games aboard ceremonial mules (a mule has been the mascot since 1899).

Like Buckshot, the 900-pound female mule Palcer was riding, stubborness is a tradition in the Amry. Stubborness is playing Pittsburgh and Penn State, admittedly natural rivals, even though it means playing vastly superior talent.

Because traditions do not change easily at West Point, Saban said, "We've got a sort of inertia here right now, if you know what I mean."

Like everyone else these days, the Army is having trouble with commitments. "I'd say the Army has not yet made a commitment to support inter-collegiate football," said sports information director Bob Kinney. The question is what kind of commitment it wants to make.

Saban, who has had his own troubles with commitments (he left the University of Miami with four years remaining on his contract to accept a five-year hitch with Army at $50,000 a year, sources say), has learned that it is hard to find youngsters today who want to make a five-year commitment after graduating from West Point.

Thus, the battle lines are drawn.

"Recruiting is the hardest part," said Palcer, the Black Knight in his plastic armor. "Some of our guys are no bigger than the rugby teams at other schools."

Army officials say the academy did away with size limitations in the 1960s. But there is still a sliding scale that dictates, for example, that a man 6-foot-2 can weigh, at most, 240. At West Point, a light frame is considered an advantage. "They are finicky about how much weight each man carries," Saban said.

One former coach said that there were occasions when football players were ordered to lose weight during the season. "People haven't been told to do it. They do it on their own in order to be able to pass the (two-mile run) test," said tackle George Mayes, who at 6-foot-4, 255, is the biggest man on the 1979 team. "Football requires short energy bursts. It's nothing like the two-mile run."

Saban, who describes this year's squad as "limited," says the future is mortgaged against his ability to recruit good players. "We know it's going to be difficult to get any blue-chippers because of the glamor of pro sports. It will be difficult to get the number ones for the same reason."

By his definition, "ones" are players who have a glimmer of hope of playing pro football, "twos" have played good high school ball but may take three years to develop in college, and "threes" may never make it at all.

"You can see where 'twos' fit against Baylor (55-0) and Pittsburgh (40-0)," said Saban, whose future schedules include Pitt, Missouri, California and several Ivy League schools.

Because of the special logistics of procuring nominations to West Point, Saban said the academy must decide whether to go after blue-chippers who may turn it down later "or are we better off securing people we know we can get."

If the people they can get are "twos and threes," you cannot play a premier schedule. If they think 'twos' and 'threes' can play the schedule we're playing now, they are making a terrible mistake," Saban said.

The problem is, as Saban put it, "West Point does not just belong to the East Coast. It belongs to the nation." It follows, as it always has at West Point, that a national institution must play a national schedule.

But does that mean it has to play four nationally ranked teams and three bowl contenders, as Army did this year? "That answer has to come from the men who run West Point and the Army itself," Saban said.

"Do we take on six or seven top teams or do we play one, two or three? Do we play a mediocre schedule or slip down to Division II. This is the crux of the problem and something I can't decide."

West Point has no choice, he said. The schedule must be less demanding.

It is fashionable at the academy to say that the Cadets would not want to play such a schedule. Mayes, for one, agrees: "It would be even harder to get good kids, if we played against the Ivies," he said.

Pete Dawkins, West Point's last Heisman Trophy winner (1958), said, "It is impractical to take on a schedule of playing the titans. It was a folly. I know Paul Dietzel (coach from 1962-65) envisioned making West Point into one of those titans and he scheduled in keeping with that vision. He left, and West Point was left with the schedule, and with a lesser team."

Dawkins, who says he is an incurable optimist about Army football, believes that the academy can play a representative national schedule and win, but not by playing giants every week.

The decision not to play its big games back to back is one of the secrets of the Naval Academy's much-envied success, said Navy Athletic Director Capt. J. O. Coppedge.

At West Point, there is a lot of talk about the Navy. The Navy has eased its standards, they say, the Navy has separate dorns for the team; the Navy has an easier schedule.

To which Coppedge replies: not true.

He does admit that the Navy has relaxed its rule on admitting midshipmen who wear glasses. And, he said, "we have more flexibility in regimentation."

Army officials say they are considering allowing football players to take an easier class schedule in the fall and a harder one in the spring, and allowing players to use summer training for football. But they are not considering allowing players to try pro ball right after graduation, although the suggestion is made every year.

Jimmy Hill, who leads the team in rushing with 441 yards and scored one of the Cadets' two touchdowns on the ground this season, even though he missed part of the season because of knee surgery, said. "They really helped out in the academic area this year, too. Before, guys had to struggle on their own. This year, they put together a tutor session."

Most people at West Point think the Army can and must have a good football team. It is a point of honor, just as it is "sort of" an honor for Curt Palcer to serve as the Black Knight of the Hudson.

But if it is sort of an honor to be the knight on duty when your team is thrashed, 55-0, it is no dishonor, even for Army, to play somebody its own size.