Jerry Claiborne saw the gol-darndest thing one day when it was raining and snowing and the wind was blowing so it was all you could do to keep your hair attached.

"People came around and watched us work out," said Claiborne, on the job as the University of Kentucky football coach only five months now after 10 years at Maryland, where occasionally a dog without a leash stopped to sniff at practice.

Yes, in wind/snow/rain/misery, there against the chain-link fence, peeking in through the holes, were people watching Jerry Claiborne's new football team practice. In Texas, where there are only two sports, football and spring football, it would make sense (a little) if people stood in a cyclone, or whatever gawd-awful meteorological calamity strikes there, to watch the Longhorns get riled up six months before they hit anybody for real.

This is Kentucky, however, which in the language of the settling Indians means "Land Where Basketball Bounces High." Everyone from sea to shining sea knows that Daniel Boone invented basketball for something to do in winter when the bears slept.

What hardly anybody knows, and Jerry Claiborne himself is only learning first-hand right now, is that football is such a big deal in the Bluegrass that even a football program notorious for scandal and defeat draws a full house of 58,000 fans every time it plays at home.

The NCAA enforcers convicted Kentucky football six years ago of everything but the Lindbergh kidnapping. They looked for evidence of fixed games because gamblers had access to star players, but the most damaging charge was that players had been paid according to each week's performance, say $100 for 100 yards rushing, that sort of thing.

From there, the program disintegrated. No more bowl games, no No. 1 draft picks, no all-Americas, no top-10 rankings. Then there were real arrests of players by real cops, not the NCAA version, for crimes of rape and burglary and aggravated assault. Finally, because these forgivable sins were compounded by unforgivable defeat too many Saturdays, the coach, Fran Curci, was fired last December.

"Kentucky made an inspired choice with Claiborne," said Billy Reed, sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and one of Curci's constant critics. "Kentucky needs somebody low key, after all the emotion Curci stirred up, and they need somebody honest beyond question, as Claiborne has been for 20 years. They also need somebody who can win seven or eight games a year."

Now, this next part gets subjective, and anyone who wants off the ride can get his money back at the ticket box, but a fellow spending 30 minutes with Claiborne here comes away believing that the coach also made an inspired choice when it came time to leave Maryland.

Maybe it's because it was April, with the spring game done, but Claiborne seems more relaxed here than he ever was at College Park. The siege mentality is gone. Here he is on top, a home state boy (Hopkinsville) with the job he always wanted. The Alabama empire of Bear Bryant, his tutor and old boss, is the heaven all coaches seek. At Maryland, Claiborne could never have it. Here he can. And he loves it.

"There's not that much difference," Claiborne said of the Maryland and Kentucky jobs, "except for the interest."

Which is like saying there's not much difference between Margaret Thatcher and Ann-Margret except for a few bones.

At Kentucky, a football coach can earn $200,000 a year because fans buy radio and television shows, kids break down doors to come to the coach's summer camp and people who sell mattresses practically force him to take their money just so he'll say the things are real nice.

Jerry Claiborne is a big shot here. Joe Gibbs? Is he a wide receiver at Tennessee? All they know about George Allen here is he's some old coach Phyllis George wanted to hire to replace Curci last summer. Redskins are what Daniel Boone worried about when he was done with bears.

"The university is the sports franchise in the state," Claiborne said. He sat behind an aircraft carrier of a desk in a walnut-paneled office too good for a bank president. An oil painting of McLean Stadium, his old college field, hangs across from a painting of a wildcat (the school's symbol) on which the donor scribbled, "Welcome Home."

"Here," Claiborne went on, "you don't have to compete against all the pros you do in Washington--the Bullets, the Redskins, the Colts, the Orioles. Everybody here looks to the athletics of the university for their recreation."

For a decade, Claiborne produced Maryland teams that won 70 percent of the time and went to bowl games. Yet there he was last fall, foolish but game, doing a TV commercial with the comedian Rodney Dangerfield in an effort to sell tickets to his games. The theme: no respect.

Did this eternal uphill battle, with no victory in sight, bother him?

"It worked on me some," Claiborne said, which from this most reserved of coaches means it worked on him a whole bunch.

"The big thing I worried about was the effect on players. There we were, working, winning games, going to bowls, and we'd go on the road and see big crowds--then we'd come home and there weren't any . . . We had 15,400 at our spring game here Saturday night. I don't know what's the most we ever had at Maryland, but it wasn't many."

Claiborne asked how spring practice went for Maryland and its new coach, Bobby Ross. He wondered how Boomer Esiason was throwing. How's Lefty done recruiting?

"Tell everybody hello," the coach said, "and tell 'em to do a good job for Coach Ross. Get in those stands and fill 'em up."