When Clemson University officials approached Bill Foster five years ago and offered him the job as their head basketball coach, he jumped at the opportunity.

He had built the University of North Carolina-Charlotte into a consistent 20-game winner and had recruited the players who two years later would gain the NCAA final four.

But now, the Atlantic Coast Conference beckoned. Foster looked, then leaped.

Little did he know that shortly after his arrival on campus Clemson would be placed on three years' probation for recruiting violations committed during the regime of Tates Locke. Little did he know that All-ACC guard Skip Wise would drop out of school to sign with the ABA.

"When all that happened, it frustrated me more than it made me unhappy," Foster said yesterday, looking back. "It's tough enough to win in this league with your hands untied. But when you get them tied behind your back right off, it can be tough."

Foster, who brings the Tigers to Maryland's Cole Field House for a 7 o'clock game tonight with an 11-2 record and a 17th spot in the national polls, never thought about leaving, even when he realized how bleak the future looked at Clemson.

"I've always been a believer that in this profession you can't look back. It gets cancerous after a while," he said. "After a game, we come back, look at film for an hour and that's it. We put it behind us, win or lose.

"Sometimes in life you make an honest mistate. You don't go to a zone when you should. Did I make a mistake moving? Back then I sure had to wonder."

The picture was not entirely bleak for Foster."Don't forget. He had players like Tree Rollins and Stan Rome in the program," Maryland's Lefty Driesell pointed out."Things weren't that bad."

Foster combined the presence of Rollins and Rome with some astute recruiting to put together an 18-10 season his first year, a season when his team was unanimously picked for last in the ACC.

"That may have been the most gratifying year I've had as a coach," said Foster, who has been at it 15 years. "Those kids would get stomped, then get up off the floor and upset somebody.

"I've had teams that have won more than 20 games but I've never had a team that worked any harder than that one."

Foster's next team, with Rollins as a senior, had a 21-5 record, the best in school history. In the meantime Foster was recruiting such players as Bobby Conrad, Greg Coles, Marvin Dickerson and John Campbell. None were highly recruited.

"With the probation situation we just marked the top kids right off our list," Foster said. "We didn't even try to recruit them. The kids we went after were kids that wouldn't be recruited by teams going to the playoffs anyway. But some of them have turned out to be nice players."

Campbell, 6 feet 10, 240 pounds, known as "Moose," for obvious reasons, and Conrad, a peppery 6-2 point guard have developed into the leaders of this team along with the other starting senior, Billy Williams.

Campbell is the key to Clemson's inside strength; Williams is the outside threat and Conrad runs the show. That combination has helped the Tigers to a rout of North Carolina and an overtime win over Duke last week when the Blue Devils were undefeated and ranked No. 1 nationally.

"That was a big win for this program," Foster said. "After all, how many times do you even get a chance to play the No. 1 team, much less beat them? What made it better was that it was no fluke, just a great basketball game, the kind you can sit around and watch all night."

Duke's Bill Foster (no relation) agreed. "Both teams played quite well," he said. "Anyone who calls a win by Clemson over anyone on their court an upset should have their head examined."

Clemson's Foster says he is happy where his program is right now, happy to be in the top 20, but still not where he wants to be.

"We're about as close to being on schedule as we could be," he said. "When I look back on these five years I have a lot of happy memories, a lot of satisfaction.

"When I came here my first goal was to get respectable, get to the point where we could play with every team in the league every night.

"I think we've gotten to that point. We've lost two road games this season (to fourth-ranked Oregon State and to Wake Forest) and we were ahead by eight points in the second half in both."