American University apparently is on the verge of leaving the East Coast Conference and joining fellow ECC members La Salle and St. Joseph's in a proposed new Eastern basketball league.

At the same time, American officials acknowledge that they may not be able to retain Coach Gary Williams, who has had back-to-back 20-victory seasons and is regarded as one of the brightest young coaches in the game. Williams' team plays Drexel Friday night at 9 in the semifinals of the ECC tournament here at the Palestra. St. Joseph's and La Salle meet at 7 in the other semifinal.

Bob Frailey, American's athletic director, said today he has discussed "with three different groups over the last two years" the possibility of American joining a new league. He also said he would rather not comment about American's inclusion in the currently proposed league, which would include Old Dominion, William and Mary, Iona, Richmond and an eighth team, possibly Fordham.

Frailey also said that the long-time dream of a new, on-campus field house is closer to becoming a reality than at any other point in his 34 years at American.

"We've had two bad takeoffs before on the field house, but this time we are close," he said. "We just aren't going to make any announcements until we are positive. But, yes, I think we will have one well within five years."

It has been learned that American is being asked to make a commitment on a field house to get into the new league, whose proposed members don't want games at Fort Myer. American could play a majority of next year's home games at another area college's gymnasium or at Capital Centre.

The official breakup of the ECC could come as early as Friday, when member schools are to meet.

Temple already is committed to joining the Eastern Eight next year. Although La Salle, St. Joseph's and American have not made official announcements about their futures, there seems little question that they don't want to stay in the ECC if Temple leaves.

"In my opinion, if you see Temple, La Salle and St. Joe's leave the ECC, you'll see American in a new league," Williams said today. "I would think this could be the last ECC tournament with its present alignment. For us, a decision would have to be made about our basketball future. If we stay in the ECC and those teams leave, it would say something about our basketball goals.

"If St. Joe's and La Salle leave, I'd like to stay with them in a new league. They are natural rivals for us. I think we are an attractive team in an attractive city, but where we play our home games has to be a factor.

"To see what direction American wants to go would influence me. I want to be competitive with St. Joe's and Temple. We've put in a lot of hard work to get to that level . . . But I don't feel I have to grab a job to get away from AU. I'm very comfortable here. At the same time, if the opportunity comes along to improve your financial situation, you'd have to consider it. There just isn't any pressure to get another job this year."

Frailey said he would "work like the devil" to keep Williams, "although I'm sure he is going to get other offers. I'd be foolish to think otherwise. I think I can keep him financially and program-wise, but can I keep him for another year without a field house?"

Williams, in his fourth year at American, has the Eagles in the semifinals of the ECC tournament for only the second time in school history despite not having a senior on his team. To reach Saturday night's final, American first must overcome Drexel, which beat the Eagles by six points in January.

To do that, the Eagles will have to improve their foul shooting. Once 72 percent at the foul line, they have missed 35 free throws the last three games. Guard Gordon Austin, who was making 83 percent, has slumped to 79 percent over that span after missing nine of 20.