For 30 minutes, Northwestern's football team had played tough, trailing Arkansas by three points. The final score, however, was 38-7, Arkansas.

Northwestern's players had been this route before. They trudged into the locker room quietly, figuring they would be told, as usual, to look at the bright side. They had stayed with Arkansas for a half. The Razorbacks just had too much talent.

The loss was hardly a surprise; it was the school's 22nd in a row, their second this year. What happened afterward was a shock. The minute the locker room door was shut, Coach Dennis Green began telling his players what he thought of them.

Not much.

Green said he screamed for 15 minutes. "If you don't want to make the effort, I don't want you on this team," he said. "If you're not going to play hard, don't play at all. Why play a half, then die? What's the point?"

"None of us had ever been talked to that way," said senior cornerback Greg Washington. "We were used to being told, 'Go out, play hard and if hard doesn't do it, okay.' It was the first time someone said, 'If you aren't going to play to win, don't play at all.' "

For Northwestern, such thinking represents a radical change. Doug Single was hired as athletic director to effect such a change, and Single hired Green for the same reason: They are here to change attitudes.

"It got to the point where people around here began thinking that losing football games was a way to enhance the school's academic reputation," Single said. "It's not . . . When they create the game where we go out on the field in front of 50,000 people, lay down our transcripts and take out our calculators to add them up, we'll win."

Single and Green agree they have a huge task. They also agree that their biggest problem is changing the way people think.

"The problem here is not a lack of talent or an inability to get talent," Green said. "The problem is that no one around here has ever made the kids on the team take responsibility for their actions on the field.

"When I first met with this team in January I thought for a minute that Gerry Faust had gone to Northwestern and I was at Notre Dame. There was no feeling of remorse over going 0-11 or over a coaching staff being fired or over trailing, 42-0, at halftime in four games.

"That's what you have to fight. People say you can't win at Northwestern. That's bull. It will be one hell of a tough job, but it can be done."

Last November, the Northwestern board of trustees decided to try one last time to get it done. Two days after Rick Venturi had completed his third season with a 1-31-1 record, the board fired Venturi and John Pont, who was athletic director.

After considering the drastic step of dropping out of the Big Ten, the board instead decided to infuse new money into the athletic program, one that had 10 varsity teams in 1980, eight of them last in the conference. The athletic budget in 1980 was $2.8 million. In 1981 it is $4.5 million, still the smallest in the Big Ten. The athletic budgets of Michigan and Ohio State exceed $10 million.

For years, Northwestern President Robert Strotz tried to tell alumni it was difficult to compete in football at a strongly academic-minded school. Frequently, Strotz heard the same answer: "If Stanford can do it, why can't we?"

So Strotz began his search at Stanford for a new athletic director. There, he found Single, who at 29 was already established as one of the better young minds in athletic administration around the country, an excellent fund raiser who had played and coached football at Stanford.

Strotz hired Single. One week later, Single named his football coach. "I was looking for somebody I knew I could trust because I had so little time to interview," he said. "I was looking for somebody who was used to recruiting at an academic-oriented school, somebody who was familiar with a pass-oriented offense, somebody who knew the Big Ten and somebody who was dynamic, marketable."

The person who met those criteria was Green. He had played at Iowa and was Stanford's offensive coordinator. He is 32, intense and the first black head coach in the Big Ten. Single had told the board he might hire a black coach and if members had a problem with that, he wasn't interested in the job.

Green grew up in Harrisburg, Pa. Both his parents died by the time he was 13. He went to Iowa on a football scholarship and played in Canada before beginning his coaching career at Dayton. He was 24.

He is a big-time coach who has serious problems with big-time football. He thinks football team graduation percentages should be made public and he says he would match the academic average of his freshman class against any school in the country.

"There is no reason why Northwestern can't be good enough to finish fourth in the Big Ten on a regular basis, break into the top three occasionally and maybe even win the championship when everything falls into place," he said.

"Ara Parseghian won here in the '50s and '60s and Alex Agase was 7-4 here in 1971 and led the Big 10 in defense. You do that with effort. When Agase left the effort stopped. That's why this team was so bad. You don't go 3-51-1 just on lack of ability. There has to be more to it than that.

"The hardest thing is winning a few games. You have to prove to kids you're recruiting that you can win. That's why we need to win some games right away."

Green has been straight and tough with his team. In his first meeting with the players, Green said he told them their workload would be increased greatly.

"I told them I would rather not have them on the team than on the team and not trying," Green said. "I wouldn't take their scholarships; they could just not play. I told them I was going to hire coaches who could make them better -- f they did the work."

No one quit. But five players showed up for preseason training out of shape. Green sent them home for 10 days. They returned -- in shape.

"It's been like being a freshman all over again, starting from scratch," said quarterback Mike Kerrigan, in his third season as a starter. "But I think most of us feel like we have another shot now, starting over. The last couple of years around here have been rough."

They were roughest last year. Midway through the season a number of the team's black players drew up a petition accusing Venturi of mistreating them. The petition was presented to the administration two days before the homecoming game against Ohio State. Northwestern lost, 63-0, and things deteriorated even further after that.

"I think a lot of that came from players looking for an excuse for not playing well," Green said. "But it's not my affair. If anyone here has a problem with Rick Venturi, they can go to his house and have it out with him. If they have a problem with me, then they come to me."

Thus far, the players seem to be accepting Green's approach.

"People around here are so used to moral victories," said freshman Keith Cruise. "I had people coming up to me saying 'nice game' after Arkansas. We LOST and we lost by a lot. That's nothing to be proud of."

Running back Marc Hujik and Cruise are part of a freshman class that Green thinks will be the cornerstone of his future teams. Six of the 28 players were rated in the nation's top 300 in high school. Already, Green is leaning heavily on them, and the Wildcats nearly won their opener, losing to Indiana, 21-20, when they failed on a late two-point conversion. They are 0-3 after losing to Utah, 42-0, Saturday.

Two weeks ago, 38 of last year's top 44 players were available for the Arkansas trip. Only 11 were on the travel squad. Green is going with the players who work the hardest, not necessarily the best players.

Single, meanwhile, has completely reorganized the athletic department and expects to triple alumni contributions this year, from $182,000 to almost $600,000. But he is also a realist. He says he will give himself five years to make significant progress. If Northwestern has not advanced far enough by then, he will seriously consider recommending the school get out of the Big Ten.

Green has set no timetable, will not talk about how many he expects to win this year or next. But he does make some guarantees. "This football team quit in nine out of 11 games last year," he said. "That will not happen this year."

And what is Green's first priority in 1981?

"That's easy," he said, producing a quick smile. "Win one game. That's a start. You can't go anywhere if you never get started."