For nine years, since the NCAA began its current divisional setup, a coalition of colleges and universities in Division I has prevented the major football powers from getting their way at NCAA conventions. The operative quote from the big schools is: "We don't control our own destiny."

Division I is divided into three distinct constituencies: the 97 schools playing Division I-A football, the 92 playing I-AA football and the 88 basketball-oriented schools that don't play Division I-A or I-AA football.

The coalition of those colleges and universities that play I-AA football or are basketball-oriented now holds almost a 2-to-1 voting block against the football powers. Under these circumstances, the 63-member College Football Association was formed. And now, the NCAA faces its greatest challenge for survival.

For nine years, the NCAA Council, the organization's policy-making arm -- cognizant of the long-range consequences that inaction would cause -- has tried unsuccessfully to reorganize Division I. It wants to placate the big schools and keep the other 85 percent of the members reasonably happy.

In trying to accomplish this, some plans have been conceived that test the NCAA's reason for existence -- to draw a line of demarcation between college athletics and pro sports.

For instance, minimum attendance and stadium size are requisites to be Division I-A in football. Now similar requirements are being sought as criteria to retain Division I status for colleges and universities playing Division I-AA football, and for those playing Division I basketball that do not play Division I-A or I-AA football.

On the academic side, Bobby Knight, the Indiana basketball coach, suggests a college or university be penalized one future scholarship for each scholarship athlete who fails to graduate. The football powers snicker at this, despite a recent survey showing only 29 percent of the players on NFL rosters at the start of this season had graduated.

They snicker, too, when an athletic director, such as American's Bob Frailey, suggests an 85 percent graduation rate be used as a criterion for Division I membership.

Last year, the CFA, which includes the major independents and teams in every major football conference except the Big Ten and Pacific 10, attempted to secede from the NCAA. At this point, university presidents started voting instead of athletic directors and the result was only six votes in favor of separating from the NCAA.

The latest NCAA plan could result in as many as 63 of the 88 Division I schools that do not play Division I football being dropped to a lower classification. This group includes George Washington, George Mason and American universities. Of the four area schools that do not play Division I football, only Georgetown meets the attendance requirement of 3,500 paid per home game or 110,000 annual home and away total for the last four seasons.

Assume that the football-bigs and basketball-onlys will vote in blocks at the NCAA convention in January at San Diego. That's 97 for, 88 against the NCAA Council proposals, with 92 swing votes belonging to those in Division I-AA.

Because the proposed changes did not become general knowledge within the NCAA membership until late last month, battle lines are still being drawn. In addition, members have until Monday to propose amendments.

As each day passes, finer interpretations are discovered. Division I is essentially a football-playing division, but Georgetown, De Paul and about 25 other such basketball powers will be tolerated. Bottomless pits also keep appearing. For example, a clause was proposed that would allow a school to remain Division I if at least six teams and 80 percent of the teams in its league qualify for Division I.

That is a key element for the three area universities that do not meet the attendance criteria. There also is a total financial aid requirement, but much of that requirement can be fulfilled through paperwork that adds a few extra tuition-only scholarships.

A spinoff effect of all this would be to make available more at-large spots in the Division I basketball tournament for finishers as low as fifth or sixth place in the big-time conferences. Each spot is worth at least $100,000 to be divided among the conference members. In perspective, both the additional tournament spots and the money are insignificant.

But, by reducing the size of Division I from 277 members to as few as 211, the NCAA effectively would be on the way to eliminating the voting coalition that can block the football powers from calling more shots.

The school of thought among athletic directors standing to lose the most is that this is the first step in a grand scheme to divide and conquer. Next to be conquered will be the 90-some remaining Division I-AA schools, leaving a super division of about 125 members, including 97 schools that play Division I-A football and 25 of the basketball persuasion plus a few bootstrappers.

Ted Tow, an assistant executive director of the NCAA and the recording secretary for the NCAA Council, was asked recently about the ramifications of the new rules.

He insisted it was not true that the proposed changes primarily were aimed at reducing the growing number of automatic bids to the basketball tournament. "That concern is only a minor, minor concern," he said. "This goes back nine years to get Division I structured the way it was intended . . . Undeniably, major programs cannot control their own destiny on the convention floor . . .schools with $7 million budgets are being outvoted by schools that don't spend one-tenth as much."

And what if the proposed reorganization plan is voted down? "You might see a more dire thing happen," Tow said. Translation: The CFA on network television and possibly a CFA basketball tournament.

Tow's reaction to the possible existence of a divide-and-conquer strategy: "People who believe in that also believe in the bogeyman."