The closest Ray Jauch ever got in 20 years of trying to become head coach of a U.S. professional football team was last January in Pontiac, Mich.

He was minding his own business during Super Bowl week, waiting for the big game, when a fan spied Jauch's shock of silver hair and demanded to know what the 49ers' chances were.

"He thought I was Bill Walsh," said Jauch with a chuckle, "and it was obvious there was nothing I could say to change his mind, so I told him we were going to do just fine."

Call it an omen. By the following summer Jauch was on the phone to Washington and his lifelong goal was quickly a reality, although he was not quite in the National Football League. He signed to become coach of the Washington Federals of the newly forming United States Football League and his Canadian Football League exile was all but over.

Winnipeggers, who almost all seem to recognize Jauch on sight, are sad to see him going, though they greeted with equanimity his decision to jump back across the border.

Jauch won the admiration of Winnipeg fans 21 years ago when he joined the Blue Bombers as a 173-pound running back out of the University of Iowa.

At his size, he knew he had to give something extra to gain ground, so whenever he got the ball he gritted his teeth and came through the line grunting and screaming at the top of his voice.

With the small crowds at Canadian football games, he was easily heard. "They didn't know what to make of it," Jauch said with a laugh. So they gave him their hearts and a nickname, "Toy Bulldog," in honor of the peculiar habit and "because I was a guy who had to try like hell to get the job done."

After two years Jauch's playing days were ended by a torn Achilles' tendon. He stopped grunting and screaming and began coaching. Over the years he gained a reputation for thoroughness and a penchant for stubbornness.

"I'm totally prepared for every game we play," said veteran Winnipeg quarterback Dieter Brock in describing his four seasons under Jauch. "That's why we're winning. I know exactly what I have to do. You can't ask for more than that from a coach."

Center John Bonk, 10 years in the league, pondered a teammate's characterization of Jauch as "stern, stubborn, but interested in his players" and decided, "Yeah, I'd agree with that. But he and his coaches also do an incredible job of preparing us for who we're going to face each week."

It is in the nature of football coaches to be spartan and austere. Jauch is no exception. At 44 he is trim and muscular, only 10 or 12 pounds over his old playing weight. He keeps in shape playing basketball, no game for the middle-aged, and handball, not to be confused with racquetball. "If God wanted us to play racquetball," said Jauch, "he would have put string between our fingers."

And he likes to hunt. One thing Jauch looked forward to in coming to Washington in November was goose hunting around Chesapeake Bay. He asked if it was possible to get in on some hunts. When advised that Chesapeake goose hunting is generally something of a lazy man's sport, with more sitting than hunting, he was distressed.

"I don't want to sit around all day in an air-conditioned goose blind," he said.

He doesn't eat breakfast and he doesn't eat lunch, the former by choice and the latter because there isn't time during football season, and when it comes evening, Jauch is a hungry man.

At dinner in a downtown Winnipeg restaurant he downed a platter of snails, a salad and a huge order of shrimp with a Spanish sauce, washing it all down with three Lowenbraus, and talked about his coaching philosophy.

He's a long-range planner, he said, and would rather make his decisions on the basis of expected benefits down the road than take emergency measures to fill a hole.

"Oh sure," said his wife Sarah, stealing a snail from Jauch's plate, "he's a builder. Once he gets something finished he has to move on. Sometimes I wish we could relax and enjoy what he's accomplished. But he needs a challenge."

It's not surprising, then, that with his Winnipeg Blue Bombers leading their division and in prime position to make it for the first time in 20 years to the Grey Cup, Canada's Super Bowl, Jauch is ready to steal away.

He did the same in Edmonton. After taking over as head coach of the Eskimos in 1970, he rebuilt the team into a superpower. From 1973 to 1981 Edmonton was in the Grey Cup every year but one, and a common belief among followers of Canadian football is that only now, with Jauch gone 4 1/2 years, is the Eskimo dynasty he built starting to crumble.

Jauch is a church-loving, flag-waving son of an immigrant. "My father came over from Germany in 1911, through Ellis Island, so you know what he went through. I'm very proud to be an American (he retained his citizenship while in Canada) and I'm happy to be going back to the States," he said.

His father, who moved to Illinois and became an automobile electronics technician, "never got past the fifth grade," said Jauch, "but I know he was smart because when the Ford or Chevrolet people had a problem they couldn't solve they brought it to him. I can see him now, standing over a car for an hour or more until he figured out what was wrong. Then he'd fix it."

It is in much the same isolate-the-problem-and-fix-it fashion that Jauch approaches his football teams.

First, he believes in good raw materials.

"I want players with character. I tell my players they have three responsibilities: First, to some supreme being; second, to their families, and then to the team. I tell them if they can get the first two in order, then come see me about playing football."

Then he builds meticulously.

"The way the U.S. Football League was presented to me," he said, "they want to develop young talent rather than going after big-name players. I'll stick with a kid, even though a veteran might have more talent, if I think the youngster can develop in three or four years. In the long run, you're better off that way. Look at the NFL teams that are successful--Dallas, Minnesota, Pittsburgh. The long-term planners always are winners."

Jauch's scheme in compiling a 112-81-4 record over the years in Canada has been to devise a master plan and stick to it.

Sometimes that required wholesale housecleaning. When he came to Winnipeg in 1978, for example, he inherited a team that had been 10-6 for two years. It was not a team he liked. "He made a lot of changes," said quarterback Brock. "When he was done there were only three or four of us left."

In 1979 the new-look Blue Bombers were 4-12. The next year they were 10-6 and in 1981 they finished 11-5.

Jauch had fashioned what he wanted: a read-and-pass offense and a swarming, pressure defense, and even his detractors had to concede that the system worked.

"He's a good coach, no question about that," said Hal Sigurdson, Winnipeg Free Press sports editor and one of Jauch's strongest critics over the years. "He's made the right moves. He just sometimes seems a little heartless."

So it goes with a spartan, austere head coach. Jauch says he sees no place for sentiment when it comes to business decisions.

Yet a player on whom he relies is a valuable asset, in Jauch's view, and one to be nurtured. His players say he goes out of his way to help them with personal problems, an arrangement that once found his wife taking in a player's infant child while the player's wife was in hospital.

With his cherry red 1969 Mustang coupe and his shock of silver hair, Jauch has no place to hide now that his intention to break his contract and leave Winnipeg is official.

It's a measure of his popularity, perhaps, that when he drives down Portage Street or takes a walk through Assiniboine Park, the fans who greet him still wave cheerfully and have nice things to say. They harbor no apparent bitterness.

Said George Kehler, a fan who comes out daily to watch Blue Bomber practice, "I wholeheartedly endorse his improving himself. But I thought it was very poor taste that it (news of Jauch's decision to leave) broke halfway through the season, when we're trying to make it to the Grey Cup.

"It's like me saying to my wife, and I've lived with her 31 years, 'I love you, honey, but I've found somebody else. I'll buy you a fur coat and spend Christmas with you, but after New Year's I'm leaving.' "

Jauch is as uncomfortable as anyone with his lame-duck status at Winnipeg. He's in a ticklish spot -- finishing out what could be his finest year while at the same time trying to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest arising from his new status as talent-seeker for the Federals.

He has one job to finish and another to start. Like a good builder, Jauch says he'll worry first about finishing up.