Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished rower, horseman, marksman and dancer in his early teens; Ben Franklin thought about starting a swimming pool in London decades before he helped start a nation in America; George Washington was a hunter who once told his diary: "Started a fox, wch. we catcd."

Franklin apparently was the first fine U.S. swimmer, and a wise one as we learn from this journal entry en route to London in 1726: "I was determined to wash myself in the sea today, and should have done so had not the appearance of a shark, that mortal enemy to swimmers, deterred me." John Adams wrote that Franklin was religious about walking three miles a day.

There is much more to be savored in the 200-plus pages of "Sport and Exercise in the Lives of Selected Colonial Americans; Massachusetts and Virginia--1700-1775." The greater fascination is what it says about the man who wrote it, who used it to become Dr. Tom Davis at Maryland almost 12 years ago to the day.

Meticulous and thorough, Davis only now is being fully appreciated--in America and internationally--for taking the game of basketball apart and finding unique ways to coach it. Having slipped through the Washington area as an obscure assistant in the pre-Lefty days at Maryland and later at American U., Davis has experienced large and equal measures of triumph and torment at Boston College.

A year ago, his BC overachievers upset Wake Forest before being upset themselves by St. Joseph's in the NCAA tournament's round of 16. This season, John Bagley and wave after wave of role players whipped San Francisco and De Paul, and meet Kansas State in the Midwest semifinals tonight in St. Louis at 8:08 p.m. The second game in the regional matches Houston against Missouri at 10:38.

"Believe me," Davis says, "this is a good team, and when you face us for the first time, you've got problems."

The Eagles have justified being selected for the NCAAs despite going 19-9 with a schedule that included lots of the best teams in the country and lots of the worst. For every game Davis thinks he might win, he seems to schedule a game he can't lose.

But Davis kept BC inspired during a point-shaving scandal last year that involved players he did not recruit. Although Davis won't say much about the scandal publicly, there have been numerous reminders all season, including a banner at Villanova that read "For a Close Shave, Try BC." For emphasis, many fans waved razor blades.

Davis has tried to ignore that by concentrating on basketball. He beat the local wonderchild he lost to Georgetown in Patrick Ewing's first college game in Boston; he took a collection of unheralded collegians and beat the more experienced Soviets for the championship in the World University Games last year in Romania.

"He taught a year's worth of material in three weeks," said Bill Wall, executive director of the Amateur Basketball Association/USA, of that World University Games success. "He used the BC offense and defense, and a lot of European purists thought that base line attack wouldn't work against the big Soviets and their zone.

"It did."

Wall said Davis, 43, "very definitely" is a candidate for the Pan American and Olympic coaching positions that will be determined this summer.

Davis got hooked on hoops in the tiny (population about 400) Wisconsin town of Ridgeway, being selected in the fourth grade to play on an eighth-grade team. Later, he was the 5-foot-9 lead guard and two-year captain of a Wisconsin-Platteville team that twice made the NAIA quarterfinals in the late '50s.

"Always sweated, just sweated so," said his Platteville coach, John Barth, now retired. "We all watched that De Paul game intently and, sure enough, you could see the sweat coming through the back of his coat. He's the only athlete to be selected a distinguished alumnus . . .

"You ask him about that hook shot of his, the time right before the half against Dubuque that he hooked her in from midcourt."

Over the phone before the team left Boston, Davis laughed.

"I think it actually was at the end of the game, and we won because of it," he said. "But what I was supposed to do was run a play in those last five or six seconds. Something happened, and I had to fling it. We all were celebrating, but he came over and really chewed me out for not executing the play. He was violently angry.

"Never in my four years did he tell me I played well. Yet I knew he cared."

Had the venerable Ray Meyer cared, De Paul could have had most of BC's plays and possibly avoided its annual spanking in the NCAAs. They're all in Davis' latest pamphlet, "Zone Offense," complete with diagrams. The scholar in Davis also has driven him to produce such esoteric articles as "Continuous vs. Interrupted Practice in the Basketball Free-throw" and another small book: "Garage-Door Basketball."

By the time Davis started picking the fertile, undervalued minds of Bud Millikan and Frank Fellows at Maryland in the mid-'60s, he already was deeply in love with pressure defense.

He discovered John Wooden using that tactic so successfully about the time the country began to recognize the small Hoosier and his UCLA teams.

"I took my (Portage) high school team to the Dairyland Classic in Milwaukee," he said, "and UCLA played Boston College in one of the games. That was the Goodrich-Hazzard team, the one that won the first of the UCLA national championships, the one that showed you don't need overwhelming height to get it done.

"The game was even, except when John Austin was forced to the bench for about 90 seconds. During that span, UCLA went on about a 12-point spurt. I could see the immense possibilities of pressure defense. My wife and I took a trip east later that year to see Wooden during a clinic at Adelphi College. Jack Ramsay (another basketball innovator) also was there.

"Our zone offense evolved from facing so many good zones in the East (at Lafayette and BC). Especially Temple's."

Davis' discipline is most evident on a golf course. He could scarcely break 100 when he arrived at AU. Now he gets irritated when he fails to break 75. Road workers with scythes have more fluid swings, but Davis can get up and down from the ball washer.

"You and I go out and play," said Gary Williams, AU coach and former Davis aide. "He'd go out at lunch and hit 200 wedge shots. Or whatever his weakness at the time was."

Ben Franklin all but demanded it of him.

"Me thinks I hear some of you say," the great man wrote, "must a man afford himself no leisure? I will tell thee, my friend, what Poor Richard says, Employ thy time well if thou meanest to gain leisure; and, since thou art not sure of a minute throw not away an hour. Leisure is time for doing something useful . . . "

No goal is more noble than scratch golf.