To appreciate what Bill Hunt did the night of Oct. 30, 1979, before the Auburn-Opelike (Ala.) Touchdown Club, it is necessary to ask: Would Wyatt Earp ever have visited the homes of the thieves he arrested and explained his reasons to their kin? Would he have been alive 20 minutes after he arrived?

Hunt would blanch at such an analogy. He is head of the NCAA enforcement program and goes to extradinary trouble to insist that the coaches and athletes he chases and brings to justice ought not be called outlaws. Yet what drives Hunt -- and the agents under him -- is the vision of an enforcement system "effective enough that an honest coach would not feel he had to break the rules in order to keep his job."

As much as possible, hunt is both an idealist and a realist. He dreams of a utopian collegiate athletic world and understands the real one he must police, often with little help and inadequate tools. That is why he accepted the invitation to appear before some of the most avid fans of a school that only recently got off NCAA probation for basketball sins, is in the last year of a two-year sentence for football violations and is currently under investigation for Lord knows what. Years ago, Auburn got caught tempting the twin football sons of a minister to enroll for $500 each. It is that obsessed with beating 'Bama.

"i thought his coming might help build some bridges of understanding," said David Housel, president of the club last year. "I also wasn't sure what would happen. The good ol' boy came out in some of the members. They weren't gonna string him up, though there was talk of that. We have 210 members -- and more people wanted to come to that meeting than to any other in the history of the club. For the first time ever, we had a no-guest policy. And the place was overflowing."

On first inspection, Hunt is not the sort you would consider confident in such a situation. His shoulders sag and his face often seems the color of the pralines and cream that Gladys, down at the Baskin-Robbins parlor near his office in suburban Kansas City, slings onto a cone for him almost every working day he is in town. Would you want such a man facing the friends of Butch and Sundance?

Yes.

"He swept 'em off their feet," Housel said. "He won 'em over. It wasn't so much that he got everybody to agree with him as he won their respect. He was great on his feet. 'Course he's a lawyer. But he was straight on. Never ducked an issue. But while we don't always agree with the NCAA, Bill Hunt that night showed that it's flesh-and-blood people -- and that some organization has got to chart the course for college athletics.

"And I really think Bill loved that night, because he was doing something he knew was good."

No area of sport is less understood than the NCAA enforcement program, which has been regularly, and loudly, critized both for being too powerful and too inpotent.

"We only ask everything of our agents," Hunt says. "Our guys must be able to cross every spectrum of society and that's one of the charms to me. Our guys must be prepared to talk with prospects in Harlem in the morning and the president of Columbia University in the afternoon -- and then fly to a little town in the South that night to question some boosters.

"Our guys have to be aggressive enough to get infractions and tactful and sensitive enough to understand the concerns of the member institutions, to treat everybody fairly and with respect."

Hunt and his agents in the field try to keep a low public profile because word that the NCAA is lurking near the local football or basketball factory creates a near-frenzy in many towns.

When he was in Tulsa, Okla., investigating the basketball program at Oral Roberts University, Tom Yeager turned to the sports section of the local paper and saw a story reporting his mission spread across the top of the page. Somewhat buried was the news that Reggie Jackson had hit a home run to win the second game of the World Series.

Any organization capable of generating such a stir surely must be the essence of power. The truth is that the NCAA has just eight full-time agents in the field. It went through most of the '50s and '60s with just one full-time investigator. It was not until the mid-70s that there were more than four.

"That's inadequate, in my view," said Francis (Bud) Mullen, executive assistant director of investigatrion for the FBI, which through a wire-tap on a gambling matter accidently uncovered a network of academic cheating that stretched inside the athletic departments of at least a dozen West Coast schools. "They do a very good job with what they have to work with. But there's not enough of them."

It is a small wonder that the two major scandals of modern collegiate athletics -- an academic mess last year and the point shavings of the '50s -- were flushed out by agents other than the NCAA's. The latest alleged point-shaving incident at Boston College also uncovered by federal prosecutors in New York, not the NCAA. But Hunt plods on, aided in part by a remarkable flair for making the inexperienced criminals uncomfortable in his company.

Hunt is naturally cautious. This is partly because of a highly developed sense of propriety and partly because he realizes that what he says can and often will be used against him. That became especially evident during the Congressional committee hearings into the NCAA two years ago where counsel John McElroy Atkisson is saying to Norm Sloan, then basketball coach at North Carolina State:

"Have you had occasion ever to discuss with Mr. William Hunt Mr. Jerry Tarkanian?"

Mr. Sloan: "Yes . . . We were coming off probation (in the spring of 1973). He was there as a field investigator. As a standard operating procedure, they come in and more or less check you out before they say you are off probation."

Mr. Atkisson: "Can you relate in your own words the sum and substance of that conversation?"

Mr. Sloan: "I can give you the substance of it.I was rather upset about our probation and was stating it to Bill Hunt and explained why, that it branded me, David (Thompson) and the university in a manner that we could never erase, and I didn't think it was justified . . . He said in effect, 'Yes, I know what you are talking about. It throws you in' -- and he named some schools and named a coach, Jerry Tarkanian. When he mentioned Jerry, he became a little emotional . . . He said, 'We are not only going to get him, we are going to run him out of coaching.'"

Mr. Atkisson: "Was there anything else mentioned about the motivation for 'Running him out of coaching?'"

Mr. Sloan: "Yes. He said they had -- and I cannot remember the exact wording but it was in substance the NCAA had information that Jerry and some of his friends were going to arrange to have drugs planted in the motel rooms and prostitutes in motel rooms and therefore discredit the NCAA and the investigators."

Later, Sloan said he told Tarkanian he could not use the conversation because of possible NCAA reprisals -- and in fact denied Hunt's remarks to Warren Brown, director of the enforcement program before Hunt. To Sloan, Atkisson said: "You say at one point in this telephone conversation to Warren Brown that you represented to Jerry Tarkanian when he called to ask for your statement: 'No. 1, it isn't true. No. 2, I said if you mention me out there, they're going to go after me I said I'll repeat it again, the NCAA can get anybody they want to get at any time;' and after a comment by Mr. Brown you said: 'I believe it, Warren, with every bone in my body.'"

Mr. Sloan: "It is almost verbatim what I said."

Hunt denied ever telling Sloan the NCAA was going to run Tarkanian out of coaching. Hunt and David Berst, his main assistant, have been chasing Tarkanian for years, from Long Beach State through the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, but insist there is no animosity on their part.

That congressional scrutiny was useful, Hunt said, because it brought about a compulsory review of all procedures. In his testimony, he added: "Enforcement is a difficult task. If institutions were ready and willing to self-police, then we would not have any enforcement program and we could all go home."

Hunt was born and raised in Fort Worth, in a strict, if not quite rigid, family. He enrolled at Stetson University in Florida, and on arrival suddenly was overcome with independence. With no one to shoo him off to class that first morning, Hunt rolled over and went back to sleep. Hunt was absent so often he shortly became acquainted with the dean, who said he also had been undisciplined early in college and had quit and joined the army.

Hunt followed a similar path. During a three-year tour that included a hitch in Europe, Hunt brought some order and direction to his life, returned home and graduated from TCU and SMU law school within five years. He was working as a sportswriter for a paper in Corpus Christi when Brown, on the recommendation of a reporter he met during an NCAA media seminar, called and hired him in 1972.

To Brown, Hunt's background was ideal. He had the law experience that was becoming increasingly important and the investigative instincts newspaper work hones. In Brown's position now, Hunt uses the same criteria in hiring the agents. All have either law or journalism training. Many have both.

Hunt's first case resulted in Howard University having to forfeit the soccer championship it won in 1971. His spiciest case, arguably the ugliest in NCAA history, soon followed. It involved the 125-plus basketball violations that resulted in Southwestern Louisiana being unable to field a basketball team for two years.

"It was so long ago that I've tried to put it out of my mind," said the head coach under whom the violations occurred, Burl Shipley. "But I felt like he (Hunt) was trying to move up in the (NCAA) organization -- and thought if he grabbed somebody and shook 'em real hard, that might do it.

"They (Berst and Brown) would go into the home towns of the players during the summer, into their homes. And they'd scare the hell out of 'em. Put words in their mouths -- and as an attorney Hunt was good at that.

"Lots of attorneys in town here now (Shipley still lives in Lafayette, La., and works for an oil company) and they make a whole lot of money. What happened to him? The NCAA can't be paying him what a top lawyer would earn. But you tell him I said hi (here Shipley's voice became hard, though he was laughing). You tell him to come see me some time."

At one point during the SWL case, Hunt and Berst were perplexed. Their information had a pattern, but no apparent connecting thread. There were copies of plane tickets the coaches said had been used for visits by prospects. Curiously, the prospects all seemed to be from the home towns of the varsity players.

Suddenly, it made sense and the two leaped for phones. Sure enough, the "prospects" had been scholarship athletes, who were flown to and from the school and their homes in violation of NCAA rules. Hunt and Berst called the prospects whose names had been on the tickets and they never heard of SWL.

There are more honest athletes and coaches in big-time college football and basketball than many outside cynics might think. But they have been frustrated beyond their belief because there either was no one to talk with in the NCAA or no one with the time to follow their leads. Still, few coaches agree on what Hunt and his agents are doing, or ought to be doing.

"They spend too much time on petty things," said LSU basketball Coach Dale Brown.

"They worry too much about the big stuff," said Brigham Young basketball Coach Frank Arnold. "They don't have enough manpower to cope with all the small stuff that might well add up to a big advantage."

And yet the NCAA, in about 28 years, has made nearly 325 cases stick.

Wichita State, with five convictions, has been nabbed the most. SMU (which alum Hunt helped prosecute the last time) and Texas A&M are next, with four each.

A rule of thumb in semi-amateur sport is that about one of eight schools cheats, or perhaps 100 in all. Also, no more than 125 football players and 50 basketball players a year are good enough to warrant cheating to sign them. So the police force need not be extraordinarily large.

Brown left the NCAA three years ago, in part "because I was spending too much time in the courtroom. We were never proven to be wrong, but that didn't stop the suits. Somebody was always trying to get temporary relief."

He meant that a school such as the University of Nevada at Reno would tie up the NCAA in court long enough for an "ineligible" player such as Edgar Jones to in fact play under a restraining order for as long as a few years. "I got a little tired of the adversary work -- and that's what it got to be. There were other factors in my leaving -- but one of the major reasons is that I didn't like it any more."

"I think it would go a long way toward resolving some of these problems, if the coaches were considered tenured faculty people," Hunt said. "The basic concept here is that the student athlete is considered an intergral part of the student body as a whole -- and the whole intercollegiate operation is supposed to be implemented in conjunction with the educational effort of the institution.

"Then, it seems to me, it would be good if coaches were treated more like professors, if they were reviewed on the same basis. Are they working hard enough?"

How futile an honest coach's effort in college football and basketball will be in the '80s can only be imagined. But if the trends and pressures of the '70s continue -- and there is a reason to believe they will only increase -- 90 percent of all Division I basketball coaches will end this decade either at another school or in another line of work.

A significant percentage of violations, perhaps the majority, Hunt said, deal with recruits and scholarship athletes who would have little chance of attending college without their sports skills. The person with the greatest deficiency in his academic background is the most likely to buy the short-term, flashy, cash-and-cars nonsense from the dream salesmen.

"There was a coach quoted not long ago as saying you're more likely to be fired for losing than cheating," Hunt said. "If there are people who think like that -- and in fact that occurs -- to me that's unfortunate and inconsistent with sound educational position that this is part of the educational process, coaches should be treated that way."

His idealistic side was at work again. This was a plea for help from the presidents of the colleges, for Hunt knows that in an enlightened athletic climate two enforcement officers would be adequate and that if the present trend escalates, 200 might not be enough.