Ax Akers.

Fire Fred.

Those were the signs. Fred Akers, the football coach at Texas, the man they disparaged, no longer is shocked by them.

He is in his fifth year as coach here. His record is 39-12. He is 3-0 this year, his team is ranked third in the country. He has beaten blood rival Oklahoma three out of four times, even though OU has been favored -- as it is this year -- each time.

What is all the commotion about?

"Expectations," Fred Akers said this afternoon, sipping a cup of coffee. "Football is a very important part of the cultural fiber of this state. It really is more than a game down here. Texas fans have always had high expectations. I like that. I want that. I don't ever want to be around people who don't care about football."

One year ago, Texas won its first five football games. It was ranked No. 2 in the nation. Then came a stunning loss at home to Southern Methodist. By the time the season was over, the Longhorns were 7-5, including a desultory 16-7 loss to North Carolina in the Bluebonnet Bowl.

There were injuries, six starters going down in the Oklahoma game. But in the land of the burnt orange and Hook 'Em Horns, injuries are not supposed to matter. Texas has the best of everything, from the palatial, orange-carpeted offices in the athletic department to the beautiful campus to a tradition which holds that you don't lose games to SMU, Texas Tech and Baylor. It just isn't done.

"It was a tough winter," said Rick McIvor, this year's quarterback. "The tradition of Texas is so great that people can't understand 7-5. We hear what people say about Coach Akers. We don't like it all. We want him here, not leaving in midseason or leaving at all."

Akers does not expect to be leaving any time soon. He is in the first year of a five-year contract. The athletic director, DeLoss Dodds, has been here only four weeks and is not likely to make waves quickly.

What's more, Akers is not the kind who will go quietly. He is a battler, a small man stature-wise, but the kind whose blue eyes become more intense when he talks about the game to which he has devoted his life.

Akers planned for this job many years. He doesn't plan to leave it. "This is where I dreamed of being, planned on being when I was younger," he said. "I don't have any desire to be anyplace else."

The quality of this Texas team should eliminate any questions about Akers' job security. A dozen players are rated serious pro prospects by scouts. The Longhorns, thus far, have never been healthier. And the players are aware of the pressure Akers is under.

"We learned a lot from last year," said all-America defensive tackle Ken Sims. "We found out about our fans. We know now that no one gives a damn about us unless we're winning, and we're a closer team because of it.

"There's a lot of people out there who were saying, 'Fire Fred' last year who may be saying, 'Fred for governor' when the season's over. We know what we can do, we know we haven't been to the Cotton Bowl for three seasons. We know what's expected."

Akers knew what was expected when he accepted this job.

He was weaned on Southwest Conference football as a boy growing up poor in Arkansas. He played at Arkansas and coached under Darrell Royal for nine years at Texas before becoming coach at Wyoming in 1975. Akers told Wyoming officials one thing when they hired him: "There are two jobs I will leave for, Texas or Arkansas."

Two years later the Texas job was available. Worn down by an inability to beat Oklahoma and by his loss of dominance in the conference, Royal decided to retire. He wanted his longtime assistant, Mike Campbell, to be his successor.

But Texas officials, wary because Campbell was in his 50s, chose Akers, who was 39. The first year was almost perfect. There were 11 consecutive wins, Earl Campbell won the Heisman Trophy and the Longhorns went into the Cotton Bowl ranked No. 1 in both polls. They came out No. 5 after Notre Dame beat them, 38-10.

After that, the team continued to slip. Its record went from 9-3 to 8-4 to 7-5. With this year's talent, everyone here knows a Cotton Bowl trip is expected. There has not been one since Akers' first year.

"Our athletes know what the expectations are like around here," Akers said. "That's part of the reason players and coaches come here. They know they are going to get the chance to play in big games, to face the toughest challenges. That's what I love about this job.

"I dreamed of being the coach here, I planned for it. I expect to be here for a long time. The pressures are part of all this."

Akers is not a colorful man. Because he and Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma coach, both came from Arkansas, played together at Arkansas and are the same age, they are often compared.

They are a study in contrasts. Switzer is known for loving the night life, for his willingness to say anything, any time. Akers is of the God-family-football school of coaches. He is an immaculate dresser, a man most comfortable when he is with his football players. He also is a man who discusses the sport with great intensity.

"There's no feeling in the world like working with a good football team," Akers said. "There's nothing I enjoy more than working hard to make my team a success. I come from good football country. I learned as a boy that expectations are what make you great. If you don't expect to succeed, you won't.

"I always expect to win. That's the way people are at Texas. I know what they say when we don't win, I know how they feel when we fail, regardless of the circumstances.

"They hate losing down here. I wouldn't want it any other way."